The students at Lafayette’s Early College Academy were dancing in the school auditorium Friday morning — and not because the weekend was finally in sight. Thursday, Early College Academy was named a National Blue Ribbon School in the exemplary high performing schools category.

Early College Academy is the first Lafayette Parish public school to win the recognition in 10 years and the first public high school in the parish to be recognized. The magnet high school was one of seven recognized in Louisiana for 2019 and one of 362 nationally, a U.S. Department of Education release said.

Since the award’s founding in 1982, seven Lafayette Parish public schools have been recognized — Lafayette Elementary in 1983-84, Scott Middle in 1984-85, Edgar Martin Middle in 1986-87, Woodvale Elementary in 1987-88, Broadmoor Elementary in 1989-90, L.J. Alleman Middle in 2009 and now Early College Academy in 2019.

The achievement had ECA’s students and faculty in high spirits Friday; students received high-fives from Principal Alex Melton as teachers handed out blue ribbons to wear and tooted party horns. Inside the auditorium, students danced to “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang before snagging celebratory cake.

“You guys are awesome,” Melton said. “Today you’re one of the best in the nation.”

ECA allows students to graduate with both their high school diploma and an associate degree. The roughly 270-student school is located on South Louisiana Community College’s campus.

ECA is currently the state’s second highest performing school, with 89% of students scoring mastery or above in the combined English language arts, math and social studies category on the statewide LEAP exam. Schools are nominated for the National Blue Ribbon award based on their test scores. 

Interim Superintendent Irma Trosclair said becoming a National Blue Ribbon School is not an easy feat to accomplish, and having high-performing students isn’t enough. The students must be pushed to achieve at their highest level and receive a top-tier curriculum.

“This is an example of what happens when a school, a school leader and the teachers have high expectations for student learning and for teaching. Teaching and high-quality learning result in results and that’s what’s happened here at ECA for the last several years,” Trosclair said.

Melton said ECA’s success stems from its student-centered approach. The faculty works to recognize each student’s personality, strengths and weaknesses, and incorporate them in each student’s learning plan. Students are treated as mature young adults and held to a standard of mutual respect, understanding and responsibility, he said.

Not every student at ECA is high performing, but they’re given the tools to succeed in a rigorous environment, Melton said.

“We have average kids, but in this environment, they’re set up for success because the kids around them want to learn, the teachers have high expectations of them and it’s cool to be smart,” he said.

Melton is hopeful the buzz from the National Blue Ribbon award will educate more families about ECA.

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“I think this will help put us on the map in our area,” he said.

Blaze Robin, 18, and David Sweet, 17, have the same hope. Robin said it’s clear the school is on the right track as it continues to crawl up state rankings and establish a name for itself academically. The two seniors said the school’s success reflects teachers’ strong support and the inclusive, diverse and independent culture fostered among the student body.

Sweet said the award is an important nod to the hard work students put in. High school is stressful for all students and being recognized for their commitment to achieve success for themselves and ECA filled the senior with pride, he said.

“I think it allows us to celebrate the effort it takes to want to succeed,” Sweet said.

While administrators said the award belongs to the students, Robin said their success wouldn’t be possible without the teachers who help guide them. The need to achieve is high, but it’s clear the students aren’t in it alone, he said.

“It’s not like if you fall and don’t meet those expectations, they won’t be there for you. They’re always going to be there,” Robin said.

Jeanne Smith, a biology teacher at ECA, joined the school in its second year and has taught on the campus for 11 years. She said she and her co-workers were screaming and hollering when Melton showed them the video announcement from U.S. Department Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

Smith said the award is fuel to keep going.

“Everybody needs to keep learning and growing and changing, because otherwise we stay stagnant. We need to keep improving and set higher and higher goals to strive to be the best,” she said.

Both Smith and Melton said they’d like ECA to win National Blue Ribbon status again in the future.

Trosclair said she’d also like to see the district have a school recognized for top student growth. The National Blue Ribbon award honors schools in two categories: exemplary high performance and closing achievement gaps among student subgroups.

“I think we have a great opportunity to see that as we continue to close achievement gaps,” she said.

Editor's note: Early College Academy is the first Lafayette Parish public high school to be recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School. A story published Saturday did not specify that some private/parochial schools have previously received the honor.

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