Cover Story

Leap of Faith

by Nathan Stubbs

At N.P. Moss Middle School, students and administrators hope a new innovative arts-based curriculum will turn around one of the parish's most troubled schools.

Ken Douet's office doesn't resemble a typical middle school principal's. His framed degrees, as well as his award for being a state finalist for Principal of the Year in 2004, hang out of view above a corner filing cabinet. Instead, brightly colored metallic figurines designed by local craftsman Pat Juneau hang prominently in the center of the wall, and three paintings from Donaldsonville artist and special education student Alvin Batiste face Douet's desk. Batiste's paintings depict vivid, cartoon-like characters engaged in expressive religious ceremonies.

"This is what is possible," Douet says. "Many people wouldn't think that a special education student would be capable of that kind of expression."

At N.P. Moss Middle School, new principal Douet's daunting challenge is to embrace and create new possibilities; Moss is notorious for being one of the parish's lowest achieving schools. The bulk of its students come from poverty-stricken districts, and a wide swath of parents and administrators consider the school unsafe and poorly integrated. Earlier this month, it became the first school in Lafayette Parish to be deemed "academically unacceptable" by the Louisiana Department of Education. And if the school does not make significant improvements over the next two years, the state Board of Education could take over management of the school.

Despite the turmoil, there's a renewed sense of optimism in the halls of N.P. Moss. This year, Moss begins a process that some school system officials believe will transform it from the worst school in the parish into one of its crown jewels. It's instituting a progressive new arts-based curriculum and is the school system's newest School of Choice arts academy ' meaning that anyone in the parish can apply to send their children to Moss. At last count, 58 new students were coming into Moss through the School of Choice program.

The new academy students are arriving at the same time dozens of other students are leaving the school in the wake of a state-mandated transfer program for students at underperforming schools. Because of Moss' low performance score ' which is tabulated largely from students' standardized accountability tests ' the Lafayette Parish School System must offer N.P. Moss students the option of transferring to one of the district's other public schools, in this case, either Acadian Middle or Lafayette Middle. Close to 100 students zoned for N.P. Moss have opted to transfer out.

Moss is at a critical crossroads, and the Lafayette Parish School system is banking on recent investments in the school to turn it around.

In 1999, N.P. Moss moved into a new $16 million facility on Teurlings Drive ideally suited for its new Math, Arts, Science, and Technology (MAST) theme. The campus is replete with computer labs, a high-speed video intercom system, a dance studio and a soundproof music wing with private practice rooms. (The original N.P. Moss Middle School, built at the corner of Mudd Avenue and Moss Street, is now Moss Annex, housing many of the school system's special education programs and its high school arts academy.)

In addition to its new building, N.P. Moss Middle School has replaced approximately 30 percent of its work force this year, with new principal Douet and Assistant Principal Marcil Seals leading the revamped administration.

The staff is responsible for instituting an arts-integrated curriculum designed to boost student interest and achievement. The education philosophy is based on research that shows exposure to art can help stimulate different areas of the brain and increase learning.

The approach fuses lesson plans of different subjects with arts electives. The result is a curriculum where a history topic will resurface in an elective music class, and music will in turn be incorporated into its math and science classes.

"When it happens the kids just get a double dose of the material," says music teacher Richard Short. "It gives me another outlet to teach too. I can really get into some history and other things that I enjoy, other aspects of music and art."

Moss also hopes to soon announce that it will become the newest Leonard Bernstein school, an arts curriculum distinction held by less than 25 schools across the country. The Bernstein foundation, established in honor of the famed composer and scholar, helps train schools in arts integration throughout its curriculum. Next year, Douet's goal is to have the Bernstein Foundation continue the work of consultants who have already started training teachers at Moss on coordinating their lesson plans.

What attracted Douet to the Bernstein curriculum was its emphasis on experience-based learning. "If you walk into the classroom, there is a lot of energy," Douet says. "And some people couldn't tolerate it, if you are the kind of teacher that needs people sitting in rows and that's the way you think learning has to happen. Artful learning and learning in general is not like that for a lot of us. For certain children, that kind of hands-on active learning is actually what gets them the academic part that's missing. If you want people to sit down, some of us just can't do it."

Douet hopes such initiatives will help combat negative public perceptions of the school, and he worked with the school system to film a DVD promoting Moss' new School of Choice arts program. The short film accentuates the positives at Moss, featuring the school's after-hours poetry café and chorus students doing a dance step rendition of "All that Jazz."

"That's the kind of stuff that we just have to flood the market with," Douet says. "These are great students. They're creative."

"I think [an arts-integrated curriculum] is another way to reach the kids," says Harry Roy, whose 11-year-old daughter Emily will be entering middle school at N.P. Moss this year. "The principal and the teachers have got to get the children's attention. In the past, the children turned these authority figures off.

"What I'm doing is taking advantage of all the attention being put on Moss this year," he continues. "Because of its poor performance, it's gotten the attention of the school board and the superintendent. Moss has nowhere to go but up."

Roy says he and his wife, who has been a substitute teacher at N.P. Moss, decided to give the school a chance this year. But if he doesn't see significant changes at Moss, Roy will take his daughter out of the school.

"You put in a new administration and a new face and let the chips fall where they may, and that's all you can do," he says. "But if you don't have open minds that want to learn, you can hang it up."

N.P. Moss is 97 percent African-American and a Title I school that gets federal grant dollars for its high percentage of students, about 88 percent, who qualify for free and reduced lunches. Last year the school enrolled 625 students, but Douet estimates this year's enrollment at 575.

Moss has traditionally housed many of the parish's less privileged students, drawing from areas such as the neighborhoods surrounding Azalea Park and Four Corners. Administrators have long grappled with how to confront the social issues that many of its students and parents bring with them into the school.

"I've heard from several parents who are not sending their kids to this school because they're afraid for safety reasons," says assistant principal Seals. "They think their kids are going to come over here and get beat up. And I have heard from parents who are sending their students here but who are nervous about it."

Last year, Moss became the first school in the parish to have a "resource" police officer stationed on campus. In addition to working toward preventing conflicts on campus, the officer also serves as a rapid responder to problems that arise.

At the height of last year's discipline problems, Seals says, "[The officer] was arresting students on a daily basis, sometimes several times a day."

The school system does not keep records of the number of times N.P. Moss' resource officer handcuffed students last year, which often does not result in an actual arrest. But the school system does have records of N.P. Moss' high number of disciplinary actions. According to the Office of Child Welfare and Attendance, Moss issued 460 suspensions for the 2003-2004 school year. The next highest number of suspensions for a middle school was 284 at Scott Middle.

Records also show things may be slightly improving. Last year, the school expelled 43 students, down from about 85 for the 2003-2004 school year. (As of press time, Moss' suspension numbers for the 2004-2005 school year were unavailable.)

The drop in discipline numbers can be attributed to a variety of factors, including the work of the resource officer as well as the expulsion of several problematic students.

Seals says problems usually arise from a small percentage of students who habitually cause trouble. He plans to identify these students and work with them on amicably resolving their conflicts. A "positive behavior system" with mentors and more teacher influence will help teach kids about the benefits of good behavior.

"For some reason, these students seem to think that they have to handle their problems themselves," Seals says. "I don't think that they know the benefit or the value of coming to the adults on campus. So we're going to communicate more to students about how to deal with conflicts and negative feelings. And we're going to do some peer mediation to help the students start doing a little critical thinking before they immediately go to the first response, which is to lash out violently."

The tendencies of some students to react with physical violence are often rooted in poverty-related issues at home, says school Disciplinarian Robert Delafosse. Delafosse works with kids through an after-school community service program he helped start at the school called Boys and Girls of Hope.

"These are everyday normal kids that have the same wants as other kids," he says. "They have the same wants as other kids throughout the city but don't always get things as easily. The only difference is some of these kids are shortchanged, and they don't handle that well sometimes. Kids find that very difficult to understand."

School counselor Sandy Breaux received approximately 700 requests for individual counseling last year.

"There just seems to be more of a need," she says. Breaux often works with the Louisiana Department of Social Services' local office on child protection and domestic violence counseling.

While many schools strive to have parents act as a support to their teachers, N.P. Moss educators often find themselves helping to support kids from struggling families and broken homes.

"We have such compassionate teachers," says Breaux. "I think it's so important because it grounds the students, and it gives them that support that they need that some students are not receiving at home. The teachers are real with the students."

This year, Seals says the school will receive the added support of an additional officer on campus, from the DARE drug-prevention program. Other changes include teachers eating lunch with students to help promote table manners, and students will have less time to roam the halls due to a reorganization of class locations. Seals also hopes the new arts-based curriculum will help turn students away from violence.

"We're hoping that the opportunity to get involved with an art as a form of expression will open up some new worlds for the students and get them involved in things outside of the box, outside of their normal things that they do in their neighborhoods," he says. "Maybe that form of expression will help to move them in a positive direction."

In addition to disciplinary issues, N.P. Moss now carries the stigma of its academic probation by the state Department of Education.

Douet is confident that the school will soon meet the state's accountability requirements. He sees after-school programs like Title I tutoring and the Community Spaces after-school arts program as keys to bumping up students' test scores.

"When you extend the day, that's when you catch up and close the gap," he says. "Some schools are mandated to have extended hours and even school on Saturdays. We need the extra hours to close the gap. The art is the enticement."

The energetic Douet is a logical fit for a school struggling with its performance scores. Faculty members at Moss have already started calling him a workaholic as he often eats lunch at his desk over work and goes out of his way to assist his staff and tour the school with parents.

"The guy is a go-getter," says music teacher Short. "If you say you need something, he'll get it done. I like that. That's how things get better."

At his last job as principal of Lafayette Charter High School, Douet was credited with turning the school around in part by getting parents more involved. He has similar plans for Moss, saying he wants to bring parent-teacher meetings away from the school and closer to students' neighborhoods, as well as getting other adult mentors involved with the school.

"Some of these parents that work have two or three jobs," he says. "Some parents just aren't comfortable in a school setting. It's hard for some people to recognize that. With other parents around, it'll be easier for others to participate. Some of it is just a whole different enthusiasm. It's just something that hasn't been done."

During his last five years at Charter High School, a school set up for students at risk of dropping out, Douet helped raise the school's performance score from a 22.7 to a 46.9. As some school administrators have bemoaned the state and federal government's focus on standardized tests, Douet's hands-on management style relies heavily on that information.

"I'm a total data freak," he says. "I like to cull data and make charts and see where things happen." For example, Douet pinpoints low test scores in certain subject areas and has frank discussions with students about their weaknesses. "These are the meaningful types of conversations that have to occur for students to understand what is expected of them," he says.

Douet has been at a frenetic pace preparing for the coming school year. This summer, he pulled double duty heading up both Moss and Lafayette Charter High School until Charter found its new principal just a few weeks ago.

Officially hired as Moss' new principal by Superintendent James Easton in July, Douet had already been working with Easton on changes for Moss. Last spring, he went to visit a Leonard Bernstein "artful learning" middle school in Portland and the KIPP Academy Charter school in Houston to research how Moss could move toward a more progressive arts and sciences curriculum.

Industrial Technology teacher Todd Duhon's class is a good example of this type of education model. Duhon, who just two years ago was managing a physical plant at a large retirement facility, says he "turned in the company truck" to teach at N.P. Moss.

One project in his class had students design and build catapults, then examine the physics behind their creations through an in-class competition. This year, he plans to have his students design and build a handicap access ramp to be donated to a needy facility.

"I believe learning should be fun," Duhon says. "I chose Moss because I'm from the north side and the facility is great. We get a bad rap from the press around town but there's so many people who are putting so much into Moss."

A New Student Body?

In addition to a revamped faculty and curriculum, the student body at N.P. Moss Middle School could be drastically different in the future. According to the school board-approved five-year plan for N.P. Moss, the school is slated to become a full School of Choice drawing students from across the parish through its new MAST academy. Many of the students who have traditionally attended Moss could be rezoned to Lafayette Middle School. If high student interest in Moss' new program leads to a lottery enrollment process, current Moss district students could be shut out.

Ouida Forsyth, Lafayette Parish School System director for the School of Choice program, says there is no set timeline for rezoning the schools. Any rezoning will require school board approval and sometimes requires additional transportation costs.

At Moss, rezoning will likely be done in phases by grade level depending on when school officials feel the MAST academy is attracting enough students.

The objective for N.P. Moss is part of a larger plan for a revamping of the parish's middle schools, where each will become a School of Choice, with its own specialized academies designed to feed into the established high school career academies.

Lafayette Middle will house a biological sciences academy. Scott Middle will have a world languages academy. These schools, however, will still take in students in their district who are not a part of any of the academy programs. Moss, however, is slated to only function as an arts academy. If demand exceeds capacity, Moss students would be admitted through a lottery process. Admittance would not be contingent on grade requirements, and Moss would be required to maintain racial quotas.