DONALDSONVILLE — When Donaldsonville High School learned it had earned a state letter grade of B this year, it didn't let the achievement go by unnoticed. 

On the Thursday before Thanksgiving break, students went by the gym after lunch to pick up a special dessert of ice cream and cupcakes, baked by the school's culinary art students and iced in a choice of school colors, red or black.

The dessert spread was set up on a table under a banner that read, "We Believed." 

Before they left, each student paused for a minute to let a faculty member put a silver neck chain over their head, in an almost coronationlike gesture, bearing a tag printed with the pertinent information: Donaldsonville High, 2016-17 and the school's score of 87.3.  

That's an increase of 17 points from just three years ago. It was the second time the school earned a B since the state started grading schools.

"We did it, you know," senior Nancy Gonzales said of her and her fellow students' achievement. "We're the best."

The school has had a C for the last four years. In the 2011-12 school year, it earned a B, coming up from a D that it had held for several years running.

The year 2011-12 was also the year the high school, which previously served grades seven through 12, became a more traditional high school, serving grades nine through 12. 

A mostly steady climb in grade points began 10 years ago when the Ascension Parish high school became the first in the district to put into place a national program, the Teacher Advancement Program, that provides master and mentor teachers and other features to improve teachers' skills and student achievement.

"The Tigers have been on the road to a B for quite some time now," Superintendent David Alexander said. 

At Donaldsonville High, with a student population of 450, the principal, associate principal and two assistant principals also spend time in the classrooms, sometimes teaching, sometimes helping students on a one-on-one basis.

"We tend to term it, 'All hands on deck,' " Principal Marvin Evans said. "The No. 1 thing is human capital."

A top challenge at the school is student reading level, he said. 

"The average ninth-grader is on the fifth- and sixth-grade reading level," Evans said, adding that the school district is talking about hiring a reading interventionist for the school.

Part of the difficulty for students living in a city with a high rate of unemployment is a lack of access to early childhood learning, Evans said.

The city of approximately 7,000 residents has one licensed day care, he said. The school district's state and federally funded Head Start program for children ages 2-3 serves 267 students.  

"The way we overcome it is being a TAP school," Evans said.

"I can't just find anyone that has a teaching degree. I have to find someone that's committed."

The school's stated vision is that "students will graduate college- and career-ready with a quality diploma," Evans said.

With an 86 percent graduation rate, higher than the state average of 77 percent, Donaldsonville High students are reaching that goal, he said.  

"It's allowing students to escape the poverty," Evans said. 

"Students are taking ownership of their own learning and progression through high school," Assistant Principal Michael Hilton said. 

As she left the gym with her celebratory dessert two days away from the holiday break, freshman Lenyon Johnson said, "A lot of people talk down about Donaldsonville High and say we can't do it, but we did it."

Follow Ellyn Couvillion on Twitter, @EllynCouvillion.