Voices for the Common Good
ACADIANA SPEAKS OUT
OF CONTENTS FOREWORD.. ...................................................................................................... 2-3 ABOUT THIS PROJECT.........................................................................................................4-5 WHAT WE LEARNED...............................................................................................................6-8 RESPONSIVE LEADERSHIP CAN CHANGE THE EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM..........................9-10 EVERYONE HAS A STAKE IN IMPROVING SCHOOLS....................................................... 11-13 SUPPORTING STUDENTS TO SUCCEED IN ACADEMICS AND BECOME PRODUCTIVE, CARING CITIZENS IS ESSENTIAL...................................................................................... 14-15 PROPERLY USING RESOURCES INVESTED IN EDUCATION MUST BE A PRIORITY........... 16-17 OPPORTUNITIES AHEAD................................................................................................ 18-20
Margaret Trahan, President and CEO, United Way of Acadiana “The school used to be the center of the community, but it’s not anymore.” “I don’t want a gap between public and private schools.” “We need to go back to the idea that a village raises a child.” “They have to spend so much time teaching to the test that the kids miss out on learning.” “I don’t see my tax dollars spent where they should be.” “Poverty is the barrier.” “We need more options for the students and not focus only on everyone going to a 4-year college after high school.” “We need to create a feeling of hope in the classroom.” “We have to make some big changes to the system.”
These comments come from just a handful of the many citizens who have participated in community conversations about education as part of United Way of Acadiana’s Voices for the Common Good. People from different backgrounds and beliefs from all over Acadiana have come together to engage in open, honest and lively dialogue about their aspirations. This report reveals a range of perspectives on the challenges facing our communities, our schools and our children. From these conversations you hear the voices of everyday people in Acadiana—and what they care about.
The community conversations, rooted in people’s hopes and aspirations, help identify the common ground for action.
Participating in the conversations was a learning experience. I learned that regardless of socioeconomic backgrounds, race, gender or age, people generally recognized the power of education. I heard many stories of self-trust and hope. I heard talk about the power of education to transform lives. I also heard stories from people whose children are in low-performing schools who feel like the system and their community have abandoned them. Any perceived default on education’s promise stirs emotions of loss, anger and frustration knowing that we are selling ourselves short somehow. Here at United Way of Acadiana, we understand better now that lived experience is key. We realize even more that a diversity of voices gives clarity to the underlying tension which exists: how do we hold ourselves accountable individually and as a community for public education? We recognize that everyone does not experience the school system the same way. Even so, this does not lessen our shared responsibility for the state of public education. It’s unfair and unrealistic to place the whole burden on the schools. The most meaningful action comes when volunteer and leadership opportunities connect with people’s hopes. Otherwise, few on the outside will take responsibility. Each community in Acadiana is in a different stage of readiness for action. For the most part, people yearn for the opportunity to be part of something bigger than themselves when it comes to education. People want genuine relationships with their schools and are looking for ways to build them. They are tired of spinning their wheels when it comes to improving education. They want to roll up their sleeves and work together for the long haul. Together, we have an opportunity to align our common interests for the good of “our” kids and grand kids. We believe real change can’t happen unless individuals, organizations and leaders open doors and create pathways for everyday people to act and make a real difference. So, let’s look forward rather than back. Scape-goating and finger-pointing take us nowhere. Our aspirations unite us, and that’s a great place to start. The time is now to become more focused on what we can all do together to transform frustrated energies into no-nonsense action ensuring that more kids walk across the stage at graduation prepared for whatever comes next.
President/CEO United Way of Acadiana
United Way of Acadiana held 36 community conversations in 2010 and 2011 to open a dialogue about public education in Lafayette, Acadia, St. Martin and Vermilion parishes.
More than 500 people representing 41 zip codes participated in these community conversations, some of which were held after screenings of the 2010 documentary “Waiting for Superman,” which spotlighted issues facing public education nationwide. The participants ranged in age from teens to seniors. The groups included men and women from a variety of ethnic groups, including Asians, African-Americans, Caucasians, Latinos and Native Americans. We talked to parents and grandparents, high school students and college students, teachers and those from all walks of life.
“We have an obligation and a responsibility to be investing in our students and our schools. We must make sure that people who have the grades, the desire and the will, but not the money, can still get the best education possible.” Barack Obama
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We talked to community service organizations, such as
In wide-ranging conversations with those who care about
100 Black Men of Greater Lafayette and The705, a young
our education system, United Way of Acadiana listened
professionals group. We went to schools, such as Ross
and sought ideas on how to improve education.
Elementary in Crowley. We tapped our own Women’s Leadership Council to weigh in. And we brought together
We learned that many people’s understanding of what’s
going on in the schools is rooted in the headlines or even
the rumor mill — oftentimes based on some level of fact.
United Way of Acadiana conducted superintendent
From all the opinions gathered in the four-parish region,
interviews in the four parishes to gain perspective on what
some common themes emerged.
these leaders saw as their greatest challenges.
Information from a national poll conducted by United Way Worldwide in January 2011 is also included in this report to show how issues raised by our communities mirror concerns across the country. United Way Worldwide also used responses from our local communities as part of an in-depth national report on education that gauged how citizens viewed the challenges facing America’s education system today.
“If you look at school improvement, rarely do we involve the most critical stakeholder — the student. We need to invest more time and energy listening to our students.” Paula Guidry Cutrer, Principal Ross Elementary School Crowley
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WE HEARD “All
children should receive a quality education because I want a community that is educated, prosperous and safe.”
People in Acadiana want their children and grandchildren to grow up in an area where the streets are safe and good jobs are plentiful. Many said they wished their children did not have to leave the area to pursue job opportunities. “Out of my four children, three work out of state,” said one participant with the community group Concerned Citizens for Good Government in Lafayette. Another resident who wanted to move closer to family found it wasn’t easy to return to Louisiana after living elsewhere. “It took me over 10 years of active job searching before I could move back to Louisiana because we have not attracted enough business to base here to offer a competitive salary,” a member of The705 said. Residents also said they wanted to see communities where the value of an education is emphasized. In a Vermilion Parish conversation, participants said many students drop out
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because they have few people in their families who have finished high school. “It’s generational poverty, and parents need to change the cycle. The cycle needs to be broken in the family,” one Vermilion Parish participant said. Others agreed. The entire community needs to support learning, “Kids don’t know what is out there. They only know what they see.” And for some children what they see in their neighborhoods is violence. “Every day, someone’s getting shot,” one Crowley youth said. Many residents agreed that neighborhoods where crime and violence are rampant could lead children into making bad choices. The education system can be a way to reach those children, and that in turn can lead to less crime, many said. People are worried. Though we have a 70 percent graduation rate in Acadiana, people say “too many kids not learning. [It’s] pricier to send them to jail and we settle for that,” according to one participant. Even though data shows gradual improvement in test scores and graduation rates, many believe schools are “heading in the wrong direction” when “kids can’t pass tests.”
In a national poll conducted by United Way Worldwide, 88% of the respondents agreed that “good public schools are the foundation of the American dream” with 53 percent saying they “strongly agree” with the statement.
Overall, it was clear in conversations around Acadiana that residents wanted communities that focused on helping kids achieve their dreams. At a forum hosted by the Pugh Family Foundation, one resident may have summed it up best:
“I’d love to have a community where there is hope for kids – somewhere to go to figure out what they want in life.” Community members strongly felt a school system should offer a solid education to all its students, and schools in poor neighborhoods should be just as good as those in wealthier areas. A system that gives only some students access to good programs was seen as a negative across the board. While that doesn’t mean that every student needs to get the exact same education, participants said, they agreed they would like to see high expectations for all students. Every student should be challenged in the classroom, said one participant in an Early Head Start conversation, but the reality is “here, the smart students get moved to [the] smart school – it makes schools unbalanced.” A college student in a class at UL Lafayette added that students feel the effect of low expectations. “After graduating, all the teachers expected students in honors to go to college and they didn’t expect anyone else to do anything,” the student said. While some parents liked options such as schools of choice, honors programs and other specialized offerings at public schools, they also thought it important that students interact with a range of their peers. “Allow students to learn from diversity of one another,” one Community Action Council member said.
The bottom line is that our communities believe a good education represents the best chance for all children, and especially those living in poverty, to succeed in life. The “school system could be a lifeline for children but is not,” said a member of 100 Black Men of Greater Lafayette.
Judge Thomas R. Duplantier 15th Judicial District Court
Judge Thomas R. Duplantier realizes there’s no easy fix to improving education in Acadiana. Duplantier works with family court and juvenile drug court and knows the worst-case scenarios all too well. He realizes and addresses issues that stem from a lack of family support that create issues that surface in the classroom. In too many cases, Duplantier works with students and dropouts who do not function at a level to succeed. Acadiana’s truancy and dropout problems are near and dear to his heart. “We’ve done a lot of things over the last few years to bring the school, judicial and law-enforcement systems together. We’ve seen a change in the numbers of truancy because of the collaboration,” he said. “From my standpoint, we have to make the parents and children buy in to the fact that schools will be the ticket to their success — as opposed to Hollywood, sports or dealing drugs.” Duplantier believes redefining success for students is another key to the puzzle. He does not believe teaching the same coursework to every student is the answer to raising educational success. “We need to teach the children things other than just reading, writing and arithmetic,” he said. “When you see 16-year-olds in the seventh grade, they rarely believe they can succeed. We need to give them another option. We need to teach them a trade. There is honor in working with your hands. We don’t need to discount it. Society needs it, and we need to give these kids a chance toward a trade they could use to become successful.” Duplantier believes it’s imperative that the community be patient in the process of improving education. “We need to take slow steps. The community has to understand that it’s not going to be an overnight fix. We can do it gradually and get a full buy-in.”
“When we fix education, we fix the future. We say we’re progressive in Lafayette. We talk the game, but when it comes to education, we don’t do it. We have to realize that it’s not them or us. It’s about hope and opportunity. It’s also about moral courage — the courage to see a thing through. We say we’re one of the top cities floating, but for that to be true, we’ve got to get our schools addressed. We are criminally underfunded, and we have concentrated poverty. …For me, the important thing isn’t so much that every child should be taught – as that every child should be given the desire to learn.” Melinda Mangham, retired English Teacher from Lafayette High School
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Kim Cummins, Principal Martin Petitjean Elementary, Rayne
“All day, every day, throughout the Acadiana area, teachers push students to excel to their maximum potential amid a sea of barriers. We take very seriously our calling, and we will work hard to overcome any hurdles necessary to make education happen for our children,” said Kim Cummins, principal at Martin Petitjean Elementary in Rayne. Cummins believes the first barrier for many students is attendance, including tardies and sign-outs.
The second barrier Cummins sees is excessive student movement between different schools during a school year. “They must constantly adjust to new policies, reading and math programs, friends and schedules. This is so hard on
these children. Their education is interrupted time and again as a result,” she said. And the third barrier is a lack of routine and structure during out-of-school hours. “We see children who arrive at school without the proper clothing, incomplete homework, lack of sleep the night before, little to no nutrition for supper the evening before or breakfast in the morning,” she said. “For some of our children, the ‘good morning’ greeting they receive from the bus driver or school duty personnel is the first they have received that day. These children are little survivors. School is their safe place. They struggle to concentrate or feel prepared, though, when they haven’t received this preparation at home.”
can change the educational system
There was widespread agreement that real solutions to educational issues begin with effective leadership that engages community members. Participants in community conversations said they wanted school leaders to set a vision for the educational system with input from students, parents, teachers and other stakeholders. And they also wanted leaders who were focused enough to make changes despite opposition. We have “too many community task forces whose suggestions are ignored,” said one participant at a forum with Concerned Citizens for Good Government. Based on conversations with several groups, the three things community members most often sought from their school leadership were: communication, accountability and transparency.
“Children are inquisitive. They need a variety of stimuli all the time to keep them interested. Early childhood education is key to have children ready when they enter kindergarten. We rarely are able to catch children up who come to school behind. Plus, children who have stimulating summer environments lose 20 percent of what they learned in the school year. Those who don’t get summer stimulation lose about 40 percent. We need to provide summer programs that fill this gap. Combining some of our after-school programming and providing transportation could also make a big difference. For example, there are several successful afterschool programs that could grow if they had more space, and yet we have schools sitting empty after 3 p.m.. I think it would be very powerful to combine some of David H. Welch President and Chief Executive Officer, Stone Energy Chairman of the Board of United Way of Acadiana
these after-school programs right there on the school grounds. We could eliminate transportation issues and make better use of the buildings. Education is everybody’s business and in all of our interest. I care so much about this because I believe every human being is born with great potential. To see so many give up on their potential is hurtful to me. I want to do everything I can do stop the waste of human potential.” 9
Communication at all levels was an issue. That included communication between parents and schools as well as communication internally between administrators and staff at schools.
Many felt that there was a lack of transparency in their school districts, which left them questioning why and how decisions are made. Parents, teachers and others said they were eager to work to improve schools in their communities, but they didn’t feel that school At an Acadia Child and Youth Planning Board forum, even administrators welcomed their contributions. One participants who were basically happy with the school participant said volunteers with 100 Black Men had system felt the need for better communication. One offered at one time to provide mentoring to students. participant said: When their offer was not acted upon, many concluded
“We have a good public education that “the school system is too afraid to let system overall, but there are things that people in.” can be worked on, building a bridge Teachers also felt they didn’t have a place at the table between the community and education.” when it came time to set an education agenda in their Many would like to see school board members and administrators taking a very visible role in communities to promote the aims of the school system. “Communication is our biggest problem in this district,” said one resident who participated in a Lafayette forum after watching the documentary film “Waiting For Superman.”
Accountability Because some participants felt disconnected from their school districts, perhaps due to a lack of communication, they perceived that no one was being held accountable for system failures. The “public education system is adverse to change, innovation, high expectations and accountability,” was the opinion expressed at one Lafayette conversation. While some said school leaders need to encourage accountability, others said parents have to play a role as well. “If we don’t have confidence in our system, as parents, we are not going to hold it accountable. We have walked away,” said a parent at the conversation with 100 Black Men. Others said there were political reasons for the lack of accountability, with everyone pointing fingers of blame for poor school performance. “We don’t want to admit where we are failing,” said one member of the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce.
communities. Acadiana residents want school leaders to “open dialogue with teachers in meaningful ways, advocating for their recommendations,” said a member of the United Way of Acadiana’s Women’s Leadership Council. And many agreed that when school system leaders shut out potential allies it tends to decrease enthusiasm for educational initiatives among the public. “People aren’t coming to meetings, not because they don’t care, but because they are burnt out from fighting the system,” is how one resident summed up the frustration after a screening of “Waiting for Superman.” But whatever the differences, most said the needs of children must be put before politics. “I don’t care about the adults in this situation; it’s the kids that we should all be worried about,” said a member of The705. Most participants agreed that it is time to move forward without finger-pointing. Some who wanted to be a part of the solution said they didn’t know how. One participant in a community conversation put it this way to a United Way of Acadiana leader: “Tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.”
“Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another.” Gilbert K. Chesterton, English playwright and novelist
a stake in improving schools Parents play a key role in making sure students come to school ready to learn. But it doesn’t end there. Many participants said that parents are not the only stakeholders in student success, especially in light of what we heard time and again: Some parents simply don’t have the tools to help their child improve. Other parents have their own set of psychological or drug dependency issues, or they’re so caught up in surviving that they are not capable of providing the support a child needs to thrive.
In the nationwide poll, 91% agreed that “we as a community have to take greater responsibility for what’s happening with our children.” Some Acadiana residents said that students from families in distress need the support of other adults in our communities. We “need more networks to raise/mentor children [and] can’t depend on the parents anymore to do the job. They need to have more people they can trust, need more counselors in
schools. All of this plays into their education successes,” said one resident at a conversation in Acadia Parish. One elementary school librarian said, “Books are magic. When I sit in front of a group of kindergarteners and hold a book up and begin to read, they all stop what they’re doing and look up—at least that is what they’ve always done until the last few years. Now I have that one child or sometimes two who is simply incapable of focusing. Something is wrong, and it probably goes to the parents using drugs during the pregnancy and then a lack of stimulation in the years since. He or she needs more than I or another teacher can give in the midst of 30 other kids. …Some days a child will walk into my library and be so full of anger and causing so many problems that I finally say one-on-one, ‘What can I do right now to help you feel better? What is wrong?’ And almost always, he or she will tell me that his mama was picked up last night for drugs. Or he’ll say that nobody came home last night and he spent the night by himself with nothing to eat. It’s generally something that has nothing to do with school. It’s a need that’s not been met at home.” And as those children grow and the needs continue unmet, the problems become more and more severe. The students become angrier and more disruptive and cause even greater distractions for other students and teachers. One single parent at a conversation hosted by the Pugh Family Foundation acknowledged the need for a community support system. I “have to work [and] need a place where my children can get involved in safe things while I’m working. I want to know they’re safe. I can’t do it by myself; it does take a village. I’d like to see a village.”
“Community participation in school turnarounds needs to be organic. It must rise up from the grassroots to be successful.” Chad Wick, CEO of KnowledgeWorks 11
Many participants also saw a role for business leaders in promoting good schools. “If our business leaders look at our K-12 [students] as their future applicants, they are going to be motivated and sympathize and want to be engaged,” said one participant at The705 conversation. Some pointed out that with the private and parochial school options available to wealthier parents, rallying support for public schools is not an easy task. When it comes to public schools, many business leaders “don’t pay attention to what is happening” because their kids don’t attend public schools, said a member of The705. Parents said the choice to send their children to a private school wasn’t always easy to make. “I can begin to feel hopeless when I look at the situation. It gets me to the point where I don’t want to send my child to public school. [It] produces anxiety. But so many don’t have a choice,” said a parent at the Pugh Family Foundation forum.
Though many parents recognize and appreciate the efforts of some teachers and administrators, the school systems suffer from trust issues that have festered and grown over decades. Often times, well-intended actions of the school systems are interpreted by some parents as mechanisms to create more barriers for success. But one Chamber member whose children did attend public schools said that he recognized there were problems, but felt that the overall experience was good for his children, and that the “diversity of the school population was an asset.” Others wanted to see a positive message about schools being promoted in local media. “Schools are providing better opportunities. [There is] too much rhetoric out there about how horrible schools are,” one Vermilion Parish participant said. Many pointed out that good schools can lead to a variety of benefits that together create a healthier community overall. “Lower crime rates attract larger business, more brain power and better tax structure, probably less, much less social service needs,” as one member of The705 said. And that was a message that resonated with all residents, even those who don’t have kids in school. “Supporting public schools is supporting your community — not just for the common good, but for self-preservation,” said one participant at a North Lafayette conversation.
“The barrier I most often experience looks more like a one-way street with all the traffic coming from school and nothing from home. Too many of the students, like their families, do not appreciate nor fully take advantage of the fact that they are being offered a free education that, despite what some think, is overall, quite impressive.
Tricia Savoy, Director Acadia Parish Truancy Center 12
After more than a decade on the beat, it still baffles me how teachers and schools can be mercilessly scrutinized and continuously held accountable while the parents of the lowest scoring, highest risk for failure students, neither claim responsibility in creating, nor want any involvement in fixing the problem. How can revamping an entire system fix a specific problem that is not even being addressed properly?“
“It starts with the family. It starts at home. Then peer pressure plays a role. If you follow the wrong crowd, you can get in trouble. For me, I stayed in a lot of activities. I try to stay in the positive. When I was in middle school, there was a time when I could have chosen a less positive path, but I thought about the future. If I wanted to join the Navy, I knew what choices I had to make. I love fighting for what’s right. To be honest, watching Top Gun made me say, ‘I want to do that.’ Plus, my aunt is in the Navy. I think if we’re going to help the people who may be considering dropping out, we’ve got to stay on them. Some schools will just let them go. If we stop them early and motivate them more instead of giving up on them so fast, that would help. …I live with my grandparents. They always push me. That’s why I try to help other people. Our system is so messed up that if students are struggling, they often just pass them on. That’s not the right way to do it.”
Ray Williams Lafayette High School junior
Lisa Patel, 19, graduated as Carencro High’s valedictorian in May 2011. Now a freshman at Louisiana State University, the state of Acadiana’s education system is important to her. “I went to public schools because they’re more real life,” she said. “This is how the world is and you learn how to communicate.” Patel believes creating free after-school help workshops, with transportation provided, would make a positive difference for many students. Patel said that, in her experience, there were too many distractions in the classroom. “A lot of kids didn’t want to be there. Overall, Carencro High is a good place, but it could have been better if the discipline issues wouldn’t have been so great and there were more honors and AP classes for those of us who wanted them. For example, the curriculum requires you to take a foreign language, but I don’t think kids should be forced to take classes that they’re not going to work in. It just distracts everyone else from trying to learn.” Patel says the new positive behavior reinforcement system created more problems for many students. “With the new system, ‘the bad’ kids got more chances. It seemed like school officials just wanted the graduation rate to go up, but then you had all these kids who didn’t want to be there creating problems. I don’t think that’s very fair to the kids who do want to be there.”
SUPPORTING STUDENTS to succeed in academics and become productive, caring citizens is essential.
Placing academics at the center of what schools do is the only way to sustain great schools. Our area is known for great sports teams and a fun-loving culture, and many participants said that this cultural message could be a reason some kids are not getting the message that education is important. “We are always saying come dance, drink and have a good time, but we don’t push our school system,” said one member of The705. And others with the Women’s Leadership Council echoed that sentiment. “We don’t sell education as a value to our families and to our communities,” a resident said. How to change that? Some participants recommended programs that put academics in the spotlight, such as academic pep rallies and awards programs for outstanding teachers.
Not just test scores Others cautioned that a focus on academics shouldn’t just mean test scores, but rather helping students reach their full potential. In fact, many felt the emphasis on testing has short-changed learning. “It’s not just about test scores but about building a well-rounded community that is diverse. Plant the seeds to build the forest” was the idea expressed by one resident attending The705 conversation. More music and arts education was urged by several participants in addition to keeping class sizes small so teachers would have the time to use innovative techniques in the classroom. A student said that some of the larger schools in Lafayette can be isolating with “too many students, no one knows you by name.”
“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” William Butler Yeats
Many teachers said they would like to spend more time teaching but were overwhelmed by other requirements of the job. “Teachers are so focused on the paperwork that we are not able to adjust to the specific needs of each child,” said a participant with the Women’s Leadership Council.
Addressing discipline issues Throughout Acadiana, many felt that kids with discipline problems are too often allowed to disrupt the classroom environment. We are “spending too much time on [the] negative, focus[ing] on misbehaving students, not students who want to succeed,” said one Lafayette resident. The single most urgent recommendation from community members was for schools to address discipline problems effectively. In fact, the conversation about discipline became so intense at one forum at a Lafayette restaurant that a waitress who overheard it jumped in with her own story about disrespectful students in her daughter’s eighth grade class. She, like many others thought teachers could make the difference. “We need more teachers with good hearts,” she remarked. Many thought teachers should be partners with parents to address discipline issues. “We need ‘ticklers’ about what is happening instead of waiting until the problem with a child blows up,” said one Acadia Parish parent. And the overwhelming majority felt schools could be stricter in setting consequences for bad behavior before it gets out of hand. On the issue of discipline, the views of Acadiana residents were in line with the national poll where “Young people lacking respect for elders” was cited as the fourth highest concern overall by respondents – 7.5 on a scale of 0 to 10.
“So many children come in to school without the tools they need. Parents don’t have to be doctors and lawyers for the children to get everything they need. A few years ago at another school in Acadiana, I taught sixth grade. I had students who were acting as the parents and raising younger Rodricka (Rocki) Wilson 2nd grade teacher at brothers and sisters because the L. Leo Judice Elementary real parents were drug addicts. Scott These children who have so much responsibility sometimes end up wearing the same clothes to school all week. I know, because I see Monday’s ketchup stain and Tuesday’s mustard stain and so on. My job is to educate that child, but there are times when you can’t educate the child because there are other, bigger issues. For example, if that child spent the night trying to get away from her mama’s crackhead boyfriend, learning reading is the last thing on her mind that morning in school. Or if the grandmother had to bring him to school, but the book bag was in the mama’s car who was on the street all night and didn’t come home — that’s not the child’s fault, and he’s not going to be ready to learn. We need to educate the entire child, but there is so much on teachers. We get bogged down. We have to get to the child. Children just don’t come to school and say, ‘I’m going to make Mrs. Wilson mad today.’ We have to take that extra time. We have to show them we care. When I was teaching those sixth graders, I decided I was going to do everything I could to help them be OK. Once I got all that mess out of the way, and those kids knew they could trust me, they performed for me as best they could. Children are going to perform and try to live up to the expectations of their teachers. I think the drug problem is so much bigger than people realize. It all starts in the home, but that’s neither here nor there, because I can’t raise a child in the home. We can’t ignore it anymore. The first step is admitting we have some major problems. We need a more collaborative effort of people getting together to figure out what we can do to alleviate the problems.”
Richard Lavergne Superintendent St. Martin Parish Schools
“So many students are coming in unable to fit in a community of people. They believe they have to fight with everything. They are full of such bitterness and anger. I had to buy catcher’s equipment for a teacher so that when a kid goes off, the teacher won’t get beaten up — and that’s in kindergarten. Then there’s the problem of kids attacking kids. I’m very concerned about the mental attitude of so many students…. Listen, positive behavior reinforcement helps, but it’s not the only thing we need. We need mental health people who can work with these kids. The problems could be caused by so much drug usage.
We need a way to do interventions with many of our students. We need counseling, mentoring and parental programs. We need additional support for our teachers and administrators. We have to be able to offer students a variety of things that keeps them interested in learning. Creating trade program routes would help a lot. Some students don’t have the capacity to read Chaucer. Let’s create a path for them to learn to be productive citizens.”
Properly using resources invested in education must be a priority. Building a 21st century education system requires 21st century tools. And from technology to training to facilities, Acadiana residents agreed that schools were lagging. But before dedicating more tax dollars to education, participants wanted to make sure the money would go directly to the classroom. Several said they felt taxpayer resources were being wasted. “Where is my money going?” asked one participant with The705. Another agreed. “We cannot justify asking for more money if we cannot account for what is being paid.” But in the same conversation, another participant argued the community needs a “paradigm shift in the way we view education. We look at it as an expense as opposed to an investment.” A teacher in Lafayette who had previously worked in Texas was surprised at the lack of resources in local schools. “But there are teachers who try to work with resources you have,” the teacher said. There were advocates for paying teachers more. Others wanted to see money invested in teacher training and more high-tech equipment for the classroom.
Superintendents around the region agreed that more resources would be welcome. Trying to keep needed programs running with reduced budgets has led many to rely on grants. But that is not efficient, the superintendent in St. Martin Parish said. “Grant funding that stops and starts makes it hard to sustain innovative programs,” he said. The dire state of many school facilities was a concern often expressed in community conversations. Basic maintenance was not being kept up at some schools, participants noted. “In speaking to friends who are parents of public school students, some of the breakdowns that they had in the first few days of schools irritated me,” said one resident at a conversation with The705. Problems can take months to fix, others said. “Physical plants are a mess,” said a participant with Concerned Citizens for Good Government. One resident at a North Lafayette forum said the situation was critical and that “at some point we have to take responsibility for our facilities, and we have to be willing to pay.”
Big and small things to do: Outrage does not build hope or trust across fault lines in society, but conversations do. However, outrage and conversations alone are not enough to create the kind of education Acadiana wants. Without action, outrage and conversations will not create classrooms more conducive to learning, improve the economy or make us safer. The people of Acadiana are yearning to come back together as communities. People want to re-engage and re-connect with one another to create the capacity for success. The question is how to break down perceived walls, tempering the shouting that keeps people apart and makes it impossible to see or hear one another and get things done. People in Acadiana have a history of deep-rooted faith in each other. We develop innovative ways to work together and solve problems. We are determined to have a hand in shaping our own future. The time has come to apply this same faith to a decidedly public purpose: finding new and practical ways for people to return to the public square and participate in the life of their communities. People across the region want to make better lives for themselves and their communities. To make this happen, we must be open to each other to rekindle the Acadian spirit of working together and getting things done.
Jody West has seen Acadiana’s school systems from a variety of perspectives — as a student, a parent and from the inside as the wife of a teacher and as an employee. “I think children receive a good public education in the Acadiana region now. I graduated from Comeaux High, and my children attend public school in Lafayette,” she said. West believes obtaining an education has to be important for a student and has to be seen as a tool to reach their potential in life. She believes learning can be maximized by parent involvement in the school and assisting families to access services they need — including medical and mentalhealth services. “Healthy children learn better. Barriers that children face aren’t reflective of a broken education system, but of a greater societal system.” West coordinates St. Martin Parish’s school-based health centers, which
Jody West, LCSW, Coordinator St. Martin Parish School-Based Health Centers and School Nurse Program
provide access to medical and mental health services to students. The schoolbased centers allow “for students to access the services they need and then return to the classroom feeling better…. The mental-health needs of today’s students and their families are astounding,” according to West. Other factors, including divorce, grief, poverty, homelessness, substance use and family issues, play a role in a student’s progress. “A student doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” she said. “If stress is the main emotion a child feels on a daily basis, there is no room for learning in that child’s life. It will be a struggle.” West keeps a mug on her desk that reads, “One never stands as tall as when he kneels to help a child.” She said, “People who work in the education system — whether as a teacher, custodian, nurse, social worker or bus driver — have to keep the best interest of the child as the focus of their day’s work. Society, in general, has a responsibility to effectively meet the needs of each child, too. No one person, including a teacher, should have that responsibility placed solely on his or her shoulders. It takes a community.”
CHILDREN ARE WAITING. Read to me. Let me read to you. Smile at me. Learn my name. Help me discover what I’m good at. Ask me about my day. Take me to the library. Sing with me. Ask me about my hopes and dreams. Keep drugs out of my life. Give me a safe place to go. Acknowledge when I’ve done well.
Answer their call. Become a United Way Reader
Now is the time to make sure every child becomes a reader. Children learn to read in the early-grade years so they can read to learn throughout the rest of their lives. A missed opportunity to read at grade level by the fourth grade could set an individualâ€™s quest for learning back permanently. The good news is that most struggling readers can learn to read if given additional help in early grades. Volunteers can provide much-needed reading practice time in conjunction with classroom teachers. In fact, more than 1,700 first and second graders in Acadiana are waiting for reading help. Each is waiting for another adult to come into his or her young life â€” an adult who can make a difference. The fact is that if a child reads on grade level by fourth grade, he or she is four times more likely to graduate high school. Opportunities to become United Way Readers are available in Lafayette and Acadia parishes. For more information, go to www.unitedwayofacadiana.org or call 337-233-8302.
How to be an advocate
for students and our communities’ schools
1. Keep yourself informed. 2. Challenge stereotypes about parents who don’t care. 3. Challenge stereotypes about teachers who don’t care. 4. Look at every child as a potential employee, customer – or future boss. 5. Attend school board meetings.
215 East Pinhook Road • Lafayette, Louisiana 70501 • 337.233.8302 • www.unitedwayofacadiana.org