Federal judge expects to make quick decision on proposal to transform Pointe Coupee Central High _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by TERRY JONES -- Officials hope to turn Pointe Coupee Central High in Morganza into a STEM Academy

The Pointe Coupee Parish school system will have to wait just a little while longer before officials learn if their proposal to transform Pointe Coupee Central High into a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Academy will fly.

U.S. District Judge James J. Brady said Thursday he will make a decision on the school district’s proposal “very quickly” after schools Superintendent Kevin Lemoine spent the morning in federal court trying to assure the judge the proposal included stipulations that would ensure the program has a racially balanced student body.

The district wants the plan approved as soon as possible because Lemoine hopes to start the program in fall 2016. Lawyers handling the case expect Brady to make a decision in a few days.

“We were hoping to have this done back in September,” Lemoine said in court Thursday. “We’ve done everything short of implementing it. Now we’re waiting to hear word one way or the other.”

The school district must receive the courts’ approval because it remains under federal court supervision for not having fully complied with desegregation orders.

About 20 black residents from the parish sat in on Thursday’s proceedings. Many of them are in favor of Central becoming the lone public high school for the parish over the current school, Livonia High, because the Central campus has the capacity to hold more students.

The Rev. Carl Terrance, who sits on the New Roads NAACP’s education committee, said the organization has no objection to the STEM Program, but members would rather see it integrated within a traditional high school setting at Central.

“We were also not pleased with the fact that the district did not have an alternative plan to present to the court,” Terrance said Thursday. “Suppose the court turns this down? There’s no Plan B, and we would be back to waiting around for the district to come up with another plan.”

But before dismissing court Thursday, Brady shut down any notion he was jumping into that ongoing debate.

“I’m not getting into the discussion about whether Pointe Coupee Central or Livonia High is the better school,” he said in court. “I’m not ready to get into that fight.”

Emotions within the parish’s black community have been high regarding Central’s future after Brady shut it down in March 2014 at the request of the state’s Recovery School District.

The RSD, which ran the school for six years, asked the court to return jurisdiction of the school back to the parish school system after the state failed to improve academic performance.

Students who were attending Central High have been attending Livonia High School since fall 2014.

In the wake of the campus’ closure, the school district was required by the court to devise a future-use plan for Central. The STEM Academy proposal was the brainchild of former Superintendent Linda D’Amico.

Lemoine said in court Thursday the proposal is the best option the district has to retain its students and attract new ones into the school system.

Lemoine said the proposal received an approximately 80 percent positive response from black and white residents who participated in a phone survey the school system commissioned to gauge the public’s interest.

“We have to find new ways to reach students,” he testified in court. “By offering this program, our parish can give students a more dynamic, diverse and challenging curriculum.”

Like the programs it’s modeled after in Iberville and Lafayette parishes, students will need higher GPAs (at least a 2.75) and exemplary behavior records to attend the STEM Academy.

Lemoine told the court an equal number of black and non-black students would be selected for each grade level. Should the number of applicants of a particular race exceed the number of available slots, the district would make its selection by lottery.

And should there not be enough applicants from a particular race, any slots reserved for a particular race would be made available to applicants from another race.

According to cumulative GPA data provided in the proposal, 370 nonblack students in grades three through nine meet the academic standards for the program while 412 black students in those grades had a 2.75 GPA or better.

Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.