DONALDSONVILLE — The staff at Lowery Elementary in Donaldsonville celebrated when it learned recently the school’s score on state assessments moved up a letter grade, from an F to a D.
While far from the honor roll, the achievement was a hard-won victory in a community that struggles with poverty and a history of schools with failing grades.
“I was ecstatic,” Principal Dawn Love said. “Not so much for the grade. It validated our work and our efforts, which is huge to teachers.”
“It’s a big thing. There’s no F anymore,” Love said.
Happy parents called the school last week to share their excitement, Love said, as word spread of the improved grade from the state Department of Education.
The department released grades for the 2013-14 school year for all of the state’s schools on Oct. 21.
Lowery Elementary’s jump from an F to a D marks the first time, since the state went to a letter-grade scoring system in 2011, that there’s no F school in the Ascension Parish school district.
Prior to 2011, schools were scored on a “star” system that dated back to 1999, with five stars being the best.
Overall, the Ascension Parish school district last week earned an A and was ranked as the fourth highest performing school district in Louisiana.
The district’s overall high mark — it’s the third year in a row that it has earned an A — stands in sharp contrast to the persistence of low performing schools in the Donaldsonville area on the West Bank.
It’s been a sore spot for years for residents of a community that faces a high rate of poverty and which has struggled to improve the quality of education its children receive.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s five-year “community survey” estimates for 2008 to 2012, approximately 23 percent of families in Donaldsonville live below the poverty level.
For women heads of households with children under 18, with no husband present, the figure is 52.5 percent.
“It’s not to say that the students won’t do very well,” Ascension Parish Schools Superintendent Patrice Pujol said.
But it may mean that parents are working two to three jobs and that children “often don’t come to us with the same set of experiences as their middle class counterparts,” she said.
“That’s why we created our Turnaround Zone,” Pujol said, referring to a program the district created, then rolled out in 2011, targeting eight struggling schools in low-income areas of the parish, on both sides of the Mississippi River.
Four of the eight formerly failing or near-failing schools in the program that are located on the East Bank are now a B or C school.
The concept behind the turnaround program, which involves giving schools more freedom to put new educational ideas into place, is being brought to all 27 of the parish’s public schools. In addition, a teacher career advancement program that was first introduced at the eight Turnaround Zone schools is being expanded.
Pujol said the efforts have paid off, with the number of A schools in the district going up from 12 last year to 16 this year.
On the parish’s West Bank, in the Donaldsonville area, where all four public schools are in the Turnaround Zone program, the high school has made the greatest strides.
Donaldsonville High is now a C school. Donaldsonville Primary, Lowery Elementary and Lowery Middle are all D schools.
“We’re absolutely not satisfied. We won’t be satisfied until we get them to higher achievement, until they’re at the same level as our higher performing schools,” said Pujol, who became superintendent in 2010.
The Donaldsonville area, however, faces another hurdle for school-grade improvement — its geographical location on the west side of the Sunshine Bridge.
“It’s a harder recruit for teachers,” Pujol said, because of the travel time, especially for teachers commuting from the Gonzales or Baton Rouge areas whose mornings might include bringing their young children to day care before making the trek to Donaldsonville.
It’s not that teachers don’t want to work in a community struggling with poverty, Pujol said, because many welcome the challenge.
The district has made strategic use of the Teach America program, a nonprofit effort that recruits college graduates to teach in low-income communities, she said.
The Ascension school district also recently started its own program to attract teachers from anywhere in the district to spend a year in one of the West Bank schools, providing those teachers with an opportunity for career development.
“We find the right people who feel that moral responsibility (to provide) opportunities for our kids. Our kids can be the future of our community,” Lowery Elementary’s Principal Love said of her teacher interview process as a whole.
“I tell them — I’m being honest — we come early and we stay late,” Love said. But she stresses that the teachers are doing important work as she urges prospective hires at Lowery Elementary to “come be a part of this.”
At the heart of the Turnaround Zone program is the 90 minutes teachers in each grade use daily to work together as a group, studying together the work of each of their students and then adjusting their teaching plans accordingly.
“We take the curriculum, break it apart and identify the things that are essential for our specific kids,” said Allison Saunders, who was leading a group of third-grade teachers studying their students’ math work on a recent Thursday at Lowery Elementary.
Other aspects of the Turnaround Zone are the daily teaching of phonetics in all grades at the elementary school and daily time for students in the “Fast Forward” computer lab, where children work on reading, spelling and phonetics through educational online “games.”
“It takes a while to get to this culture, but we’re here now,” Love said.
The school holds monthly parent nights, when children can do arts and crafts and the school staff can share information with the parents about what the students are learning and send home packets of information useful to the families for their children’s homework.
“Last time we had 50 parents, which is big for us,” Love said.
In a recent fourth-grade class at Lowery Elementary, teacher Jonathan Carbajal took a quick check on where the students were in an English lesson.
“Who understands what we’re doing?” he asked the students, all of whom raised their hands and gave a thumbs-up; it’s a way the children tell him if they’re following the lesson.
“What details in the text prove colonial farming was hard?” he asked, as the students worked .
“Be confident in yourself,” he encouraged the children. “Once you know the answer, don’t hesitate.”