WALKER — As the bell rings at Walker High School, most kids are hopping on the school bus to head home. But some two dozen are donning green uniforms and tan aprons, getting ready for their after school job at Papa John's.
They don't even have to leave the school's grounds.
At the invitation of Principal Jason St. Pierre, the business has set up a buffet restaurant open to the public in the school's former cafeteria. Kids earn $8 an hour working there after school and earn internship hours towards certification for work in the food service industry. They serve pizza every afternoon from 3 to 8 p.m. and on the weekends from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
It's not the only business with a brand name on campus. The school now has a full-service credit union sponsored by Neighbor's, a conference center branded with Walk-On's Bistreaux and Bar, and a Nike store. St. Pierre says he is in talks with Men's Wearhouse to open a clothing store, and Gerry Lane is helping the school build a car paint and body shop.
St. Pierre, a dynamic 48-year-old gym teacher turned school principal, says it is all meant to provide a wide array of opportunities to kids, while meeting the desires of local businesses clamoring for skilled workers.
"What is the real ROI (return on investment) for businesses in our communities and in our state?" St. Pierre asked at a recent public forum held at Southeastern Louisiana University. "It's our kids, because they're the next workers."
St. Pierre's move towards expanded career-oriented education is in line with a parish- and statewide reevaluation of vocational studies as on par with college-focused tracks, said Staci Polozola, career and technical education coordinator for the Livingston Parish School Board.
“As educators of today, we are charged with truly making the experience relevant for students who are not on the four-year college track,” Polozola said.
What separates St. Pierre from the pack has been his success recruiting and promoting the local businesses who help him, she said.
Dressed in a neat pullover fleece and glasses with transition lenses, St. Pierre walked briskly as he toured visitors around the campus last week, showing off all the new programs as he went. Along with the branded businesses, he points out a new carpentry shop where students build and sell picnic tables, and a welding shop where students made a metal cage that houses a generator for the school's food truck.
"Real world, real experience," he says.
St. Pierre is seen by many involved with Walker High School as an original thinker, who's more often than not going from zero to 90 mph and is overflowing with ideas he wants to try.
"Every time the phone rings and it is Mr. St. Pierre, I step back because I know it is going to be something out of the box," Polozola said.
"I've always accused him of, you must never sleep," said David "Bo" Graham, a Walker-area school board member. Graham said St. Pierre has so many ideas he occasionally has to put on the brakes, but mostly he is supportive of widening the opportunities at the school along the lines the principal advocates.
St. Pierre's philosophy is this: If only about 23 percent of Louisianans will get a four-year degree, why treat everyone like they are headed for one? There are thousands of industrial jobs along the Mississippi River, and employers frequently complain about the lack of trained candidates. High schools should offer programs that allow them to sample different careers and earn credentials they can use in jobs directly afterwards.
"As a principal, I listen to business and I listen to industry," he said in an interview last week.
Polozola said the shift towards more career-oriented offerings was facilitated when the state added the JumpStart degree several years ago, a move that allowed schools to get more accountability points with career classes than before.
“It leveled the playing field in the importance of taking an AP course and the importance of earning an advanced credential in the career and technical area,” Polozola said.
St. Pierre, 48, grew up in Lutcher and joined the U.S. Navy out of high school. He is from a family of plant workers but decided to leave the military after four years and study physical education at Southeastern Louisiana University.
He began his career in the Livingston Parish School System after graduating, working his way up from being a teacher at Denham Freshman High School to an elementary school principal to Walker High.
He said his family's experience in industry coupled with his college trajectory allows him to understand kids who want to go to college and kids who do not.
St. Pierre is quick to push back on the idea that Walker High has become a vocational school, a criticism he sometimes receives. The school has recently added 16 Advanced Placement courses, STEM programs and an array of dual enrollment classes, he notes.
"I've got underwater robots. I've got drones. I've got TV stations. I've got sports medicine with North Oaks (Hospital)," St. Pierre said. "We have the best of both worlds."
Although the new programs have earned St. Pierre recognition for their novelty, and the crowd at the SLU panel was enraptured by his talk of real-world training, they have not yet translated to higher performance scores.
Walker High School earned a B rating this year, falling behind the parish's other two large high schools, Denham Springs and Live Oak, which both earned A ratings. According to recent state data, students at Walker High tend to score lower on their ACT exams than the average student in the parish, and about 8 percent fewer go on to attend any type of college.
St. Pierre said he is striving to make Walker High an A school, by improving teaching methods and securing approval from the state to factor many of the new programs into the school's accountability ratings.
He says the opportunities at the school are giving kids real-life experience and preparing them for real jobs after school. In fact, some of the opportunities may translate directly to a post-graduation gig.
Dan Murphy, who manages the on-campus Papa John's — the only one on a high school campus in the country — said he plans to hire his best employee as a manager when she graduates.
"It's a win-win," Murphy said. "Thank God Mr. St. Pierre is a principal who realizes not every student will go to college. And they need to learn a skill while they're in high school that's going to help them after."