Two years ago, Linda Nance stood before the Lafayette Parish School Board to ask for its help in giving Acadian Middle School students the support they needed to excel at the low-performing school.
Now, two years later, Acadian Middle stands as a school that saw double-digit gains based on state accountability standards, rising from a letter grade of D to a C. And after the improvement and hard work, Nance said she worries that she’ll likely have to make more pleas not to lose the momentum students and faculty achieved.
“We went from a D to a C school in a year,” Nance said. “We did that because of the amount of improvements our students showed.”
She said, however, that 50 percent of the students are reading below grade level.
“We need to maintain teaming (team teaching) and our current staffing levels to continue to move forward,” she said. “We hope the new board recognizes our need and what works and not take that away.”
The school enrolls about 470 students, and about 90 percent are eligible for free or reduced lunches — an indicator of their family’s income level.
At least 54 percent of the school’s students who are eligible for free or reduced lunch are on or above grade level, and 55 percent of all students are on or above grade level, based on the school data from the 2013-14 school year available from the Louisiana Department of Education.
Nance credits the improvement at the school to a multi-step process that began with the school’s reconstitution, or restaffing, which gave her the opportunity to handpick her faculty and staff. The School Board approved her request to reconstitute the school in spring 2013, months after Nance became principal — for the second time at the school. She retired years earlier and said she returned to prevent the further decline of the school she loved.
“We changed the culture of this school — bottom line. The kids responded. If you had to point to one thing, I think that would be it,” Nance said.
She said 25 of the school’s 40 teachers opted not to reapply for their jobs at Acadian Middle, which she called a sign “that they were ready for something different.” She hired 33 new teachers, and this school year, four didn’t return, however, two of those departures were related to a move out of state and a retirement, she said.
“The reconstitution was huge because it’s the reason we got young, enthusiastic, on-fire teachers, and they were on a mission. They believed in the students and worked hard,” Nance said.
The ability to team-teach at the school also played a vital part in the school’s improvement, she said.
Team teaching is a concept that defines itself: Teachers teach in a team. The same teams teach the same group of students, which makes it easier for the educators to collaborate and develop instruction catered to students’ strengths and deficiencies, said Rachael Tolliver, the school’s data analyst.
Setting goals for students and creating structure for them has helped students to meet the expectations, Tolliver said.
The Acadian Middle School campus is sprawling with separate classroom buildings that before the 2013-14 school year meant that students crossed the campus to get to different classes. Now, classes are grouped by grade level to provide better organization for students, Tolliver said. The grade-level sections also foster greater collaboration among teachers to support the team-teaching concept, Tolliver said.
Students are charting progress in their reading skills, and a competition among English classes has helped inspire the middle schoolers to do more leisure reading.
“We’ve seen a half-year growth so far with our readers,” Tolliver said.
That competition also extends to discipline and attendance with students rewarded for not missing school and following the school rules. The goal for discipline is 95 percent of students without referrals to the office.
Ariane Sylvan’s seventh-grade English students are leading the school in reading points this week, while the eighth-graders have the fewest office referrals and have reached the school’s goal of 95 percent of students without office visits for discipline issues.
Nance said students have met the expectations set for them and understand that they must continue to work hard to meet their goals.
“We tell our students: ‘Success is a journey, not a destination.’ We can’t become complacent,” she said.
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.