By Louis Prejean
Below is a Q-and-A from our sitdown with the Lafayette Parish School System Interim Superintendent Irma Trosclair, Chief Administrative Officer Jennifer Gardner and Chief Academic Officer Mark Rabalais, Ph.D. about how the improvements being made in Lafayette Parish and the recently released school performance scores.
Trosclair has worked in education for 36 years and started in her current role as the interim superintendent in May.
Gardner has been the chief administrative officer since May and she is the former principal at L.J. Alleman Middle School with 20 years of experience working in Lafayette Parish.
Rabalais has been the chief academic officer since May with more than 7 years of experience working in Lafayette Parish.
Trosclair on the improvements happening in Lafayette Parish
Question: What improvements are happening in Lafayette Parish education that are not shown by the school performance scores or statistics?
Answer: This year we’ve focused a great amount of time, energy and resources on professional development for our teachers. There was a request from a group of teachers last year that we meet from teachers across the district to hear what their concerns were and what their needs were heading into the school year. One of the common pieces that kept coming out of those conversations was the need for more professional development. So we’ve provided math professional development. We’ve provided a new ELA tier one curriculum this year, which means it’s the best material to put in front of our students. This is the first year of that new ELA curriculum. Our team has been really proactive and engaged with what’s happening in our classrooms across the district.
Q: And when you talk about the needs that educators need, what else have they expressed?
A: They also talked about it and we’ve started looking into that they need more training in social and emotional learning. Our children that are coming with trauma and coming with some concerns that can create barriers to learning. Our teachers are saying they want to support the children the best we can but they’re not equipped to do that in particular situations. So we are looking at some trauma-informed professional development opportunities.
Q: Is that something that has developed recently?
A: It’s something over the last few years. We are planning and partnering with Cato Parish. They’re a couple years ahead in social and emotional learning. We do have a district team that are planning a visit to see what that looks like in Cato.
On the change in emphasis for improving education
Q: Is there a different emphasis in improving education in recent years?
A: Not that there was a lack of but it’s been different type of support. We had a shift change in curriculum this year. So when you have a shift change you need more support from what we’ve had in the past. It’s like when you have a prescription for eyeglasses, not everyone is going to have the same pair. It can’t be done with a cookie cutter plan. What I do at L.J. Alleman as a former principal will be judged the same way at Edgar Martin.
A: I think there’s more accountability. The expectations are absolutely higher. Regardless of socioeconomic status, the same is expected from our disadvantaged students and all other students. There’s an expectation from our students with disabilities. With the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), it’s fine that every school has an “A” as their school performance score, but ESSA requires that we look at particular subgroups on each campus. What about the minority students? How are they performing? What about the students that are from a lower socioeconomic status? I’ve always believed that all students can learn. For some we have to do an extra intervention, but that’s what we’re supposed to do. What good is an “A” as a school performance score if some students aren’t growing and are not having their needs met.
On school performance scores
Q: What are the factors that go into a school improving versus a school that sees a decline in their school performance scores?
A: Teacher capacity, so how long the teacher has been there, how trained the teacher is. Administration and leadership and just the stability, climate and culture of that school. All of those things will either go in favor of or be a barrier for some in how you improve over time. Our schools that saw growth, you had several teachers there that knew what they needed to do, had a focus in mind and they all made that stride together. Also, your leadership was supportive and stable with clear directions. In schools that we saw needed some more work, it’s about trying to get to that point. They’re still trying to learn their staff and they’re still learning the curriculum. So all of those things go into it.
A: Every school is unique in its culture and their needs. So our team has sat down with every school leadership team and have built specific plans for that school. We looked at the data, we asked them to look at their data and come together to pinpoint weaknesses and big bucket priorities for this year.
Q: How do you believe scores reflect on a school’s improvement?
A: It’s a tangible measurement that shows the growth. And this is why I love that we have this separate component now for growth. You can continue the same score every year but are you really growing? You’re meeting that standard, but did you really grow?
A: It’s an important indicator. It’s how we’re judged. Are there many other factors that go into a school’s performance score? Absolutely. The state just added the progress index as a measure. Part of that now is the student progress index. Let’s say that you come in fourth grade and you have a particular school performance score, the state actually predicts where you should be at the end of that year if you’ve had good, high effective teaching. Some may come in at a lower or higher level but those progress indexes are individualized for each student. Our traditional schools all had an ‘A’ or ‘B’ in that student growth index. That’s significant because that means there’s been good teaching.
On the importance of helping students at a younger age
Q: What are ways to get students ready and on the same educational playing field?
A: It’s the exposure early on. Some students have more access and more resources earlier in their lives. If we can kids on that same level, then that’s huge. Outside of that, in elementary school, we try to identify what needs the students have the first few days of school, like screeners to see what those needs are. The resources, as well, that are there for the social and emotional needs. We have social workers, counselors, outside agencies, tutoring programs.
A: It’s also recognizing that some students enter with so many gaps and they enter kindergarten already far behind. Some schools have larger number of students coming in already behind. What we do on that campus has to look different than what another campus does. I think what we need to do as a district is getting services to children younger. Head Start is something that we’re looking into trying to acquire the license for.
On the role a school’s climate and culture has in improving education
Q: How important is the school’s climate and culture in improving education in the parish?
A: I’ve been doing this for 36 years and have visited many campuses. I had a superintendent one time that said, “You can tell everything you need to know about a school when walk in the front office the first time.” You can absolutely tell from the first time you step on a campus. It’s also about district leaders. It’s when your people know you’re working with them, alongside them and not working over them.
A: I believe that nobody wants to come to work where they’re not happy and not respected or valued. I believe when you have a happy teacher then you have a thriving classroom. It trickles down to other areas and I think that it’s the ultimate part of making the campus have that domino effect.
On Lafayette Parish education and the state’s education rankings
Q: With how the education rankings are in Louisiana, are you happy with what’s going on in Lafayette Parish?
A: I’m very confident in the initiatives that we put in place this year. I’m absolutely confident in what we’re doing right now. Our school leaders and teachers are appreciative of the support that they’re seeing from the district team.