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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

We urge the Lafayette Parish School Board to dig deep and look far in the selection of our next superintendent. An Independent Weekly Editorial

When Lafayette Schools Superintendent Burnell Lemoine announced a week ago that he will honor his contract and retire at the end of 2011, a collective sigh of relief rose up in our parish.
Lemoine has by no means been a poor administrator of our public school system. He oversaw the successful expansion of our academy/schools of choice programs - a feather in his cap to be sure - and has served our students conscientiously.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

We urge the Lafayette Parish School Board to dig deep and look far in the selection of our next superintendent. An Independent Weekly Editorial

When Lafayette Schools Superintendent Burnell Lemoine announced a week ago that he will honor his contract and retire at the end of 2011, a collective sigh of relief rose up in our parish.
Lemoine has by no means been a poor administrator of our public school system. He oversaw the successful expansion of our academy/schools of choice programs - a feather in his cap to be sure - and has served our students conscientiously.

We wish him the best and thank him for his service.

The 43-year veteran of public education did exactly what we taxpayers expected him to do: captain the ship. Unfortunately, long before Burnell Lemoine became superintendent Lafayette Parish dropped anchor. We're adrift as other Louisiana school districts - many of them less affluent and with far fewer resources - steam past us.

Our anemic growth and persistent inability to close the achievement gap between black and white students, our tepid expectations, our increasing abandonment of public in favor of private are unacceptable.

Companies looking to locate in Lafayette Parish don't ask, "How are your private schools?" They want effective, efficient and safe public schools.

Lafayette's prosperity depends on an educated workforce. More students graduating high school prepared for college or vocational training means fewer students dropping out, running the streets, breaking into our homes and populating our jail.

Some in our school system, administrators and board members, have said that poor children from distressed households simply cannot be educated. We say bull, and there's data to back it up.

Lafayette Parish has an opportunity to replace Lemoine with a dynamic leader - a superintendent who will embrace reform or, at the very least, explore new, innovative methods of closing the achievement gap, increasing the graduation rate and rekindling the public's confidence in our school system; a superintendent who will run our school system like a chief executive, make hard decisions - often unpopular decisions - and be held accountable for progress or a lack thereof.

After being informed ahead of last Wednesday's meeting that a majority of school board members opposed extending
his contract, Superintendent Burnell Lemoine announced he'll retire at the end of the year.

We urge the Lafayette Parish School Board to pour its energy, its conscience, into selecting a superintendent who fulfills this role. Lafayette doesn't need a good superintendent. We need a great superintendent.

We don't need a candidate from within the Lafayette Parish School System - a lifer who has paid his or her dues and deserves a chance. We believe the LPSB should look not only outside Lafayette but outside Acadiana for a superintendent with no ties to us, no friendships, no conflicts of interest.

We believe this superintendent can be found without the needless expense of a search firm. Appoint a blue-ribbon, volunteer committee from within Lafayette Parish - business leaders, educators, professionals who have a stake in our future and who understand the mettle it takes to successfully run a $250 million enterprise.

We need long-term, stable leadership at the top. As we learned last week, the board is likely to place before voters this fall a property tax proposition for our facilities master plan. Asking taxpayers to pony up $600 million dollars - just more than half of the $1.1 billion plan - without that leadership in place is a non-starter.

Let's get this right.

At the end of the 2010 school year, the most recent for which state-generated data are available, Lafayette Parish ranked 24th among 71 school districts in Louisiana. A few years ago Lafayette ranked 18th. A couple of decades ago, we were in the top 5. It's not that Lafayette Parish is sliding - it's more a microcosm of what's happening with the United States versus the rest of the industrialized world: while our growth is stagnant, we're being leapfrogged by others. Lafayette Parish's growth in District Performance Score from 2009 to 2010 - 96.3 to 96.5 - was just two-tenths of 1 percent. Stagnant.

Even the Orleans Parish School System, gutted when the state created the Recovery School District following Hurricane Katrina and a system that has few schools to maintain and manage, holds a higher DPS than Lafayette - 110.3 to our 96.5.

Some of these newer leaders on the list are school districts that broke away from their host parishes - districts like the Zachary and Central school districts, Nos. 1 and 6, respectively. Each seceded from the East Baton Rouge Parish School District, which is grappling with the stress of educating an increasingly at-risk, urban population.

Currently - and this will change at the end of the 2010-2011 school year - only N.P. Moss Middle School is considered academically unacceptable in Lafayette Parish, based on the state's criterion that a school's district performance score must be above 60. Moss, which at the end of last year earned a 51.9 DPS - the lowest among all public schools in the parish - will cease to exist at the end of the month, becoming Thibodaux Career & Technical High School.

But the state is also raising the bar for our public schools: Currently, schools must score a 65 or higher to be considered academically acceptable. In 2012 that threshold rises to 75. Not counting Moss, there are three schools in Lafayette Parish that, if their respective scores don't rise, will be considered academically unacceptable at the end of the 2011-2012 school year: Alice Boucher Elementary (66.5 DPS), J.W. Faulk Elementary (69.1) and Northside High (70.3). Each school, not coincidentally, is in north Lafayette and has a majority black, low-income student population, which cuts to the heart of the Lafayette Parish School System's Achilles heal - educating at-risk students.

Lest we forget, Lafayette Parish ranks at the top of the middle third in a state that ranks near the bottom nationally. We have very little to be proud of. Yet, with Lemoine's imminent retirement, we have much for which to be hopeful.

This newspaper has pointed out as recently as two weeks ago - and others have made a similar observation - that the LPSS does a good job of educating our best students but a poor job of educating our at-risk students, particularly black males from poverty.

But state Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek counters that even our "white, wealthy schools" are hardly meeting or exceeding state expectations. According to Pastorek, nearly all schools with a performance score of less than 100 have a failure rate of more than 25 percent.

Of the 38 schools in Lafayette Parish, less than half performed above the 100 mark in 2009-2010.

Indeed, poverty, regardless of race or ethnicity, presents unique challenges to education. Poor students tend to have fewer resources at home and less parental support. They often come from single-parent households and have fewer examples around them of the benefits of a good education.

But a decent education and poverty are by no means mutually exclusive. Look no further than the Knowledge is Power Program public charter schools in New Orleans and across the country.

According to state DOE data, the average school performance score for KIPP in New Orleans is 104.2. These schools are overwhelming black and poor, yet they manage to best LPSS' DPS by nearly eight points.

KIPP's performance is in sharp relief to the overall RSD, which, despite far-better-than-state-average progress over the last three years, remains a bottom dweller with a DPS of 60.6 following the 2009-2010 school year. But even within the RSD, not counting KIPP, there are examples of progress. Pastorek has characterized what's happening in New Orleans as "an experiment": Give multiple charters in various molds a chance; scrap those that don't succeed, embrace those that do. Learn from it.

The charter school movement in New Orleans, which has the highest percentage in the country of children in charter schools, is the basis of a documentary film by Baton Rouge native and former WWL TV reporter Ben Lemoine (see sidebar) titled The Experiment.

Nationwide, the non-profit KIPP schools, according to a recent, large-scale study, shatter the notion that poor kids can't learn and underscore that high expectations count. While 95 percent of KIPP students are black and Latino and overwhelmingly low-income, 33 percent who completed a KIPP middle school at least 10 years ago now hold a bachelor's degree. Eight percent of similar, non-KIPP students have a college degree.

KIPP now operates 99 schools in 21 states from coast to coast with an enrollment of more than 27,000 students in elementary, middle and high school. An astonishing 95 percent of students who complete a KIPP middle school program graduate from high school. Ninety-five percent.

Taking a cue from such data, 100 Black Men of Greater Lafayette, a civic group that neither numbers 100 nor is entirely black men, is urging the LPSS to strive for a 95 percent graduation rate for all students.

As it stands, Lafayette Parish had a 70.4 percent graduation rate in 2010. But the historical chasm between grad rates for white and black students remains: While nearly 78 percent of white students graduated, only slightly more than 60 percent of black students earned diplomas.

At our current growth rate, it will take Lafayette Parish 31 years to hit 95 percent for all students, according to a projection by 100 Black Men.

Charter schools are not the end all-be all of a better public education system, but they should be examined without prejudice and, when a model is shown to be effective, embraced.
Yet school systems across the state, our own included, continue to balk at charter schools and other reform paths being tried nationwide, afraid the ends may not justify stripping money and power away from central office.

But that may be coming to an end in Lafayette: Last week The Ind learned through a source outside the school system but close to the action that a simple majority - five board members - were opposed to extending Lemoine's contract and would vote against the extension if it came down to it. Lemoine was notified before Wednesday's meeting and opted to make a graceful announcement that he will retire at the end of the year. This is cause for optimism - a sign that progressive leadership may be developing within the LPSB.

We must reform the way we do public education in Lafayette. Our next superintendent must grasp that simple notion, and so must we as the system's biggest stakeholders. Our community has the chance to stand up and demand substantial change in the form of an open-minded, non-traditional superintendent who isn't embedded in the politics of the state's struggling system.

There's too much riding on it.


24th Lafayette Parish's rank among 71 Louisiana school districts, 2010

18th Lafayette's rank, 2002

70.4    Overall graduation rate, by percentage, 2010
77.9    Graduation rate for white students       
60.3    Graduation rate for black students

16    Number of LPSS schools that met their growth targets from 2009 to 2010
22    Number of LPSS schools that did not

2034  Year Lafayette Parish high schools will achieve a 95 percent graduation rate, based on annual growth rate since 2005 (according to 100 Black Men of Greater Lafayette)

Elementary:     Woodvale (126.9 DPS)
Middle:     Paul Breaux (122.1 DPS)
High:     Lafayette (109.8 DPS)

Elementary:     Alice Boucher (65.5 DPS)
Middle:     N.P. Moss (55.2 DPS)
High:     Northside (67.9 DPS)

Filmmaker Ben Lemoine, center, with, from left, The Experiment's Derick
Route, Gerald Carter, Keeland Lewis, Kalani Lewis and Sam Morten

Lab Work
Louisiana native Ben Lemoine's documentary, The Experiment**, takes a critical and often tender look at the Recovery School District in New Orleans. On Monday, May 16, The Ind brings the film to Lafayette.**

Ben Lemoine is a TV reporter by training. The 33-year-old Baton Rouge native - his uncle, Lenny Lemoine, owns Lafayette construction giant The Lemoine Co. - graduated from LSU with a degree in broadcast journalism, working first at hometown station WBRZ. But it was at WWL in the chaotic months following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans that Lemoine found his calling. And it wasn't recapping the latest murders - which in 2006 and 2007 were so plentiful they became garden variety in the Crescent City and, not coincidentally, were also Lemoine's beat.

He was accustomed to the random, senseless death, typically of young, black men - a one-minute live report from the scene, body bag as stage prop, bleating mother for sound track.

Until it began to take a toll.

"After a while I started being more affected by it," Lemoine acknowledges, recalling one murder in particular. "I had some sources on the scene, and I walked over to the body and looked down, and this child looked like he was so young; he looked 11 years old. And it just hit me - I don't know why - it just blew me away."

Lemoine started asking himself a question: What's the connection between New Orleans' infamously dysfunctional public education system and its rampant crime?

Concurrent to the TV reporter's soul searching was the dismantling of the Orleans Parish School System. Plagued by corruption long before Katrina destroyed nearly half of its school buildings, the OPSS became in the wake of the storm a laboratory for one of the most ambitious - and controversial - experiments ever in American public education. And it became the back drop for a documentary Lemoine, with a small, dedicated production crew, produced and directed: The Experiment.

Similar in tone and presentation to Academy Award-winning director Davis Guggenheim's Waiting for Superman - and as professionally produced and packaged - The Experiment follows five inner-city New Orleans children, ages 9-11, through the 2009-2010 school year, taking a critical look at the Recovery School District - the state-funded, public charter school system developed as an alternative to New Orleans' traditional (and abysmal) public schools.

The RSD has made remarkable progress over the last few years, yet remains, based on district performance score, one of the very worst school systems in the state. But sifting through the finer grains, The Experiment finds charter models that work, although the film makes no claims for the supremacy of charters over traditional public schools.

It does, however, make a strong case for something that's been lacking in public schools, especially in New Orleans - accountability.

"I don't think there's a lot we can do directly and immediately about many social problems," Lemoine admits. "But I think if we're spending $8 billion a year on education in this state, we certainly should have better control of that money, and we certainly should demand a better outcome from that spending. The one thing we can control as taxpayers is whether there's accountability in education." - Walter Pierce

The Independent Weekly will present a free screening of Ben Lemoine's The Experiment at 6 p.m. Monday, May 16, at the Acadiana Center for the Arts' James Moncus Theatre. The filmmaker will attend the screening. Presenting sponsors for this event are the AcA, Fugro Chance, MidSouth Bank and The Picard Group. Seating is limited. To reserve a ticket, contact Robin Hebert at (337) 769-8603.