Three weeks into a massive overhaul of Lafayette Parish’s poorest performing high school, students, teachers and outside stakeholders untap a new level of spirit at Northside.
By Heather Miller • Photos by Robin May
When Northside High School’s regionally ranked mock trial team competes for a state title at the upcoming Louisiana mock trial tournament, Principal Melinda Voorhies will undoubtedly be there as the pseudo courtroom scene unfolds.
If the team returns with a state championship in tow as Voorhies excitedly predicts, the proud academic moment probably won’t be featured on the glossy pages of an NHS yearbook for students to commemorate: The high school hasn’t published one since 2008.
The bittersweet reality is symbolic of the road ahead for Voorhies as she and her “SWAT Team” of new administrators lead students, teachers, parents and public stakeholders through an unprecedented turnaround effort under way at Northside High. Lafayette Parish School System Superintendent Pat Cooper, days after taking over full time in February, revealed a $2.1 million academic and facilities plan for NHS, a sweeping attempt to save the school from potential state takeover and illustrate Cooper’s proven model for improving high-poverty, low-performing schools.
As it turns out, Lafayette’s poorest performing high school “is a far cry from terrible.”
At a recent community meeting, Vice Principal Barbara Landor, one of the team
“These kids are perceived to be the bottom of the barrel, but they’re not,” says Voorhies, a lifelong educator Cooper convinced to come out of retirement for the job. “I have never been hugged as much, or had my hand shaken by students thanking me for being here and fixing it so they can learn. That’s huge. In my first two days, I met with 95 students individually, students with referrals, write-ups, behavioral concerns. I wanted to keep them on campus, and those meetings were to see what it would take to do that. At the same time, they have to understand what the expectations are. To break the habit, you have to completely change the rules.”
A discipline overhaul for students is nearing completion at the north Lafayette high school, and new rules are also being established for virtually every person who enters the halls, from students to teachers to even cafeteria and janitorial staff, Voorhies says. One example of Voorhies’ leadership style is a policy that requires the entire student body to read a character-building book of Voorhies’ choosing every month – the same book that teachers, janitors and all other school employees must also read and review.
Northside at the end of a school day
“I think the young people here understand what we’re trying to do and they actually appreciate it,” Voorhies says. “What they’re saying is it’s so much better. We can’t wait to see what’s next. They’re taking ownership. The teachers are taking ownership, too.”
The notably swift progress in Cooper’s first turnaround project comes as no shock to community organizations like the 100 Black Men of Greater Lafayette and the United Way of Acadiana, which banded together three years ago with a number of other civic groups to form the Lafayette Public Education Stakeholders Council and map out concrete public education goals for Lafayette Parish. Never before have central office and the school board been so aligned with the stakeholders working to bridge the divide.
Students changing classes
“We’ve always said students who attend Northside value education — and so do their parents,” says 100 BMGL member Greg Davis. “We just couldn’t convince the school board prior to Cooper that this was the case. They closed [N.P.] Moss [Middle School] because the children couldn’t be educated; [they thought] the parents didn’t care.”
Citing data from a study performed two years ago by the Picard Center for Child Development and Dr. Ronald F. Ferguson of Harvard University, Davis counters that more than 80 percent of the parents and children assessed in four high-poverty north Lafayette schools have post-secondary educational goals.
“It’s no surprise to us that Ms. Voorhies is finding that these children’s attitudes are completely opposite of what she had been led to believe,” Davis says. “That’s not a kid problem. That’s an adult problem. When I was there, Northside was a school you could go and get a great education. There were high expectations. Over time, those expectations began to diminish. That’s the essence of the problem: low expectations from the school system and the community. We were aware, but there was no outrage. Shame on all of us for lowering those expectations.”
From left, District Mock Trial winners Keevy Narcisse and Spencer Harrison
Northside chemistry teacher Frances Shaw has been owning up to the Viking mantra for the past four decades. The past few years have been a different era for the Viking family, she says, which makes the new support staff and the student reactions “overwhelmingly nice.”
“I got so used to being not only the teacher, but the janitor, the psychologist, all of it,” Shaw says. “Anything new would have been welcomed, but now there are other people here caring about the children. The family-like attitude at Northside is creeping back in. It had left for a little while. There was a cold feeling in the hallways, ice cold. It’s only been 15 days, and already it’s like home again. The kids are feeling it. They’re excited. And it’s wonderful. We deserve it.”
A common sentiment among the core group of administrators and LaPESC members is that the school’s dismal academic outcomes have stirred an even greater problem of misperceptions about the student body and school community as a whole.
Greg Davis, below, asks a question at the Northside High School volunteers meeting.
“There are people who care; they just don’t have the resources or they don’t know how to help,” says Patrick Williams, president of 100 Black Men. “We live in a fractured community. There’s a sensitivity here in communication. The first thought is, ‘I don’t trust you,’ because we haven’t seen it in a generation. To this degree of caring about our community, there’s a passion now that’s unprecedented.”
According to Lafayette City-Parish Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux, the misguided assumptions, combined with federal school choice mandates and the district’s own schools of choice program, are costing Northside some of its best and brightest potential students.
“Asking families for their children is critical,” Boudreaux says. “We have a lot of children leaving this community to seek education elsewhere in the parish. And that’s their choice. But we can at least make a pitch to keep them here and let them know the changes that have taken place and the direction we’re going. We should be telling them that we’re just as good if not better than any other place.”
Principal Melinda Voorhies
True, says Davis, though he cautiously warns that “the performance numbers aren’t a perception problem.”
“They’re absolutely unacceptable,” Davis says. “Their graduation rate is 56 percent, and the kids who do get diplomas, too many of them are not ready for college. They’re not doing well on assessments at two-year colleges. They’re having to take remedial classes, and the retention rates on those who pursue post secondary are low. It’s a cycle of low outcomes. Let me be clear: there are great students at Northside, but let’s not kid ourselves.”
School Board member Tehmi Chassion, whose district comprises Northside, can attest firsthand to the low expectations and learning environment that Davis decries. Chassion was valedictorian of his graduating class at NHS. When he started college at LSU, he had to seek help in some of his entry-level subjects.
Chemistry teacher Frances Shaw with students (clockwise from left) Kailan Brown, Destinee Bruno, Jailey Robicheaux and Zanna Smith
“I never made a B at Northside, and I still struggled in my first year of college,” Chassion recalls.
But no matter how the school evolved over time into the “tragedy” Davis says he has witnessed, the immediate visible changes within Northside’s turnaround efforts show a proud body of students “who want a high-quality education.”
“They want the vigor,” Davis says.