BATON ROUGE, La. – When Hosanna Christian Academy decided to take on nearly 300 voucher students, they knew many of them would be behind academically. But principal Josh LaSage says he really wasn’t expecting so many of the voucher students to be so far behind.
“We found out that about 85 percent—87 percent—of the students that we got from the public school system were at least 2 grade levels behind where they needed to be,” LaSage says.
To help them catch up, five teachers provide an hour of extra tutoring after school. And the school hired three full-time interventionists and 9 additional aides to pull them out of gym and art and work with them intensively on reading and math.
Four 6th graders are seated around a long folding table in what used to be the boys locker room.
English Language Arts Interventionist Beverly Ortego is working with them on editing.
Ortego says some students are so far behind that she’s had to alter the intervention worksheets to match their age and maturity.
“Their instructional level is very low, and so the material is made for an elementary student. And so often it’ll be the font on the page or a drawing on the page that I’ll have to fix it so that my students at an older age don’t feel like they’re being dummied down,” she explains.
The complexion of Hosanna has changed, but not just because of the voucher students. When LaSage went to school here in the ’80s, he says it was almost all Caucasian. When he became the principal a year and a half ago, it was roughly three-quarters African American. Now with the influx of voucher students, it’s more than 90 percent African American. Some paying parents have left because of it, and LaSage doesn’t think they’re likely to come back.
“You know, research shows that once a place—whatever that place is—reaches 60 percent or more minority, most of the white folks leave,” LaSage explains, adding that helped convince the church congregation to approve the school’s involvement in the state voucher program. “The fact that we were almost exclusively African-American when I got here made that one less hurdle that I had to overcome to convince our stakeholders this is the right thing to do. We’re doing God’s work.”
It’s testing time, and the pressure is on. Voucher students take the same state tests that public school students do. But the testing doesn’t start until the third grade, and the majority of voucher students Hosanna enrolled this fall are in kindergarten, first, and second grade. LaSage says that was intentional.
“We were strategic. We want these children to be able to learn to read and write. If you can’t read, you can’t read the Bible, you understand?” LaSage says. He adds that he’s confident Hosanna can bring these students up to speed. “We believe from a spiritual perspective and an academic perspective — come on — if we can get ‘em young they can be Rhodes Scholars by the time they leave here.”
LaSage tracks student progress in the “War Room”. It’s upstairs, in an old church office. The walls are covered with pocketed charts filled with color-coded cards. The red ones represent students that scored in the bottom 10th percentile at the beginning of the school year. Some cards have been moved up the chart as students improved toward the benchmark for their grade. LaSage says the room shows progress, then he sighs.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do. I’m cautiously optimistic, but I still see a lot of young people who have red cards are not further up the chart like we would like.”
Just a few miles away, there’s a similar “War Room” at Winbourne Elementary. The public school’s methodology for increasing test scores served as the model for what Hosanna is trying to do. Winbourne principal Brenda Wilkinson says she was more than happy to share her strategy with the voucher school.
The entire student body at Winbourne is African-American, and all of the students are poor enough to qualify for free lunch. Many live in foster care, and more than a few are actually classified as “homeless”. Assistant principal Penny Brisco gives an example of the kind of achievement gap they’re trying to overcome.
“Late in the first semester we received two students—ages 6 and 7—who had never, as far as I know, been in a school setting—no pre-K, no kindergarten, no daycare. They had always been at home.”
Brisco says the siblings were placed in the classroom of one of the school’s most nurturing and caring teachers, but even she had a tough time with these kids.
“The teacher would say ‘red’, and they had no clue what she was talking about. She would say, ‘Open the book,’ and they turned it upside down, trying to read it as they saw other children doing.” Brisco adds. “These two kids were purely lacking I academically, socially, you name it—they’re lacking.”
But, Brisco says, the teacher and the staff persevered, coming up with an intervention plan that would help the children catch up. Now, she says, “They have blossomed. And you would never know how far behind they were just a few months ago.”
Over the past four years, under Brenda Wilkinson as principal, Winbourne has managed to increase their students’ average test scores by 40 percent. But the school is rated “failing” by the state. That means Winbourne is a “donor” school to the voucher program, losing students and their per-pupil funding. Wilkinson says she had to cut back from fiver interventionists to just two this year.
“At this point in time no one knows exactly as to what’s going to happen, as to how much of the personnel I will lose here at Winbourne,” Wilkinson says.
And Wilkinson could lose more than just staff—she could lose the school. Winbourne is facing state takeover next year if student test score don’t improve the school’s grade to at least a “D.”
“That’s the scariest part,” says Wilkinson.
Hosanna, on the other hand, has applied for 400 more voucher students next year. If Louisiana’s Supreme Court upholds the lower court ruling finding the funding mechanism unconstitutional, Hosanna stands to lose the $1.4 million in annual tuition for its current voucher students and then some. But Hosanna has no contingency plan.
“I don’t think you can have one,” says Hosanna principal Josh LaSage. “We are pressing on with full faith in our governor, and our legislators, and the good people of the state who support parent choice.”
And even though there’s an “accountability plan” for the voucher program, the consequences of a school’s failure are much different than for public schools.This year’s test scores are establishing a “baseline” measurement for the program, against which next year’s scores will be measured. In the fall of 2014, the state will release a single grade for the voucher program as a whole. Although each participating school will be notified how their voucher students did on the tests, those individual school ratings will not be made public.
If less than half a school’s voucher students do not pass the state high-stakes tests, then that school will be prohibited from taking on any new voucher students the next year. They will still be allowed to keep the kids they already have.