On the morning of Jan. 19, heavy rain began to fall on Baton Rouge, and the effect at Glen Oaks Park Elementary was immediate.
“You have to imagine, the bus pulls up and 25 kids come off at once crying and they are hysterical: ‘My mom’s gonna die! The water’s coming!’” recalled Tonya Bethly, assistant principal at the north Baton Rouge elementary school.
“They could not function until the rain stopped,” Bethly continued. “Every time it rains, these kids melt down.”
Every rain is a reminder for those children of the traumatizing days of the devastating floods of August. Glen Oaks Park Elementary is one of 10 Baton Rouge public schools that flooded. Within days, the school relocated five miles northwest to the former Banks Elementary School and it’s uncertain when it will be able to return.
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Many Glen Oaks Park faculty and students also had their homes flooded. Being at Banks isn’t helping. The grounds have a tendency to turn into a small lake when it rains.
“I’ll have to cross my fingers and hope it doesn’t rain the first week of May,” said Principal Bernard Williams. “Because if it rains, I don’t know what the kids are gonna do.”
That’s when the school is planning to take LEAP tests in math, English and social studies. Third- and fourth-graders will take these state standardized tests on paper. In fifth grade, for the first time, students will take them exclusively online.
The online part is a problem. It’s such a problem that the East Baton Rouge Parish Federation of Teachers is gearing up to demand that state leaders exempt flooded schools like Glen Oaks Park from testing. The teachers union is also seeking to exempt teachers at those same schools from their annual evaluations.
Carnell Washington, president of the union, spoke to about a dozen teachers at Glen Oaks Parks after school Wednesday, one of a series of visits he’s making to flooded schools. He said it’s unfair to hold flooded schools like Glen Oaks Park to the same standards as unflooded schools this year, especially when it comes to the time students have had to get acquainted with working on computers. There’s a good chance that Glen Oaks Park, a C-rated school, could slip to a D if it fails to get a waiver, he said.
The flood waters left behind a lot of ruined technology at Glen Oaks Park, including interactive whiteboards and document cameras. The school had just used its own money to buy 110 Google Chromebooks but they were damaged. Their old campus at 5656 Lanier Drive also had ample internet bandwidth.
Banks is a different world. The school had almost no internet access when Glen Oaks Park faculty arrived at the 72nd Avenue campus and it hasn’t gotten much better. It’s not clear what shape it will be in by the time testing arrives.
“They’ll do something and it will work a day or so and then it will go back to what it was,” said Principal Williams.
Teachers have worked much of the year with few computers and shortages of textbooks. Within the last month, the school’s 60-plus fifth-graders finally received Google Chromebooks to partially replace the ones damaged by the flood, Williams said.
“(The students) haven’t had enough time to practice typing. This is a timed test,” said Jamie Johnson, a fifth-grade English and social studies teacher. “My kids will be held accountable for it, and it’s not their fault.”
Fifth-grade math teacher Natasha Briscoe said she relied heavily last year on technology to reach her students, many of whose minds wander when they experience more traditional instruction, but now she’s struggling to keep their attention.
“Before you get to say, ‘This is the objective of the class,’ you’ve lost about half of them, because you’ve said too many words,” said Briscoe.
Washington said other flooded schools he’s visited have it even worse.
“I went to one classroom the other day, I swear to God, there were 80 students in the classroom and three teachers,” he said. “Now you tell me how can Mr. Williams come in and evaluate someone when there are three teachers teaching at once?”
Obtaining a testing waiver won’t be easy.
In October, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education granted a series of waivers for other reasons but none connected to testing. Despite some talk in the days after the flood, no one has been requested a testing waiver since.
Central Schools Superintendent Michael Faulk said BESE has been reluctant to grant waivers for what he feels were good reasons in the past, and doubts that reluctance has changed.
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Both the Louisiana Department of Education and the Governor’s Office are saying no, at least for now.
Sydni Dunn, a spokeswoman, said state School Superintendent to John White is acutely aware of the problem, but has no plans to suspend online testing at flooded schools or make other changes. But if the test results reveal real problems at the flooded schools, White is willing to consider making adjustments to the scores of those schools after the fact.
“We want to be fair to the kids,” Dunn said.
Shauna Sanford, press secretary for Gov. John Bel Edwards, said while the governor is committed to doing “everything possible” to help school districts deal with the aftermath of the flood, he “does not have the flexibility to grant a waiver for K-12 schools for standardized testing or teacher evaluations.”
Washington disagreed, saying the state's law dealing with emergency relief after disasters gives the governor authority to waive a variety of education laws, including testing laws, in the wake of the flooding.
“As much as I respect the governor, that’s unacceptable,” Washington said. “We need to go beyond that.”
In the meantime, teachers at Glen Oaks Park continue to work their way through a bad situation. Brigitte Wesley, a fourth-grade math teacher whose own home flooded, said she too felt a bit of panic when the rain fell on Jan. 19.
“I was in the mindset (the kids) were in, but I had to hold it together,” she said.