DONALDSONVILLE — For students in communities beset by poverty, the path to learning is often strewn with obstacles: not enough money for clothes or school supplies, not enough to eat, schools that have a tough time recruiting and retaining top teachers.
Such pockets of poverty can afflict schools even in up-and-coming suburban areas like Ascension Parish, where 92 percent of the students at Lowery Elementary on the parish’s west bank are economically disadvantaged.
But the struggling school, which has worked hard to climb past a failing grade, has just received a $300,000 grant from the state Department of Education aimed at attacking some of the issues that affect schools with large numbers of impoverished students.
“The Believe and Succeed grant is intended to help transform struggling schools into high-quality, high-performing schools for students,” said Lowery Elementary Principal Dawn Love.
The school, in Donaldsonville, serves about 400 students in grades three to five. (Another elementary school in the area, Donaldsonville Primary, serves children from prekindergarten through the second grade.)
Because the Ascension Parish school district provides a variety of educational resources to all its schools, Love said, the grant application for Lowery “focused on removing the external barriers that affect our students and community.”
According to U.S. Census Bureau reports for the years 2009-2013, some 30 percent of Donaldsonville residents were living below the poverty level.
The idea of applying for the grant — which will help the school meet children’s basic needs, provide classroom supplies, and help in recruiting and retaining teachers — came from an intensive weeklong workshop that several educators from Lowery Elementary and Lowery Middle attended last summer at Harvard University.
Harvard’s Closing the Achievement Gap Institute is designed for educators at schools in high-poverty areas across the country.
The grant, administered over three years, will help provide students with clothing, school supplies and health and hygiene items. There will be a self-care station where students can freshen up and get ready for the school day, if they need to. Children in need of food on the weekends will be provided with bags of food, and a nurse will create and put into practice plans to address student health needs.
“Lifting barriers from a child’s life is important,” Love said. “If they’re coming to school hungry or cold or they broke their glasses,” the school will help “so they can be happy and focus on what’s happening in the classroom.”
Academic parent-teacher teams will be formed, as well.
The grant also will enable the school to send a team to college campuses to recruit teachers who want to “impact a community and invest in the future of a community,” Love said.
Lowery Elementary Assistant Principal Karen Daigle said the school and the school district had looked for several years for ways, and for funding, to “nurture the whole child.”
As important as classroom education is, Daigle said, “we realized the need is greater than that.”
Lowery Elementary is one of several schools in the Ascension Parish school district’s Turnaround Zone. The program, created in 2011, targets eight schools in low-income areas of the parish on both sides of the Mississippi River.
The schools have more freedom to try out new educational ideas. Teachers meet every day to study together the work of their students.
Last year, the School Board announced it would be bringing the Turnaround Zone concept to all 27 of the parish’s public schools.
In October 2014, after three years in the Turnaround Zone, Lowery Elementary moved up from an F to a D in its score on the 2013-14 state assessments.
In the 2014-15 school report cards released before Christmas this year, Lowery maintained the D, but made big strides elsewhere in the face of the state’s more rigorous Common Core-related assessment, Love said.
In English language arts, 51 percent of its students who had scored “unsatisfactory” last school year moved up to “approaching basic.” In math, 62 percent of students who had previously scored “unsatisfactory” moved up to “approaching basic.”
“We’re so excited. It validates all of our hard work,” Love said. “Even in a school of need, we can still ‘grow’ children.
“I think it’s a testament to our kids, teachers, parents and the community,” she said.