The residual ills of Louisiana’s failing education system are many, and for far too long, remedying the problem has been left on the shoulders of the criminal justice system.That was the message delivered by Dr. Pat Cooper, superintendent of the Lafayette Parish School System, who spoke Wednesday during the IND Monthly/IberiaBank Lecture Series.
Speaking to a packed house inside the Picard Early Learning Center, Cooper addressed what he considers the most pressing issue facing Lafayette — its public school system.
“The root of all good and the root of all evil is the public school system,” Cooper says.
Cooper should know. When he took the job as superintendent in January, he found himself in an under performing school system still controlled by the “good ole boy network.” Faced with an over-employed administrative office, a dwindling belief that all children can learn, and a system that allowed bad teachers to keep their jobs, it didn’t take long for Cooper to start stepping on some toes.
The main problem, Cooper says, is the 30 percent dropout rate in Lafayette Parish.
“Lafayette has the highest rate of incarceration in the state, Louisiana has the highest rate of incarceration in the country, and the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world,” says Cooper, quoting Lafayette City Court Judge Francie Bouillion,
Cooper, referencing state Department of Public Safety and Corrections data, says between 1999 and 2009, the inmate population in Lafayette Parish jumped 47 percent, which cost the Sheriff’s Office’s Corrections Division more than $18 million in 2009 alone. The average annual cost of imprisonment for just one Lafayette inmate is $20,000, whereas the average annual cost to educate just on Lafayette child is only $9,000.
“If children don’t come to school ‘ready to learn’ and consequently don’t finish school, the public school system fails, and if the public school system fails, all of the other public systems are overloaded and fail,” argues Cooper. “The health care system fails, the mental health system fails, the corrections system fails. If the public systems fail, the drag on the economy is immense with less skilled workers, less productivity, higher unemployment, more crime, and higher taxes to pay for higher costs to run the already failing public systems.”
At the forefront of Cooper’s turn-around plan is a push to graduate 100 percent of the students to enter the system. He’s not even concerned about the fact that Lafayette’s state rating recently jumped from a C to a B. Cooper wants to make Lafayette’s public schools more like families, which he believes will mend the severed connection with the students.
“We’ve got to create families in the schools, because these children may not have families out there,” Cooper says.
One upcoming endeavor, which Cooper says may sound revolutionary to some, will be the start of a Teen Pregnancy Program at Northside High School. Northside also will soon offer medical, dental and mental health care services to students and parents. There are even plans to open a child care center for teen mothers and teachers, says Cooper.
To prove his plan works, Cooper points to a similar program used during his time as superintendent of the McComb School System in Mississippi.
In 1997, only 11 percent of the McComb system’s students had a reading level on par with their grade. By 2003, that figure jumped to 90 percent of the students. Juvenile arrests also were impacted during that period, going from about 350 in 1998 to less than 100 in 2005. Likewise, the system’s graduation rates went from a little more than 75 percent in 1997 to about 98 percent in 2006.
“No more mediocrity,” Cooper promises. “No longer will we just move around bad teachers from school to school.”
Cooper says his plan of change is about 20 percent complete, and adds support will be critical, from both the school board and from the community.
Getting Lafayette’s school system where it needs to be is going to cost a little more than $48 million, $30 million of which will come from a state issued bond. Covering the remaining $18 million will be up to both the school board and the people of Lafayette, the superintendent says.
Lafayette School Board President Shelton Cobb echoed Cooper, saying the success of Lafayette schools will hinge on community support.
“We had schools low performing for too long and that is something we can no longer tolerate,” says Cobb.
Among the hundreds who attended Wednesday’s lecture was Ron Cormier, superintendent of instruction for the Iberia Parish School System.
“I’m here out of curiosity,” Cormier says. “Just to look at our neighboring parishes and see what they're doing, because we’re all facing similar challenges. It’s going to take talking across parish lines to solve the issues I think we face throughout the Acadiana community.”