An intensive study commissioned by the Northshore Business Council seeks to understand how the St. Tammany Parish School System’s performance rating has slipped in recent years, an election-year move illuminating the influential group’s vested interest in the education system that boasts a nearly-half-billion-dollar operating budget.
The study was sent to all candidates running for St. Tammany School Board seats in the Nov. 8 elections, along with a pledge asking the candidates to support a more transparent and accountable school system.
The pledge asks candidates for their support across 10 areas, including early childhood education, federal funding related to pandemic learning loss and school choice.
Business group’s focus
As the parish’s largest employer, the St. Tammany public school system is a key focus area for the business council, an invitation-only league of about 70 business leaders across the north shore.
“People move to St. Tammany because of the school system. We wanted to find out why we are where we are,” said attorney Ross Lagarde, president of the council.
Conducted by Southeastern Louisiana University’s Business Research Center, the 96-page study seeks to analyze how St. Tammany stands against higher-performing districts, both in Louisiana and outside the state. The “aspirational” — or high-performing — districts used in the study including Livingston, Ascension and Plaquemines parishes, as well as out-of-public school districts in suburban Atlanta, Nashville and Charlotte, North Carolina.
Since 2010-2011, St. Tammany has fallen from a No. 4 state ranking to a No. 18 state ranking, below the top 25 percent of Louisiana schools.
“We have the highest ACT testing rates, but other parishes are teaching to pass LEAP,” said Lagarde.
Recent test scores released by the Louisiana Department of Education show that less than half of public school students in grades 3-8 across the New Orleans metro area are adequately prepared for the next grade level, prior to and after the pandemic.
Pandemic learning loss
Statewide, school districts are playing catch-up and managing the impact of pandemic-related learning loss. Out of the seven public school systems in the metro New Orleans area, St. Tammany was the only district that didn’t show an improvement in LEAP scores from 2021 to 2022.
Nonetheless, St. Tammany, one of the largest districts in the state with around 37,000 students, still ranked second in the metro area with 42% of students scoring at the mastery level of above on LEAP tests. That was tied with Plaquemines Parish and 1 percentage point behind St. Charles Parish. The statewide average was 31%.
St. Tammany also excels in ACT testing and college readiness, according to the report. And school district officials said that’s important to note.
“The ACT is what sends our kids to college. It’s what pays for our kids to go to technical school and community college tuition free and St. Tammany Parish is No. 1,” St. Tammany schools Superintendent Frank Jabbia said.
Earlier this week, the business council had an in-person meeting with school officials, the first under Jabbia’s tenure, and they discussed plans to address performance concerns. Jabbia, who became superintendent in October 2020, said that in working to improve state testing issues, their focus has been on realigning a disjointed curriculum plagued by community pushback against Common Core standards since 2016.
“We’ve had to hodgepodge our curriculum for a long time,” he said. “A big problem is all of these different curriculums. And when you move from one grade span to another, those teachers have to start all over.”
In addition to St. Tammany, the report probed the performance of three other north shore school districts — Tangipahoa Parish, Washington Parish and Bogalusa city schools. St. Tammany, the largest parish of the four with the lowest poverty rates, was the only north shore school district in the top half of Louisiana performance rankings.
The study showed that Tangipahoa Parish dropped from 47th in 2017 to 58th in 2019. Washington Parish and Bogalusa City ranked 40th and 68th in 2019. All three districts had lower household incomes and higher poverty rates than St. Tammany, which the report said were the strongest factors found relative to school performance.