Freshwater Elementary third-grade teacher Sarah Hodges, left, reviews the completed projects of her students Preslee Zimmerle and Jimmy Burton, as Principal Julie Dugas asks them questions about their work.

DENHAM SPRINGS — Freshwater Elementary Principal Julie Dugas expected good news when the state announced its latest accountability scores for each school in the state.

She knew that at her school:

  • More teachers were gaining comfort with teaching the district’s more rigorous curriculum
  • More teachers were using data to better personalize their lesson plans and create one-on-one instructional sessions
  • More teachers were voluntarily participating in student-learning activities before and after regular hours
  • More teachers were investing in greater professional development workshops and exercises
  • More students were performing at higher levels, according to in-class testing and observations.

What she didn’t expect was for her school’s improvements to be so dramatic that they would elevate her school to be the most improved in the state and to put Freshwater Elementary in the top 2% of all elementary and middle schools in the state, according to a news release.

According to the Louisiana Department of Education, nine schools in Louisiana improved by 10 percentage points or more. Freshwater Elementary was the most improved — increasing its overall mastery rate from 43% to 60% — a jump of 17 percentage points. Out of 1,267 elementary and middle schools (nonmagnets) statewide, Freshwater came in at No. 27.

Freshwater Elementary’s overall school performance score also grew from 83.5 in 2018 to 95.7 in 2019 — a 12.2-point improvement. One of the most impressive score indicators was the school’s progress index, which measures the number of individual students who meet their growth target level — that number grew from 100.7 points in 2018 to 115 points in 2019, reflecting a 14.3-point jump that easily earned Freshwater Elementary an A status rating as a "top gains" honoree.

“When they started announcing the numbers, I couldn’t believe it. I knew our students and teachers had given their best, but the numbers were amazing,” Dugas said. “Our school was at the top in our district and among the state’s very best. Most of our teachers recorded the top scores overall in their grade and subject areas.”

Dugas said some teachers grew their individual sections by double digits and a few by more than 20 points.

Compared to all 24 elementary schools in the district, Freshwater Elementary proved to be a top performer in several areas: first overall in math, first overall in science, second overall in social studies, and fifth overall in English language arts. At the individual grade levels, Freshwater’s third graders scored first among all parish third graders in math, social studies and English language arts, and third in science; the fourth graders scored fourth in science, and fifth in math and social studies; and the fifth graders scored first in math, first in science, and third in English language arts and social studies.

“I’m so proud of our teachers and their willingness to do what it takes to make our students successful,” Dugas said. “We have a philosophy here at Freshwater and it is simple, but the execution has to be sincere — put the students first in all that we do, set high expectations and establish caring relationships with every single student. We can’t effectively teach a child unless he or she knows we care.”

Dugas, who has been named the 2020 Livingston Parish Elementary Principal of the Year, said she tries to lead by example. It is evident that she believes in her faculty and staff and knows that Freshwater’s success is a family effort and everyone on campus has a stake in that success.

Dugas contributes many things to the school’s success, but no improvements have come overnight, she said. “I’ve committed myself to taking more time to pray for my faculty and staff. I establish relationships with our students all year long, but I take time to go into the classrooms before each testing period and talk to the kids about their concerns and about being nervous and how to overcome fears.

"I make a point to give every student a hand-written note to let them know I believe in them. I encourage them to be confident in their abilities as they have worked hard all year and it is their time to shine."

Dugas said her teachers also provide incentives throughout the year, as well as during testing time, to students who have shown growth.

“We are proud of all of our students. From pre-K to fifth grade, we are all in this together. Our students’ success builds upon each grade level, and all are vital to their individual achievement. We believe in our students and want to celebrate every improvement and provide encouragement,” Dugas said.

“We know that if kids believe in themselves, then they can accomplish great things.”