DONALDSONVILLE - Thirteen Donaldsonville Primary second-grade students tried not to fidget on a recent Friday, when school was letting out early in time for the local high school's homecoming parade.
When the level of chatter in the room got a little noisy, teacher Jenny Heroman Koenig called out, "Tootsie roll, lollipop!"
"All talking has to stop!" the students called back, quieting down and getting back to their reading assignment, taking turns reading out loud to their reading partner.
Koenig pointed out a possibly tricky word in the assignment: "anesthetic."
When a student spontaneously said it flawlessly, the little classroom broke out in applause.
Koenig took a leap of faith in the spring of 2016, leaving a 10-year career in broadcasting to become the teacher she always wanted to be.
"All through my life I wanted to be a teacher," said Koenig, who worked after college at a Baton Rouge TV station, then produced and hosted a community TV show for the Gonzales-based EATEL Telecommunications.
"Even though I loved what I was doing, I felt in my heart I loved kids so much, I wanted to try to be a teacher," she said.
The pathway for Koenig's career change came through the Teach Ascension Academy, a teacher-certification program approved by the state Department of Education that launched in the 2015-2016 school year.
It's a route that prospective teachers can take outside of certification through university education degrees or through private certification programs.
"Sometimes (a teacher) comes in the shape of someone who had another career, those people who have that passion to teach," said Laura Roussel, a supervisor of teacher development who oversees the teacher-certification program.
A distinctive feature of the program is its setting in Ascension Parish schools with the lowest school scores.
"We start in Ascension where we have the greatest need and that is in our Donaldsonville schools," Roussel said.
For the 2015-2016 school year, the two west-side elementary schools, Donaldsonville Primary and Lowery Elementary, received a score of F from the state. Lowery Middle had a D, with Donaldsonville High earning a C.
On Tuesday, the state will release its school scores for the 2016-2017 school year.
The four west-side schools are among 12 out of 27 schools in Ascension Parish where a national program, the Teacher Advancement Program (TAP), is in place with master teachers and other features to improve teachers' skills and student achievement.
All of the schools are in the TAP program because they either currently have or had in the past low school scores. If it comes to the point that all teaching positions in the Donaldsonville schools are filled, then those in the certification academy will go to other TAP schools, Roussel said.
But, so far, since the academy was created in 2015, it's been an additional resource for Donaldsonville students, who live in a community with a high level of unemployment.
According to U.S. Census data for 2015, the city, with a population of approximately 7,500, has an unemployment rate of 28.4 percent, about double the national average of approximately 14 percent.
The schools in Donaldsonville also face a high teacher turnover, school officials said, in large part because of the city's location on the west side of the Mississippi, a commute that might be challenging for teachers coming from east-side communities.
"We do look to recruit people that want to stay," said Donaldsonville Primary's principal, Tennille Lange.
The school is looking "to sustain teachers here," she said.
Koenig, who lives on the outskirts of Gonzales, said she doesn't find her roughly 20-minute commute down River Road and across the Sunshine Bridge to Donaldsonville a hindrance.
Participants in the highly selective Teach Ascension Academy are asked to commit to three years in the district schools with the most need. The process of getting certification can take from one to two years, depending on what grades and courses the participants will be teaching.
Teachers who complete the three years have their $4,500 fee for the academy waived, Roussel said.
Basic enrollment requirements for the Teach Ascension Academy include a bachelor's degree with a minimum grade point average of 2.5 and passing scores on standardized tests in the areas the applicant would be teaching.
But, Roussel said, "They're allowed into the program once a principal has hired them."
Those in the academy begin their studies in the summertime, with full-time training during June, then assigned to a summer school, teaching alongside a supervisory teacher.
"They're actually teaching by the end of the summer," Roussel said.
Teachers working on certification are assigned mentor and master teachers, as well as four teachers who regularly observe them, she said.
There are 11 in this school year's teacher-certification academy, Roussel said. It's about the same number as last year's and many of those are now in their second year of the program.
To date, six candidates have, like Koenig, earned their certification through the program, Roussel said.
On Friday, in her classroom of second-grade magnet students, Koenig also led a lesson on the many different ways the "a" sound can be made into a word.
Student Raenn Patterson raised her hand and said, "I have an 'ae' in my name."
Students quickly realized there was a "Kailey" in the classroom and an "Elaysia," too.
"We discovered ways to make the 'a' sound!" Koenig said.
Editor's note: This story was changed Nov. 6, 2017, to correct the name of EATEL Telecommunications.