Special Report: Inside CPSB schools and why the letter grade doesn’t tell the whole story

Updated: Jan. 21, 2019 at 10:59 PM CST
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LAKE CHARLES, LA (KPLC) - The Calcasieu Parish School District is the fifth largest in the state of Louisiana.

Of all the districts in the state, Calcasieu Parish ranked number seven in the most improved districts from 2017 to 2018.

At first glance, some of the schools in the district may seem to be performing poorly, but faculty and staff says there is more than meets the eye.

“You’ll realize while the letter grade is the state measurement, it’s not the only measurement that exists,” Superintendent Karl Bruchhaus said.

In 2018, CPSB received a ‘B’ from the department of education for overall district performance, with each school also receiving individual grades based on student performance. However, that grade is determined by the state test administered each spring semester.

“One of the issues that I actually have with our school system is that everything is predicated off of one test score, which is not an indicator of the teaching and learning that is actually going on in our schools,” R3 Zone Director, Dr. Marcus Jackson said.

Fairview and College Oaks Elementary are considered R3 Zone schools. It’s a school redesign program dedicated to helping persistently struggling schools.

“The goal is pretty plain and simple; that’s to get off the failing schools list. That’s what our schools are actually called. However, I don’t think we actually have failing schools,” Jackson said. “Our schools are schools that are struggling and need some support and now we have tools in place to give those schools the support they need.”

In 2018, the plan was funded at a higher level than any other plan in the state, dedicating more than $10 million over the next three years, as long as schools show significant improvement. The program is equipped with specific curriculum used in all R3 Zone schools.

“It’s an ability to have teachers all on the same page, trained on the same philosophy, using those philosophies in the classroom,” Bruchhaus said.

While the public may look at each school’s letter grade as a reflection of the teaching and students, it might be time to look a little closer.

“The letter grade is not an indicator of what is going on in that school,” Jackson said.

Joining the CPSB team in the spring of 2017, Jackson has been working hand-and-hand with schools throughout the district. He has seen the struggles teachers and students battle every day, and Bruchhaus agrees.

“Really, it depends on the unique situation. It depends on the unique child, it depends on the unique classroom on any given day, what the challenges are, and there are many, there are many,” Bruchhaus said.

Fairview Elementary school scored an ‘F’ in the 2018 evaluations. As superintendent Karl Bruchhaus sated, this school faces a unique challenge every day. The school has a high percent of the students speak little to no English.

Alex Hennigan teaches Kindergarten at Fairview and says this year she has more Spanish-speaking students than English. The school says, 44 percent of the Kindergarten class doesn’t speak English. To help the students, she is having to think outside the box.

“I have an app called duo-lingo that I use to try and help brush up on my Spanish, and I also put around my room labels that have the English words and Spanish words,” Hennigan said.

Teachers have found partnering English and Spanish speakers up for work helps them both grasp the content.

“English-speaking students are starting to speak some Spanish,” Hennigan said. “Working with an English-speaking student helps them see how they are doing it and they mimic it at first, and then they start doing it on their own.”

She says it is easier for the young Spanish speakers to learn the language because English-speaking students are doing the same. However, that’s not the case for third through fifth-graders whose test scores determine the letter grade of the school.

“They are having to learn the rigorous curriculum and the second language at the same time and that’s a struggle,” Hennigan said.

Throughout the school year, teachers are able to administer a benchmark test to the students. However, they can sometimes be too far apart and make it hard to determine if the students are grasping the content.

So, with the help of technology, Hennigan has found a way to find out almost immediately if her students understand the material.

“They use these QR codes where I ask a question and they just have to turn the QR code to give there answer,” Hennigan said. “Then I take the iPad and scan the room and see who has mastered the concept.”

The school board says 28 percent of its students are in special education, and of that, 20% of those students attend R3 Zoned schools.

College Oaks Elementary, which has a higher percentage of special needs and hearing-impaired or deaf students, scored a ‘D’ in the 2018 evaluations.

“Some of those foundation skills that it would take to become a fluent reader are not there, so a lot of the things we are needing to do would be more support,” Principal Willona Jackson said.

It’s something the school has been battling for decades. Through the R3 Zone “cluster meetings” things are getting better across the district.

“We actually plan what’s going on in the classroom, we actually go in the classroom, implement what we planned through the teaching, then we come back and assess and debrief on what we saw,” Marcus Jackson said.

Willona Jackson said she sees how her teachers have grown in making their lesson plans.

“I can tell where planning is taking place, we are not in a school where teachers are just ‘well, it’s already provided for me,’” Jackson said. “Teachers take the time to pull those lessons apart and talk about it. They annotate every lesson plan, adding in ‘what are those things that are going to make this lesson plan unique to my students?’”

Science and math is an area where College Oaks has low test scores. To help further their learning, they recently received a $50,000 grant for a STEM program.

“The STEM lab is going to provide us some opportunities for students to have hands-on practice,” Jackson said.

By practicing math and science, Jackson says students will also improve in the English department by doing written reports.

“It started off as a vision that would only address our third through fifth grade students,” Jackson said. “But one of our teachers stepped forward offering to be a sponsor for our kinder through second grade students. So, that will be an after-school STEM club.”

Through new techniques and cluster meeting, the students don’t see the shift in the way they are learning new content, but educators know it is there.

“Just being able to go in and see the learning take place; we see they’re leading, they’re facilitating, they’re talking about the math, the vocabulary they are using,” Jackson said.

That change in the students is happening across all R3 Zone schools.

“Already it’s January and they can have a full-on conversation with you and they are needing less accommodations with the lessons.”

Zone Director Marcus Jackson says he is thankful the department of education is now taking into account how much the students are growing each year. Even with their under-performing letter grades, both College Oaks and Fairview have B’s in student growth. Something Jackson says is happening across the district.

“I’m in each and every one of these schools. So, I’m seeing the growth happening in real time.”

Superintendent Bruchhaus is extremely proud of that growth.

“There’s always room for improvement, but we feel like we are heading in the right direction,” Bruchhaus said. “I think they have a great understanding of what it takes to reach those levels expected by the state. So, we are making progress.”

According to the school board, benchmark testing has shown anywhere from four to 12 percent growth in student success across R3 Zones for this year.

State testing will be underway in mid-spring and those will also show just how much the cluster meetings and other techniques are working in the different schools.

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