White outlines goals for schools

Building upon programs introduced over the past year of sweeping educational reform in Louisiana, state Superintendent John White announced the next phase in what he called a long and challenging journey.

Speaking from Chateau Estate Elementary School, White called the Kenner school a “dream school.”

He praised Jefferson Parish Public School System Superintendent James Meza’s “extraordinary and unmatched” leadership, and the “renaissance of public education in Jefferson Parish.”

White outlined the foundation on which the future initiatives will be built, including the effort to unify the fragmented early childhood learning programs, the letter grading system that reflects college readiness, the voucher program, the teacher evaluation system and other programs designed to empower and reward the best teachers.

Acknowledging the challenges and discord that accompanied the far-reaching changes, White said that adjustments were made and that in the “mission’s second stage,” the “last thing we need is a bunch of government programs and new rules and regulations.”

The evidence of success thus far, White said, can be seen with more students graduating than ever before, fewer students dropping out, more students on grade level, and a rise in ACT and Advanced Placement scores.

On White’s PowerPoint presentation, it was stated that “The mission was achieved. Our next mission puts Louisiana’s children on a level playing field with every child in America. It will be more demanding. But it is the right thing to do.”

He then detailed five priorities. Citing the statistic that just 54 percent of children in Louisiana enter kindergarten able to recognize 26 letters and count to 20, White said the goal is to get that to 100 percent.

He said there had already been overwhelming interest in the Act 3 pilot program to identify every 3- and 4-year-old, educate all 4-year-olds, measure progress, train teachers and hold early childhood educators to high standards.

The announcement for pilot programs will come in April, he said.

To “end top-down curricula and free teachers to learn the new standards,” White announced Teacher Toolbox and Louisiana Teacher Leader initiatives to give teachers more resources as they adapt to the changes in new curriculum and evaluation standards.

With only 29 percent of students with special needs graduating in the state, the second lowest in the nation, White stressed a focus on changing the system for students with disabilities. He said that a special education blueprint will be released in the summer to increase accountability and training, as well as create new schools.

Citing low college graduation numbers both from four-year and two-year programs, “We need graduates who are prepared for an increasingly demanding workforce,” White said.

He outlined a plan to reshape the existing career diploma, which will facilitate students getting technical training and workforce experience during their final two years of high school. A career diploma blueprint will be released in April.

The fifth priority White listed was to reduce the number of children — currently at 63,000 — attending F-rated schools. “No student should wake up and know they attend a school rated F,” he said.

White said that while there had been a statewide reduction from 75 percent of Recovery School Districts rated F to now just 25 percent, it’s “too slow of a pace.”

The number of RSD F-rated schools in New Orleans is above 40 percent.

White announced a fund that will expand partnerships to turn around and replace failing schools, with applications for the funding to be released in March.

The only question taken from the audience was asked by Elizabeth Robeson, who said she was distressed by the conditions at George Washington Carver High School in New Orleans.

White responded that “We all owe the kids at Carver an apology, and we owe them action.”

He said that was why Carver was closed, and why the successes of Sci Academy were replicated on the Carver campus.

Colleen Winkler, principal at Chateau Estates, said that she was inspired and that she welcomed the continued changes with open arms.

Winkler said the career component was especially exciting, and something that had been missing. Children need multiple pathways to careers, she said, and to feel more ownership of their options.

Meeting the new Common Core curriculum challenges is a huge challenge that will require more professional development, Winkler said. She also said the Compass evaluation system provides teachers with feedback and “very clear criteria about the goals they need to meet. It’s about what the students do in the classroom, not what the teachers do.”

Meza also said he was excited about the career-focused initiative that will leave students ready to pursue associate programs when they graduate.

He said his district is already in the early stages with a partnership with Delgado Community College.

Parent Erin Comeaux agreed, saying that a four-year college path may not be the best for every student and does not guarantee a job. Some students can learn a trade and make a better life, she said.

During a question-and-answer session with reporters following an online address, White said he thinks Louisiana students can hold their own nationally, even though the new academic standards will be challenging for students and teachers alike.

Part of the aim of the new standards is to provide easy comparisons on classroom achievement from state to state.

“I think if we do our work right over the next couple of years we will not be near the bottom nationally,” White said. “I think we have every reason to think we can prepare as well as anyone across the country.”

He said the five priorities can be addressed with existing dollars — the state faces a $1.2 billion shortfall starting July 1 — and do not require additional legislation when the 2013 regular session begins on April 8.

White said that, aside from gains in the past year or so, the new priorities are aimed at getting Louisiana students to a level where they can compete nationally and be on track for college or a career.

“What we are going to be talking about today is a new mission,” he said. “This is the start of a long journey.”