State leaders still in class

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ARTHUR D. LAUCK /
Advocate staff photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK -- State Treasurer John Kennedy checks on students work Dec. 12, while he spent the day as a substitute teacher at Magnolia Woods Elementary School.

Some La. officials keep tabs on education by subbing

“Is Mr. Kennedy,  like, famous?” Javiona griffin,   Magnolia Woods Elementary third-grader

Two hours into his stint as a substitute teacher at Magnolia Woods Elementary School in Baton Rouge, state Treasurer John Kennedy banished one third-grader to the corner and guided the rest of the class through a writing exercise.

The school’s principal, Donna Wallette, popped in to quiz the students about Kennedy’s regular job as the state’s money manager.

“Mr. Kennedy is the Louisiana state treasurer. What does treasurer mean?” she asked.

Third-grader Dillon Cage’s hand shot into the air.

“You dig up treasure,” Dillon offered.

Third-grader Javiona Griffin took a different tact, asking, “Is Mr. Kennedy, like, famous?”

Kennedy put an end to the questions and turned back to the lesson on the classroom projector.

“I want to hear quiet. I want to hear writing,” Kennedy said, adding, “We’ll talk later about what I do.”

For Kennedy, spending the day filling in as a substitute teacher is something he has tried to do several times a year for the past nine years. He plans to branch out in the coming year to parts of the state outside Baton Rouge.

He said substitute teaching does not disrupt his job as state treasurer because he only ventures into the classroom half a dozen times a year.

“I enjoy it. It also reminds me of what our schools are really like today. Many of the people who make policy for elementary and secondary education think our schools are still like the ones that Wally and Beaver went to, and they’re not,” he said.

Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, sponsored a resolution in 2004 urging statewide elected officials and legislators to get a firsthand knowledge of public schools by voluntarily substitute teaching at least three full school days a year.

“I don’t substitute teach. I haven’t had the luxury of that much time,” Alario admitted.

Alario said he briefly taught eighth-grade math after graduating from college and regularly visits schools to offer civics lessons.

“It’s nice any public official does it. It’s a good opportunity to get a feel of it,” Alario said.

At Magnolia Woods Elementary School, Kennedy filled in for third-grade teacher Colleen Cargile, who had a workshop.

Cargile said Kennedy was responsible for teaching reading, language, spelling, math and science with a 20-minute break for lunch.

“All politicians should do this because they make decisions that affect schools,” Cargile said.

In the past nine years, Kennedy taught third, sixth and 11th grades. He said he learned that a teacher needs to be an educator, a social worker, a psychologist, a nurse, a guidance counselor and, too often, a parental substitute.

He said a few of the children at Magnolia Woods, which is located near Highland Road and Staring Lane, did not have coats, even though it was a cold, winter day.

“Most systems desperately need substitutes,” Kennedy said. “You will learn more in one day than in a thousand listening to testimony,” Kennedy said.

The only classrooms Kennedy said he won’t venture into are at his 16-year-old son’s school.

“I would embarrass him to death,” he said.

At Magnolia Woods, Kennedy eventually freed the punished child from the corner. With eyeglasses perched on the bottom of his nose and a workbook open in his hand, he moved around the classroom, scolding one child for not writing and then giving another child permission to move to the next assignment.

“Put your hands down. No questions right now,” Kennedy admonished the class.

Wallette said Kennedy held his own.

“Every elected official that makes decisions or judgments on education should be required to do this,” she said. “I admire him for doing that.”