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Caddo school changes finally begin necessary reforms

Yesterday Caddo Parish School District Superintendent Gerald Dawkins got approved to run the parish's school for two more years although with no pay raise. Perhaps the "Vision 2020" plan recently approved by the Caddo Parish School Board that also extended his contract proved decisive here, as through it Dawkins finally decided rearranging deck chairs isn’t enough with the radical realignment program for the hemorrhaging district to save money - even as that only partially fits the bill.

The plan, which closes and consolidates a number of schools, finally acknowledges that doing less with more will not keep the district financially viable. As of the 2008-09 school year, the district had 42,610 students, a decrease of 8 percent from 1999-2000, even as district revenues increased almost 45 percent to $447 million, per pupil spending rose about 16 percent to $9,511, and average teacher salary jumped 17 percent to $47,191 during that span.

But it wasn’t just the hollowing out of the system that compelled to this restructuring. As last fall’s disappointing accountability results indicated, many more schools were falling in danger of their being taken out of district control. As Caddo’s administration has been perhaps the most hostile in the state to the idea that the state or, from its perspective even worse, charter schools take the schools out of Caddo’s portfolio, some dynamiting was in order to prevent in the next few years up to 28 of the district’s 65 schools left being surrendered to presumably less incompetent hands.

Thus, Dawkins’ plan shells out of the system four of the seven Academically Unacceptable schools that are not high schools. All of the Unacceptable schools are being closed, perhaps in a bid to break up atmospheres that have spawned underachievement. Of the four, three middle schools and one elementary, Newton Smith Elementary’s highest grade (fifth) scored the most satisfactory on exams in English and mathematics, with only 61.9 percent and half, respectively, of these students failing to reach a basic level of proficiency.

One of the Watch schools, Hillsdale Elementary, also will shut its doors but the others, with this one totaling four of the fifteen Academic Watch schools besides high schools, are facing consolidation. The best of these, Mrs. Eddie Jones West Shreveport Elementary, has only 50.8 percent of its fifth graders not achieve basic proficiency in English and 49.2 percent of them failing to reach the same in mathematics. Barret Elementary combines with one-star rated Cresswell Elementary, while Jones and Central Elementary combine.

Other consolidations of one- and two-start schools (both meaning underperformance) appear present to pump up numbers. Yet the decision to close Blanchard Elementary seems to be an outlier. It’s a school identified with its city and with three-stars it is an adequate performer – 82.9 percent of its fifth graders achieve basic or better in English and 81.2 percent do so in mathematics. The plan moves these students to Donnie Bickham Middle School, a much newer facility with just enough space to accommodate the burgeoning Blanchard population’s children, which increased about 40 percent in the last decade, instead of renovating and expanding the older Blanchard site. By contrast, Bickham is a one-star laggard.

While this would not indicate that Dawkins has jettisoned entirely his rebranding plan (most of the “theme” schools are either Unacceptable or Watch, including the soon-to-be-closed M.J. Moore Magnet), at least it shows some seriousness finally entering the discussion by heading in the direction of razing failing institutional structures including some of the rebranded schools. However, Dawkins stopped short of dealing with the most conspicuous failures, the high schools.

The system has a five-star (Caddo Magnet), two three-star (in east Shreveport), and a two-star and a one-star (each on the city’s outskirts) high schools, and the remaining six are either Academic Watch or Academically Unacceptable. But all the realignment does is shuffle some students out of some of the failing high schools and then move North Caddo High’s (one star) students to a new K-12 facility along with other north Caddo schools. It also calls for building new K-8 facility in southeast Caddo, the only significantly growing part of the district that might or might not prove cost-effective given travel distances to existing, underutilized schools.

Dawkins, and by implication the school board, still remain unwilling to take the final, necessary steps. They need to reduce political and union influence to make sure that only competent teachers who can pass their subject area tests that need to be given every year or two teach in all schools. They need reduce those same influences in the assigning of teachers to schools. They need to take a zero-tolerance attitude towards discipline to prevent a few bad apples from impeding the majority of Caddo students who want to learn from learning adequately.

Whether any or all of financial imperatives, looming state removal of schools, or his contract ending in August compelled Dawkins to pursue this course, at least it has not followed his penchant for fad. Yet so much more work remains ahead, with little indication that Dawkins and the board as a whole have the necessary seriousness, attitude, or fortitude to bring about the improvement so desperately needed in the district’s schools. It looks as if this attitude now will continue for at least two more years.

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