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East Baton Rouge Schools Supt. Warren Drake takes questions outside the school board office on Oct. 24, 2018.

ST. FRANCISVILLE — The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board turned its attention to academics on the second day of its retreat, learning more about efforts to improve novice teachers and leaders as well as highlighting students who are absent or transferring schools.

The nine-member board on Saturday also continued to flesh out priorities and core values, with the goal of settling on a list by March.

The retreat, which concluded in the early afternoon, was held in the clubhouse at The Bluffs on Thompson Creek, a golf resort east of St. Francisville. The out-of-parish retreat, which may become an annual affair, is meant to kick off the four-year terms of office for board members. The board has seven returning and two newly elected members. No votes were taken.

Most of Saturday's agenda focused on efforts to improve student achievement in the state’s second-largest public school district.

“It’s very important for our board to see the work that’s being done all the way down to the individual student level,” schools Superintendent Warren Drake said.

Board President Mike Gaudet complimented Drake and his staff for the information they shared at the retreat, saying he wishes the board could spend more time at its regular meetings on academic matters.

“I learned a hell of a lot,” Gaudet said.

The board heard presentations from three top administrators: Assistant Superintendent Quentina Timoll and associate superintendents Adam Smith and Ben Necaise.

Timoll updated the board on a cluster of low-performing schools known as the Innovation Network, while Smith spoke about elementary schools and Necaise talked about middle and high schools.

Smith said he’s focusing on ways existing teachers can get better at their jobs.

”The only two ways to improve student achievement is to hire great teachers or make the ones you have great,” Smith said.

In that vein, he said, he’s been working to streamline how “professional learning communities” work at the schools. These PLCs, as they’re more commonly known among educators, are where teachers meet regularly, share knowledge and work collaboratively to improve teaching skills and the academic performance of students.

Smith also noted that while many Baton Rouge schools are struggling to meet state standards, their students are nevertheless learning at fast rates. So, while East Baton Rouge Parish has a D letter grade from the state when it comes to overall test scores, it has a B grade in how fast individual students are growing academically, what the state calls a Progress Index. Elementary schools in Baton Rouge earned an A on that measure.

“Principals got real happy when they saw this (A for growth),” Smith said. “I told them to pat themselves on their back one time. This is just 25 percent of your grade. This alone won’t get you there.”

With a little help, Smith said, more children at these schools could pass or reach mastery on state standardized tests. For instance, this past spring in math, 632 fourth and fifth-graders were within 10 points on the testing scale of a score of "Basic" and another 627 students were within 10 points of "Mastery."

Necaise said improving attendance could boost student performance, saying “that’s our biggest factor and it’s our most complicated factor.”

He showed the board a chart of the first semester for grades eight to 12 showing that just under a fourth of students in those grades missed the equivalent of 10 days or more of school.

“These schools grew at a B rate despite the fact that a quarter of the students are not in school everyday,” Necaise said, suggesting they could grow at a faster clip with better student attendance.

Absenteeism at individual schools that semester ranged from as low as about 2 percent at Baton Rouge Magnet High to almost 50 percent at Istrouma High School.

In a similar vein, Necaise showed the board a new measure, which he’s calling a “persistence rate," that is meant to capture student mobility. But rather than trying to track who’s leaving a given school, it tracks who stays. For the school system, by this measure, almost 89 percent of the students have stayed in the school they were in at the start of the 2018-19 school year.

So at Forest Heights Academy of Excellence, a popular magnet school, all 414 of the students there now were there on Aug. 9. But at North Banks Middle School, not far away, only 85 of the current 141 students were enrolled at the beginning of the year.

Timoll, meanwhile, gave the board a status report on the Innovation Network, which is in its first year.

Funded by $2.2 million in federal money, the schools in the network, all with D or F letter grades, are in the midst of redesigning their schools to try to improve rapidly. There are 13 schools in the network, but she said eight more schools are expected to join the network next year.

Timoll said she'll have a lot more information in March to show the board, but early indications are that student learning is improving.

“I told the principals, “We’ve overwhelmed you, we’ve frustrated you, but have we seen wins for students? Yes we have,” Timoll said.

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.