VACHERIE — Claudette Aubert, a longtime pastor and counselor, finally received the approval she’s been seeking for four years to open the first charter school in St. James Parish.
In January, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education gave the green light to Greater Grace Charter Academy to open in the fall.
The school still must meet certain conditions, the most significant being gaining the approval of the federal Eastern District court in New Orleans because the parish has been under a federal court desegregation order since 1969. Aubert said the charter school has begun the process.
Greater Grace will serve students from kindergarten through the eighth grade at its school in the small community of Vacherie on the west bank of St. James Parish.
Aubert, pastor of the New Hope International Family Worship Center in Vacherie, said she kept seeing children struggling in school and wanted to find a way to help.
For five years, Aubert’s nondenominational church provided summer school for children in the parish while the school district provided their lunches.
“I still knew there was something missing” for some children in the traditional school setting, Aubert said.
She tried for four years in a row to get the St. James Parish School Board to approve Greater Grace Charter Academy’s application, and each year, the School Board denied the request.
Charter schools are public schools runs by private organizations.
The board’s most recent denial of the application came in May after its independent evaluator said, in large part, that the applicant wasn’t clear about how it would ensure the success of its students or what changes would be made if goals for students weren’t being met.
The independent evaluator for the state Department of Education, however, disagreed, saying Greater Grace’s proposal included clear programs and structures, which cleared the way for BESE to approve the charter.
As a charter school approved by BESE, Greater Grace is a Type 2 charter school, which allows it to serve children from the parish as well as those living outside of the parish.
BESE will be the school’s governing board, not the St. James Parish School Board.
Since 1997, state law has said groups can submit their charter school proposals directly to BESE if a local school board fails to approve it.
Before BESE approved Greater Grace’s application in January, it previously had denied it twice, Aubert said.
She didn’t get discouraged, though.
“We were always told we were ‘right there,’ ” close to approval, she said. “BESE was very encouraging.”
Last year, after BESE denied the school’s application a second time, it provided the school’s organizers with a $15,000 grant to study similar school programs elsewhere in the U.S. and to provide a pilot program in the parish.
“(BESE) saw potential,” Aubert said.
The pilot program was held over the summer for eight students and used curriculum by Fuel Education, a Virginia-based provider of online courses that the charter school will use when it opens.
“I think their proposal did get better each time,” said St. James schools Superintendent Alonzo “Lonnie” Luce.
Luce said students in the parish have a number of school choices, including a visual and performing arts magnet school, a virtual academy that serves as an extension of students’ regular school, dual enrollment and a center for gifted students that provides accelerated coursework.
The St. James Parish school district scored a B from the state Department of Education for the 2014-15 school year.
Of its eight schools that serve about 3,700 students, four are B schools, three are C schools and one, Lutcher Elementary, scored an F.
“Any public school, no matter how good it is, they’re going to have kids they’re not reaching,” said Greater Grace Charter Academy Principal Stephanie Aubert.
Stephanie Aubert and Claudette Aubert are distantly related; Claudette is married to Stephanie’s third cousin.
The two women went to Nicholls State University together, both majoring in speech pathology. They both earned master’s degrees in education there.
Stephanie Aubert, who retired in 2000 as the director of curriculum and instruction with the St. John the Baptist Parish School Board, was serving as the associate superintendent of the Archdiocese of New Orleans before she joined the charter school effort.
Claudette Aubert, who is a licensed counselor, has served as a teacher and special-needs and vocational counselor as well as a special-education coordinator for the Ascension Parish School Board.
With a doctorate in Christian philosophy from Trinity Christian University in Illinois, she became pastor of New Hope International Family Worship Center in 2001.
Both women believe the new charter school will offer another choice for students from St. James and surrounding parishes.
The school, which is recruiting teachers, will begin with a small enrollment of 180 students, Stephanie Aubert said.
It will combine traditional classroom teaching with online instruction.
Students in the third grade through the eighth grade will be given their own laptops.
With an extended school day, beginning at 8 a.m. and ending at 4:05 p.m., students will have the chance to build skills and understand their homework assignments, the two women said.
The school will be located on La. 20 in Vacherie, in a two-story wing of the New Hope International Family Worship Center church.
Renovations are underway on the building that includes giving the school wing its own secured entrance.
The physical proximity of the school and the church will be the only link between the two, Claudette Aubert said.
For information on the school, call (225) 267-7318 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.