Destrehan’s Ethel Schoeffner Elementary is one of five schools in St. Charles Parish that scored an exemplary rating according to the Louisiana Department of Education’s accountability system for the 2006 to 2007 school year.
To gain an exemplary rating, a school must have at least 75 percent of its participating students meet two or three performance goals from a school improvement plan written by the administrative leader of that school.
“Last year, 91 percent of our fourth grade students scored basic or above on the LEAP test,” Ethel Schoeffner Principal Mary Schmidt said. “A goal that we accomplished from our improvement plan because of the support we receive not only from the teachers and the superintendent of schools, but also from our parent volunteers.”
Beyond the double glass doors, which serve as a gateway for the more than 300 students that attend the school, Schmidt and her staff of teachers and parent volunteers work as a team to motivate, encourage and support the fourth, fifth and sixth grade students to do their best and succeed.
“I knew we were on to something big here when kids were carrying their books to recess,” Schmidt said. ” The children were excited about learning and that showed me that something was working.”
Schmidt said, across the board, the students needed improvement in reading and math, so it’s not surprising to see areas in the school set up to resemble home environments, which gives the students a more relaxed atmosphere, or a parent volunteer lending a hand in math class.
“When the kids go home, where are they reading?” she asked. “They’re not reading at a desk, they’re reading in a relaxed environment.”
Lamitra Wells, a fifth grader who once had difficulty with reading, says the program has already helped her improve in that area.
“I use to have a hard time with re-telling a story,” she said. “What I learned is that if you don’t know a word, think about what it means first in the sentence.
“If you still don’t know it, read on and come back to it,” she continued. “Then, if you still can’t figure it out, circle it in the paragraph, sound it out, write it down, and look it up in the dictionary.”
Schmidt said her goal is to ensure children have reading strategies that will help them gain an understanding of the story and other aspects of life.
Schmidt says the trick to improving school scores and keeping the bar high is to set a course of action and stick to it.
“A lot of times, individuals will popcorn a plan,” she said. “In other words, they look at what someone else did at their school and they will try that, for a little while, and then if they visit another school and see something else, they’ll try that person’s idea. This isn’t consistent and it’s not effective, in my opinion.”
Schmidt said when she works on her school improvement plan, she keeps the course steady, well aware of the fact that the results may not show immediately.
“When we first began to change things, we didn’t see immediate results, but in time the scores began to rise steadily and increase steadily and the school showed continuous growth and improvement,” she said. “My assistant principal, Lisa Coates, and I greet the student’s everyday. We don’t know what kind of night they’ve had, or what kind of morning, so it’s important for us and for them to see consistency with us when they walk through the doors.”
Failure is not an option for the teachers or students. Schmidt says she works hard to ensure that there are always resources available that lead to improvement.
“If I come up with a new teaching strategy and need materials, I talk with Ms. Schmidt, and we have unlimited resources through central office and the school board ensures we have anything we need,” Sally Goodman, a first-year teacher at the school said. “This is different from other parishes I’ve worked at where the resources to support the children weren’t as readily available.”
Goodman said she doesn’t feel the pressure to perform because of changes in accountability standards across the state. And having the support of other veteran teachers at the school like Paula Robichaux , a math and science instructor, and an educator in the parish for over 17 years, helps tremendously with any tough spots.
“I’ve taught just about every type of student you can imagine,” Robichaux said. “So, when teachers ask me for help or how did you get the kids to learn this particular thing, I always have an idea and hopefully it will help. We have so much support from our school’s administrative team and our school board office that teachers come to the school and stay and never want to leave.”
Another interesting method to help students learn is an emphasis on physical education.
“Our students get plenty of exercise daily,” Schmidt said. “It’s hard on rainy days and you can see the difference in the kids when they can’t go outside and play,” she continued.
Schmidt’s students keep fitness journals and the student who does the most sit-ups, pull-ups and push-ups at the end of year wins an award.
Last year’s winner was Justin Pfister, a sixth grader.
“I won the National Physical Fitness award last school year,” Pfister said. “The exercises I do at school help build my endurance for baseball and other sports I participate in.”
The school’s improvement plan for this school year includes extended tutoring times for the students, and matching the faces with the test scores for kids who are having difficulties.
“We know what the student data tells us about the kids who are struggling, but now its time to put the faces with the numbers,” Schmidt said. “Who are these kids, what are their backgrounds, what kinds of intervention and support system do they need in place to make a difference?”
This allows the teachers to identify the students who are having difficulty and allows the staff to come up with ways to help those students improve.
“The superintendent’s plan is for the children to be identified that are struggling, and then for teachers to write a plan to help them to achieve reachable goals by the end of the first quarter, all the way throughout the year, building on their lifetime and future goals,” Schmidt said. “And as we move forward, hopefully all of our children will continue to be successful and make progress.”