Real School Reform — What Will It Take? Part 1.

by theschoolprincipal on March 8, 2011

My friend and former classmate, John Sachs, writes a weekly column in the Ruston Daily Leader in Ruston, Lousiana, which is in the north central part of the state along the 1-20. John is a retired CPA who likes to dabble in figures, especially when he’s investigating data in order to substantiate someone’s research — or in order to solve problems. I grew up in Ruston many years ago, so I know it well.  I don’t know what it is about  Ruston — but Ruston people don’t often whine and complain. A problem is something to be  fixed. In Ruston, they just get ‘er done.

In addition to working with Save Our Schools & National Call to Action, I want to move the conversation in my blog toward  what we mean by REAL school reform and what it will require. Not the silliness of all the truly meaningless testing required by No Child Left Behind, not the privatization of public schools with taxpayers’ money. (Capitalism indeed! Where’s the risk in that?)

Real school reform will require community support, which is a powerful resource. Real school reform requires people like Ruston’s Assistant District Attorney, Andy Shealy; retired school principal, Patsy Pesnell Bullock; and District Attorney, Bobby Levy.

Congress believes that local communities are  incapable of improving their schools. Congress and Washington, in their wisdom, believe that one broad, sweeping, punitive law, No Child Left Behind combined with President Obama’s Race to the Top –legislation that micromanages every public school in the country whether it needs it or not —  is the  way to improve our schools.

I say not. Yes, we need the additional funding that Congress has provided for 50 years. But real reform will depend upon the caliber and dedication of  local people who are willing to put time and energy into solving problems.  Here you are. One piece of the puzzle that you can adapt and modify to your own local community –unlike federal legislation where solutions are top-down and where we all must  march to the tune of the same drummer.

First, kids have to come to school. And if you can get them in the habit of doing so from an early age, then that’s 95% of the battle. Who said “95% of  success in life is simply showing up”? So true.

One Reason for the Success of  Ruston’s Local Public Schools

by John Sachs

A number of schools in Lincoln and Union Parishes have recently received well-deserved compliments and awards. The spotlight shines primarily on Ruston High’s New Tech program, but many other programs and other schools deserve their place in the sun as well.

In the limited discussions that I’ve held with administrators and faculty, they are both quick to give credit to the other. I can only conclude from this that a good working relationship between the two exists. Most folks would agree that it is collaboration that leads to the greatest progress when working toward school improvement.

But how effective are innovative teaching methods if there are no students to take advantage? Without students, great teachers don’t get much accomplished. And to carry this train of thought quickly to its final conclusion, without an educated population, a nation stumbles and falls.

A recent Ruston Daily Leader article mentioned that Ruston High School should be most proud of having achieved a 95% attendance level for all students. When I read that statistic, I had to stop and catch my breath. That’s an amazing achievement. I’m uncertain what the attendance level was just two or three short years ago, but by comparison, it was dismal. So being the “curious kitty” that I am, I set about to discover how such an amazing transformation could be accomplished. Was it due to the sparkling renovated facility that the citizens of Lincoln Parish wisely and generously made possible by approving the necessary financing? Well, yes, to some extent I’m certain that it did. Was it the skilled faculty that Principal Mike Milstead has assembled? Again, yes, to a certain extent. Was it due to the effective new programs and teaching methods and procedures that have been recently adopted? Okay, again to a certain extent, yes. But the real reason for the phenomenal attendance growth is, to my understanding, something far more understandable. And that is law enforcement.

By law enforcement, I am not referring to uniformed police officers showing up at a truant’s home and carting him or her off in the paddy wagon. I’m talking about the excellent truancy programs initiated by District Attorney Bob Levy. The establishment in 2002 of the Truancy Assessment Service Center (TASC) was designed by Assistant D.A. Andy Shealy and is coordinated by retired elementary school principal Patsy Bullock. For both of these folks, this has been a labor of love.

The programs are designed and directed first at children in kindergarten through sixth grade and then grades 7 through 12. The object is to identify which students are habitually absent. Then a study is made in consultation with the truant child’s parents or guardians as to reasons why the child is not attending school. This discovery process is handled gently in order to get to the real reason(s) that the child is absent. It could be for lack of clothing, transportation, homelessness and other causes other than just irresponsible parents. When it is discovered that these social ills are preventing the child from attending school, the TASC works with other agencies in the area to try to remedy the problems. And they are doing so with much success.

But where irresponsible parenting is the reason for a student’s absences, then applying the District Attorney’s legal powers to force compliance or suffer the consequences provides a very big stick that promotes  responsible parenting – which then results in improved school attendance. That is what I mean by law enforcement.

Even though the program is relatively new, Mrs. Bullock and her small but enthusiastic staff have addressed 1056 individual cases in the 2009-2010 school year alone. Of those, 779 cases were successfully closed, 75 were carried over to the 2010–2011 school year and 202 cases were closed due to family relocation, inability to locate, reversion to home schooling or death. Thus far in the 2010-2011 school year, slightly over 600 cases have been addressed. The reduced recidivism rate bears witness to the program’s success.

So how does the success of this truancy program affect high school attendance? Word of the program spreads and parents take advantage of program assistance in order to help their children feel good about attending school. And, of course, the word has spread that if you don’t get your child to school, the long arm of the law will reach out and touch you in a not-so-gentle manner.

Congratulations and much appreciation goes to D.A. Bob Levy, Assistant D.A. Andy Shealy, and especially to Patsy Bullock, the one in the trenches fighting the day-to-day battles. Take the time to thank these folks for a job very well done.


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