Cover Story

Man With A Plan

by Heather Miller

From ridding the system of poor-performing principals to getting kids ready for kindergarten and yanking Butler buildings from our campuses, Superintendent Pat Cooper lays out his six-year turnaround initiative.
By Heather Miller Photos by Robin May

If former N.P. Moss Middle School Principal Ken Douet had been working under Superintendent Pat Cooper last year when the middle school was shuttered to avoid state takeover, the six Lafayette Parish School Board members who blocked Douet's promotion to a high-performing high school would have never been compelled to do so following Moss's closure.

From ridding the system of poor-performing principals to getting kids ready for kindergarten and yanking Butler buildings from our campuses, Superintendent Pat Cooper lays out his six-year turnaround initiative.
By Heather Miller

If former N.P. Moss Middle School Principal Ken Douet had been working under Superintendent Pat Cooper last year when the middle school was shuttered to avoid state takeover, the six Lafayette Parish School Board members who blocked Douet's promotion to a high-performing high school would have never been compelled to do so following Moss's closure.

The two votes a board majority cast in June and July of 2011 to "stop rewarding principals of failing schools," as board member Mark Cockerham describes it, were against the wishes of former super Burnell Lemoine, whose close relationship with the former Moss administrator has since returned to haunt the district in the form of a lawsuit Douet filed against the school system. Douet remains employed by the school system as a staff development specialist at the Vermilion Conference Center (his contract isn't up until June 2012). He's seeking $500,000 in damages from his employer for what he claims is board favoritism that prevented him from taking over as principal of the Early College Academy, or as Douet calls it in his lawsuit - the "prestige he was entitled to."

The Douet scenario is just one blatant example of the "social club" Cooper referred to when he arrived at central office five months ago. Even in his turnaround plan's most infant stages, "entitlement" isn't something you'll likely hear from Cooper when it comes to school principals who manage failing or consistently low-performing schools in Lafayette Parish.

Under Cooper's plan to drastically improve the district's graduation rate and lower the achievement gap that exists within the district's poorer, majority-black schools, principals will be given ample freedom - and ample resources from central office - to try whatever it takes to significantly raise academic performance.

"Much of what a school will choose to do in gaining an A' status will be decided at the school level," Cooper notes in his intro letter to board members attached to the turnaround plan.

If the school hasn't shown marked improvement in two years, administrators under Cooper's plan will be looking for new jobs, not advancement within the school system.

"Cooper doesn't play favoritism because he puts all the accountability on himself. And that's the way it should be. A bad principal reflects on him," Cockerham says. "[Board members] who were close to N.P. Moss and the situation there knew a lot about what was being done. They heard some really bad things about how Moss was being handled," recalls Cockerham, who voted with Hunter Beasley, Kermit Bouillion, Tehmi Chiasson, Shelton Cobb and Greg Awbrey to stray from the board's own policy and state tenure laws that provide for Douet's advancement.

"It was a good decision," Cockerham continues. "I think it sends a message that we're not playing anymore, even if policy protects them. We're going to do what we have to do."

A New Focus

Cooper's extensive plan to reform the "way we do business in the village" includes a lengthy list of school system changes crafted by Cooper and countless community stakeholders who served on various task forces, the epicenter of which is Cooper's proven model for turning around high-poverty schools: targeting underserved children from birth to 5 years old and giving them the health, wellness and early learning resources that at-risk children need to be ready to learn when they enter public schools.

The first step, according to Cooper and his staff, is to reach out to parents and child care agencies next school year and to offer information on the types of early learning programs available in Lafayette Parish.

"Some parents are not aware of the early learning opportunities for their child or the importance of early childhood learning," Cooper says. "As a district we need to get this message out to the community."

Currently, approximately 455, or 28 percent, of the district's at-risk students did not attend any type of early learning program before entering kindergarten, according to estimates provided by LPSS through parent surveys. Coincidentally, the district's high school dropout rate stands at almost 27 percent.

Cooper's plan includes the establishment of a full-time early learning department at central office charged with "addressing the needs of all at-risk Pre-K students" and creating a new, "state of the art" Early Childhood model and a new birth to 5 facility for the district's children with no access to private day cares/early learning centers. The turnaround plan calls for Cooper's "model" early childhood center to be housed in a new wing at J.W. Faulk Elementary School, though with next year's budgeting process still under way, the site location and other details are not yet set in stone.

"The Early Learning Center is still being discussed relative to a site, budget allowances, and the possibility of some partnerships with existing institutions such as ULL and Southwest Technical College, although we have not approached them on this yet," Cooper says. "Our overall early childhood service program will be enhanced next year, and we will be looking for a suitable site as part of that effort."

Beginning next school year, all Lafayette Parish school students entering kindergarten will be screened for readiness using the state's Developmental Skills Checklist. Students who lack the skills needed for kindergarten will be given the choice of a developmental kindergarten class, the first of its kind to be offered in the district.

"This class will have a lower pupil-teacher ratio and a teacher assistant. The class instruction will begin on the child's level and move forward toward the necessary skills needed for success in kindergarten," Cooper says. "The progress/growth of each individual child will determine if the child is ready for kindergarten or first grade the following year."

For the roughly 72 percent of children who have been able to attend private early learning/day care centers, their respective child care businesses will be asked by the school system to implement state-approved early learning curriculum. It's not mandatory, but it's likely the early learning centers will want to participate, as the system will publicly release a report on which centers' students are at grade level when they start school - and which ones aren't.

The effectiveness of Cooper's early learning focus is easily backed by his track record in West Feliciana Parish (still the second-highest district performance score in the state) and McComb, Miss., the two high-poverty school districts where he previously served as superintendent.

Other data, as recently noted by The Detroit Free Press newspaper, point to similar successes Michigan has seen in early learning initiatives, which research shows save Michigan taxpayers $100,000 for every Detroit child "who enters kindergarten ready to learn."

"Children who attend preschool require less special education, are less likely to repeat grades, have fewer behavioral problems in school, graduate at a higher rate and have lower incarceration rates as juveniles and adults," according to the Free Press report. "As adults, they are more likely to be employed, earn higher incomes and pay more taxes."

These are the same assertions Cooper has been echoing since he started speaking to Lafayette Parish public education stakeholders long before he was chosen to lead the district.

Mary Charles, head custodian at Alice Boucher Elementary
School, assesses roof damage on a Butler Building.
Photo by Robin May

Depicting the Data

Cooper has repeatedly lamented that the district currently has no evaluation method or data-driven research that proves or disproves the success rates of the numerous academic programs in place at various schools in the district. The district's popular Schools of Choice program at high schools across the parish is one shining example. That, too, will soon change with the development of a full-time data department at central office to be overseen by LPSS federal programs specialist Tom Spencer.

According to Spencer, the department's key role will be to "guide classroom responses to specific student performance issues" for central office use, though LPSS is trying to also make district data currently found on the state Department of Education's website more easily accessible through LPSS's online system.

"The goal is for no program to be implemented without defining an evaluation process first," Spencer says. "At the end of the cycle - usually an academic year - we will evaluate the program as data becomes available. This will require cooperation from vendors and certain offices in the [Louisiana Department of Education]. Many of these evaluations will be presented to the board and made available to the public."

(Re)master Plan

Cooper's start as LPSS superintendent in January came on the heels of a years-long effort by the school board to address the sad state of public school facilities in Lafayette Parish, the end result being a costly master facilities plan crafted by a Baton Rouge architecture firm for a fee of almost $1 million. Included in the pitch for a master plan was a new property tax proposal to fund the $1.1 billion in critical school repairs and new construction. But with public trust in the school system at an ultimate low, voters firmly rejected the tax hike.

Cooper and several board members have committed to restoring public trust at central office and within the school board, with Cooper vowing to reshuffle existing dollars and show weary taxpayers that the Lafayette Parish School System can be a good steward of public money and implement several phases of the six-year turnaround plan without asking for additional public sources of revenue yet.

Part of that promise from Cooper includes revisiting the master plan and exploring how to improve learning environments without the $1.1 billion facilities fund attached to the master plan.

"I believe the master plan is too costly in its present state ... causing us to build structures that are more Taj Mahal' than just good sturdy buildings," Cooper says. "I am trying to show the public that we can use our funds wisely, and this area is no exception."

The district's extensive collection of Butler buildings (temporary structures not phycically connected to their respective schools) is one issue for which Cooper is looking to find a more immediate fix. According to numbers provided by LPSS's maintenance department, the school system currently leases 29 Butler buildings (58 classrooms) at an annual cost of $344,000, while the district owns another 239 temporary buildings that account for approximately 578 classrooms.

"It costs about $24,000 to refurbish one of these buildings, and we refurbish several each year. It costs around $25,000 to move one to another location, and we move several a year," Cooper says. "The negatives are that they are not connected to the permanent structure so there are no bathrooms readily accessible and there is no shelter from the rain when going outside on bad weather days. And as you can see, they are costly. I am exploring all possibilities relative to getting our children into real buildings that have access to bathrooms and that don't require the children to have to walk [or run] in the rain on bad weather days.

"I think we can have some very good permanent structures [steel, cinder block, modular, etc.] built that will on the inside be state of the art' relative to technology and teaching tools for the teachers, but don't have to win any awards at the national architects' meetings because of their outside appearances," Cooper continues. "We can build attractive, less expensive buildings that allow for the safety and the highest quality instruction for our children and teachers. A little landscaping will go a long way also in making the street appeal attractive. These structures will outlast the temporary buildings, can be made to look attractive, and will save money in the long run."

This story is Part 1 of a two-part series on Cooper's turnaround plan.