OPELOUSAS — Louisiana’s education chief told St. Landry Parish officials and parents Friday that its public schools have reached a make-or-break moment and the district must develop a specific plan to eliminate the significant number of failing schools.
State Superintendent of Education John White, speaking at the Delta Grand Theatre in Opelousas, offered direct assistance from state school officials and discussed grants to help improve a district that has 10 schools with D or F averages on 2015 state report cards.
School district Testing Director Angela Cassimere said in an interview that all Opelousas schools except Park Vista Elementary and the Magnet School for Cultural Arts have either D’s or F’s.
“Five of the (Opelousas) schools have F’s,” Cassimere said.
White said he was invited to address the matter by state Rep. Dustin Miller, D-Opelousas, whose House district encompasses most of St. Landry Parish.
The public meeting Friday evening, White said, was one of six he attended in St. Landry that day. Two of those meetings were with the district’s board members, another with central office workers and several others with business and community leaders.
After speaking to those groups, White said, he realizes the district has a serious problem with improving overall school performance.
“I guarantee you have my attention,” he said. “In the near future, I am going to dedicate more of my time to the small towns, and Opelousas is tops on that list.”
White said the next seven months are going to be especially important for the district because the board is beginning the process of selecting a new superintendent. Earlier this month, the board voted against renewing the contract of Superintendent Edward Brown, whose three-year contract expires Dec. 31. The board will be meeting with board attorney Bob Hammonds to develop a process for selecting a new superintendent.
“If you miss the opportunity that comes with new leadership and creating a vision, that’s going to be the big question,” White said.
The state Department of Education is not yet planning to take over any failing schools in St. Landry, he said. White, however, did address declining enrollments.
“What you need to look at is whether a school that has lowering enrollments is one that is operating efficiently,” he said. “What is happening when a school is losing kids?”
Some schools in St. Landry are without libraries, and other schools are without counselors.
School Board member Anthony Standberry, who spoke at the public meeting, said he had no idea there were grants available to help districts with struggling schools.
White said he thinks the district is making the right move in considering to incorporate all parish Head Start programs. “If you do that, you can adopt a curriculum that is aligned to state standards and have teachers at all schools teaching the same thing,” he said.
Corey Levier, who spoke at the meeting, said he’s a parent of school-aged children who volunteers his time in several St. Landry schools.
Levier said this is perhaps a final chance for the district to correct an ongoing problem of failing schools.
“We need to come together this time for real. Our children’s lives are at stake,” Levier said. “If we don’t get it right now, it’s going to be another 40 years.”