GREENSBURG — Efforts to turn around St. Helena Parish’s troubled schools, which languish at the bottom of state rankings, went Hollywood glam last week.
Actress Aunjanue Ellis, who plays Yula Mae Davis in the movie “The Help,” served as one of the grand marshals in the St. Helena Central High School homecoming parade Friday morning.
The other grand marshal was Lawrence Jackson, band director at Southern University.
Bringing in successful people to interact with St. Helena’s students is a crucial part of changing the mindset of the students, Superintendent Kelli Joseph said.
“It has a huge benefit,” she said. “This is someone who is famous, who has done a lot, who has gone through the same things that (students) are going through.”
As Ellis entered the high school Friday, she walked through halls with peeling paint and passed a bathroom boarded shut with “Do Not Enter” spray-painted in neon pink on the door.
Principal Pamela Marshall contacted Ellis at the suggestion of Adolph Holbrook, a math teacher at the school who taught Ellis at South Pike High School in Magnolia, Miss., Marshall said.
Having Ellis at the school was about more than glitz, Marshall said.
“I asked her to come here and tell them what it’s like to be a successful woman,” Marshall said.
She has also asked Ellis to return at a later date to speak to the school’s girls.
“The focus is on finally getting some positive attention,” Joseph said.
The two grand marshals met and chatted with members of the school’s homecoming court at a breakfast before the parade.
Ellis said she came to the school as a model of what can happen when a person leaves her community, then returns as a success.
She left her hometown of McComb, Miss., and has since moved back.
Ellis said she looked forward to working with the girls at the high school.
“I am very proud of you even though I don’t know you,” Ellis told the homecoming court. “It is an honor.”
Southern’s Jackson said encouraging students to achieve was important to him.
Joseph, who became the system’s superintendent in late June, said altering the mindset of students was a goal when she started.
She said she hopes to accomplish that without having to change the buildings.
St. Helena’s voters have rejected school-improvement taxes four times in the last four years.
Joseph said there are plans to build a new building on the site of one that burned down several years ago, and other renovations are under way.
A Gulf Coast Recovery Grant is providing the funding for the renovations, she said.
In the meantime, the school has started a college-prep program on Mondays, which is normally a day off in the system’s four-day school week, Joseph said.
“At the high school, we have students who are dual-enrolled at Northshore Technical College, SUNO (Southern University at New Orleans), and Southeastern (Louisiana University),” she said.
For elementary students, an enrichment program has begun on Mondays to help third- and fourth-graders address their academic weaknesses, Joseph said.
Despite the changes, Joseph refused to guarantee that scores would improve.
“I am not promising improved test scores,” she said. “I cannot do that.
“What I can do is create a productive school culture,” she said.