Rocking The Boat
● By Aimee Cormier
By Amanda Jean Harris / Submitted Photos
Like a small boat in the ocean making big waves, the seemingly little things that happen in local schools may have a much larger impact. The leaders and students at Arnaudville Elementary School and David Thibodaux STEM Magnet Academy know this.
The two Acadiana schools are among only three in the state of Louisiana named in bestschools.org’s 50 Inspiring Schools Meeting the Challenge. And each face very different obstacles to success.
The Patchwork Quilt
David Thibodaux STEM Magnet Academy could be the sort of place that suffers from a serious lack of cohesiveness and low school moral after the academy was opened in the same building of a school that many considered a failure (NP Moss Middle School). Students attend the school from every corner of Lafayette Parish. It is a School of Choice, meaning students are not zoned for the school — they apply and a certain number are accepted.
“This shouldn’t work because we are not a community, but it does,” says parent Dawn Deare. Her son, Tyler, will be a senior this year. Her sentiments are echoed by a handful of other parents and teachers who arrived on short notice to talk to Acadiana LifeStyle about the school. It took no time for Principal Jeff Debataz to gather a group of stakeholders in Thibodaux, which is evidence of just how enthusiastic they are about the academy.
“This is a private school without the tuition,” says parent Sara Webber who has both children and grandchildren at Thibodaux. “It has all the perks and the benefits of a private school, but it’s like a family reunion.”
The principal says the formula for making the school soar has been one that is simple. Not always easy, but simple. “All the stakeholders are working together,” he says. It starts with the administration, both Debataz and assistant principal Chad Guilllory attend sporting events, spend more time in the halls than crouched over paperwork and truly work to connect with students. “We want to get involved in everything they do,” Guillory says. “Being a part of a school is building a culture. It’s important to ask the students, ‘What’s going on in your life?’”
In addition to the personal connection, teachers like Jessica Aubrey, sixth grade math, work with fellow educators to connect every lesson throughout a student’s learning track.
For example, if the students have a project in one class that means they create a cube, they would infuse that into Aubrey’s math class by determining the volume of the cube.
“We’re always in a group setting,” Aubrey says. “Always preparing them for the real world. In the real world you have to work with people.”
The entire approach of the school is geared toward real world functionality. Debataz is working to eradicate the last of the desks at the school and has added a new wing, which includes a large space just for project creation that is done in groups. Think café settings with bistro tables, large tables for group projects and plenty of space to get real work done. Student Madison Chaney says simply, “Teachers always have something fun. You’re also learning, but it’s actually fun.”
“It’s concrete application,” Debataz says. Instead of teaching on paper only, students are engaging in every class with concepts that produce projects. This foundational approach to teaching has created a connection for students. And when this connection is combined with the personal approach of teachers and admins, the school does feel more like a family unit. On the day we headed out for interviews there were students helping unpack boxes next to teachers for new classrooms in the 36,000-square foot addition. And they were all there because they wanted to be. High school students invested in their own school. There should be a report for that.
It’s the Little Things
Each hour at Arnaudville Elementary School starts with a problem. And it seems to be working for them. “Every day, we start the class period with a problem of the day and that is a test-like item for that subject area that is already in place when they enter the classroom,” says Principal Elsie Semien. “If you work with a test-like problem every day and have more than 100 days before testing the children are acquainted with the way the test questions are written.”
While “teaching to the test” is a longstanding issue with many educators and parents alike, tackling standardized tests is a must in every school. And at Arnaudville, they seem to have found a way to do it with just the right balance. In each class and subject, students are able to analyze what is truly being asked and become acclimated to test language, which can be different than the way many teachers speak. “Teachers in everyday teaching don’t often use the same language the test makers use. We are doing this for LEAP or other commercial items that use the testing language,” she says.
If the question is multiple choice, they discuss every possibility and incorrect option. The actual test question down the road could address just that subject. It is an element of the day that is ungraded and lasts five to six minutes. But it’s just the sort of little thing that’s adding up to send a school that has nearly 80 percent of students eligible for free or reduced lunch leaping two letter grades on the A – F scaled used by the state. At present, they are only three points away from an A.
The test question was optional for teachers until two years ago when Semien noted consistently higher test scores for the teachers who chose to do the question every day. “There were no magic tricks,” Simien says of taking the school to a higher level academically. “Just a lot of hard work and the little things we often take for granted that we didn’t realize would work.”
Another example of a small change creating big waves is switching from six periods a day to seven. The school, which houses grades fifth through eighth grades, now offers an extra period to boost everyone’s experience. There are a number of students that need remediation of some sort or special education programs. In a six-period setting those students would be pulled from a core class or physical education for that help. Simien realized it’s not beneficial to do either. “If a child needs help in math I can’t pull them out of math to get help. They need the full benefit plus the additional help.”
The students who do not require remediation go back to homeroom where they study vocabulary skills and test taking skills. “The more words they know, the better they are able to understand the test,” Simien says.
Professional development is the other key to success along with student moral. Teachers like Colleen Richard, an Arnaudville native, say the school (by any standards rural and smaller in size with just over 200 students) gives opportunity to students they may not ever see otherwise. “Last year eighth graders raised money and went to San Antonio. Some have never been that far out of the state of Louisiana,” she says. Other local events like movies and popcorn at the school or a free carnival are used for positive behavior reinforcement.
“We teach because we are teachers and that is what we are supposed to do, but it’s personal, too,” Simien says. “When you get a school report card you want it to look good.
“When you’re doing the right things for the right reasons you get a reward. No one knew we would be recognized.”