Pointe Coupee Parish school district officials have high hopes for a proposal to transform Pointe Coupee Central High into a science, technology, engineering and math academy.

Schools Superintendent Linda D’Amico last month sold the idea to the School Board as a magnet alternative program. She said the program could help boost the district’s lackluster academic scores and lure some students who fled for private schools in the area or for higher-performing public schools in surrounding parishes.

However, some folks think the school district is trying to take on more than it can handle — that Pointe Coupee lacks the money it needs to emulate the successful magnet programs in Iberville Parish and Lafayette that served as the models for D’Amico’s proposed STEM academy.

They also wonder if school officials will be able to convince parents to return to a parish school system they had lost faith in, even with the academy program as a lure.

One of the people instrumental in implementing Iberville Parish’s magnet academies said Pointe Coupee officials already should be working overtime in getting community buy-in for their program, given that they plan to open it in fall 2015.

“They have to hustle. I don’t think anyone can succeed just by saying, ‘We’re going to open a school,’ ” said Elvis Cavalier, chief academic officer at Iberville Parish’s Math, Science and Arts academies. “When we started eight years ago, we had meetings in folks’ houses. I spent a year meeting with parents personally who had left the district.”

D’Amico said she’s very much aware the new school’s initial success will depend heavily on community support. The district plans to conduct a mail-in poll to gauge community interest, she said, and plans to bring in the academy director from Lafayette’s STEM Magnet Academy for public meetings where parents will be given a thorough overview of the proposed program.

“People have already been asking me when it’s going to open,” she said.

The public awareness campaign has been on hold, though, as D’Amico seeks U.S. District Judge James J. Brady’s approval to move forward with the STEM academy. D’Amico said the judge recently asked for more information about the proposal.

Brady is expected to make a decision about the STEM proposal in early January.

Last March, Brady shut down the Central campus for the 2014-15 school year as part of a ruling tied to a decadeslong desegregation case. His decision came after the state’s Recovery School District, which ran the school for six years, asked the court to return jurisdiction of Central to the Pointe Coupee School Board. The RSD made the request after the state failed to improve the school’s academic performance.

Students who were attending Central High are now enrolled at Livonia High School.

Brady also ordered the School Board to submit a plan for Central’s use for the 2015-16 school year — one that would attract enough racial diversity to a campus that has historically been attended mostly by black students. That’s where D’Amico’s proposed STEM academy comes into play.

Like Lafayette’s STEM Magnet Academy, the superintendent has said the curriculum in her proposal would be guided by Project Lead the Way, a nationwide nonprofit organization that helps school districts develop project-based science, technology, engineering and math programs.

D’Amico said she’s getting pressure from some School Board members to include grades six through 12 in the inaugural year. But she said she’d prefer to start smaller with classes for sixth through ninth grades, much like the Iberville and Lafayette academies did when they began their STEM academies.

“I just don’t feel like you’ll get the 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders to move from Livonia High,” she said.

Enrollment would be open to all kids in the parish, but students will have to meet certain admission requirements, like higher grade-point averages.

Just like the students at Lafayette’s STEM Magnet Academy, the kids in Pointe Coupee would attend 90-minute classes in a block-schedule format much like college students.

But unlike the Lafayette school, Pointe Coupee’s STEM academy would operate as a program and not a stand-alone school, which means the standardized test scores and academic performance for the students enrolled in the STEM program at Central would be folded into the scores for the school students would be attending if they weren’t enrolled in the academy.

Iberville’s Math, Science and Arts academies follow the same structure, which has perturbed some Iberville Parish residents.

“My biggest concern with that has always been that if you have an F-rated school, and all the kids that attend the academy pull up your school score to a C, most of the kids at the home school are still performing academically at a less than desirable level,” said Billy Dunn, an Iberville Parish resident.

Dunn said the verdict is still out on the effectiveness of Iberville’s academy program.

“As far as the kids go, they tell me all kinds of good things, and the officials say they’re going to college because of these programs, but what I want to know is what are their success rates in college,” he said. “To me, the whole academy program just seems like favoritism for the students that go there while the other schools get kind of left out.”

Pointe Coupee Parish resident and children’s advocate Joanna Wurtele shares Dunn’s concern. She said she doubts the school system will get the kind of community buy-in Cavalier spoke of because, she said, parents are not eager to return to the system.

“Under the current leadership and those people on the School Board, there is no way that a parent from one of the private schools is going to send their child to an institution that has the reputation of Pointe Coupee Parish School system,” she said.

Wurtele said Pointe Coupee school officials would be better off handing the Central campus over to another entity like Baton Rouge Community College that could turn Central into a satellite campus.

Cavalier noted that Pointe Coupee would need to be in a position to make a substantial investment to create an attractive magnet program, which D’Amico admits could be difficult given that Pointe Coupee’s annual budget is about a third of the $90 million budget for the Iberville Parish School District.

The School Board already will need to shell out more than $1.8 million for much-needed repairs at Central before the school reopens.

“I’ve been working with some corporate people to try and get sponsorships. Project Lead the Way is a curriculum known to attract sponsorships,” D’Amico said. “There are some STEM grants out there, too.”

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