BATON ROUGE, La. - The St. Helena Parish School System is facing tremendous financial and academic challenges. In an attempt to assist local education and community leaders with identifying potential solutions, State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek will host a bus tour to two neighboring school districts tomorrow. The tour will include two stops in East Feliciana Parish at Jackson Elementary and East Feliciana Middle School, as well as a site visit to New Orleans Charter Science and Math Academy.
Invitations were extended to St. Helena Superintendent Daisy Slan and other district office administrators, members of the St. Helena Parish School Board, legislators, and other community leaders several weeks ago. State education officials also invited local school board challengers.
With a District Performance Score of 66.4, the St. Helena School District is the lowest-performing local school district in the state - a position it' s held for five consecutive years. More than 92 percent of St. Helena's student population is eligible to participate in the federal free or reduced-price meal program - a measure of poverty. Minorities make up 80 percent of the district's student population. The three schools the group will visit on Wednesday have similar demographics - but have achieved significantly higher academic achievement and growth.
"Our hope is that by visiting and studying comparable schools that have succeeded despite similar challenges, these local leaders will identify potential solutions," State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek said. "And as important as it is for St. Helena leaders to be exposed to possible answers, it's equally important that they see and hear first-hand from district and school leaders that the challenges associated with educating poor and minority children can be overcome."
The St. Helena Parish School System operates St. Hele na Central Elementary School, which enrolls 550 students, and St. Helena Central High School, which enrolls 301 students. In July 2009, after St. Helena Central Middle School failed to meet the state's minimum School Performance Score (SPS) for four years, all three schools began operating under a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Recovery School District (RSD) in lieu of transferring the middle school to the jurisdiction of the RSD. However, in May the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) voted to transfer St. Helena Central Middle School to the direct oversight of the RSD, beginning this school year.
The district has the fifth lowest property tax rate in the state, and starting salaries for teachers in the district rank 68 out of 70, contributing to a high level of employee turnover. Four times over the last three years, taxpayers in St. Helena Parish have rejected proposals to increase millage rates to boost the amount of fun ds that flow into the district's schools. In fact, in April, the St. Helena Parish School Board asked United States District Court Judge James J. Brady to impose a school tax without an election.
The most recent setback for education officials in St. Helena occurred in mid-August and centered on unhealthy and unsafe conditions at the district's elementary and high schools. Parents of students attending these schools petitioned Judge Brady to allow their children to enroll in neighboring Livingston and Tangipahoa Parish schools.
"Our school district has endured a set of daunting challenges over the last few years, but we hope to improve our efforts so that our students are successful," said Alton Travis, a St. Helena Parish School Board member. "I look forward to visiting the schools in East Feliciana and Orleans Parish so that we can get some ideas that will be beneficial for our schools."
Ninety-five percen t of the students in Jackson Elementary are eligible for the federal free or reduced-priced meal program and 82 percent are minority. The school has achieved a gain of 9.2 points in its SPS since 2008. Jackson Middle School and Clinton Middle School merged to form East Feliciana Middle School, where 92 percent of the student population qualifies for the free or reduced-price meal program, and about 80 percent of students are minority. Since 2008, the school's SPS has grown by 22.6 points. About 54 percent of the students at New Orleans Charter Science and Math Academy, also known as Sci Academy, are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, while 98.7 percent of the student body is minority. Still, the SPS for the math and science school has grown by 7.6 points since 2009.
Similarly, 97 percent of the students enrolled in St. Helena Elementary School are eligible for free or reduced-price meals and 91.1 percent are minority. More than 90 percent of the st udents at St. Helena High School qualify for free or reduced-price meals and 91.7 percent are minority. Both schools, St. Helena Elementary and High School, are on the state's academic watch list, with performance scores of 64.3 and 63.7 respectively. At St. Helena Middle School, which has seen an improvement of 7.9 points in its SPS since 2008, 87.5 percent of the student population qualifies for the federal free or reduced-price meal program. The middle school has a minority population of 97.6 percent.
"Clearly students in St. Helena are not receiving the quality education they deserve," said Chas Roemer, the BESE member whose district includes St. Helena. "Jackson Elementary, East Feliciana Middle, and the Sci Academy in New Orleans are not that different from the schools in St. Helena. When we examine those schools' growth and academic achievement, we can't help but want the same educational outcomes not only for the students-but for the taxpayers of St . Helena parish."