By Carolyn Roy and Juanice Gray

The school board will explore a four-day week for one year with implementation possible the following year at the request of board member Billy Benefield Jr. Board member Beverly Broadway amended Benefield’s proposal to “explore all effective strategies to retain and attract teachers.” The four-day week will be only one aspect of the study.

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Benefield began the discussion at the committee meeting Tuesday with the board voting to move forward at the regular meeting Thursday. Benefield believes there needs to be a change in the school system to attract and retain certified teachers. As of March 12, there were 364 certified teachers, 12 with practitioner licenses, three with temporary authority to teach licenses, 10 who are contracted certified teachers and 79 long-term substitutes.

Long term subs are those filling positions where certified teachers are not available according to Personnel Director Linda Page. The numbers were provided to the board by Page. She said that 50 of the 79 long-term subs are working toward some type of degree or certification. Of the 50, 34 received vouchers from a local community group to take the Praxis. Page said those teachers who did not get the vouchers are reimbursed when they pass the Praxis. Those attending classes receive $1,000 per semester for tuition. They get considerable raises and benefits when they are certified.

Page said Thursday that principals gave out applications and information for the vouchers, but not many accepted the offer. “People are not interested enough to fill them out. We are giving them the offers but we can’t make them fill the forms out,” she said. Benefield told Supt. Dale Skinner that he had met with him in December and asked him to talk one-on-one with teachers to find out “what’s going on.”

“I gave you a blueprint on what to do and nothing’s happened,” Benefield said. “I told you if you can’t do it, it will be a tough deal for me.” Benefield said the public had lost faith in the last board that had no leadership, blew through $7 million in reserves and closed a school. “We’ve got to turn this parish around.”

According to Benefield, the number of long-term subs has grown from 40 two years ago and 57 one year ago to 79 this year. “There is a sense of urgency,” he said Thursday.

Board member Beverly Broadway asked for the results of exit surveys by those leaving the system and a survey of other parishes to compare the turnover rates. She wants to find the main reasons why teachers leave and asked what was being done to retain teachers. Skinner said what most teachers wanted was a safe environment and good principal. He said the system has implemented programs to send problem students to classes where they can still learn but also work on behavior. The system also offers support and praise to teachers.

Principal Micah Nicholson said Thursday that implementing a four-day week next year would be detrimental to students and staff. “This would be a major change in scope and sequence and to curriculum. There needs to be community forums and surveys. Consider a one year study to research. Make sure it’s the right change.”

Principal Jennifer Martin said, “The grade banding is showing results, but we need to have time to get the grade banding fully in place.”

Board member Reba Phelps called Benefield out for talking to board members one at a time rather than in a group setting. “Don’t introduce things that cause chaos. It could have been discussed, then we could come up with a plan then present it to the public. The right time (to do anything) is after exhaustive research.”

Benefield believes a four-day week could attract and retain teachers, decrease absences, add time for meetings and reduce substitute pay. He said financial savings and better test scores may be other benefits. Skinner was somewhat skeptical of asking teachers to add 40-50 minutes to their days from Tuesday through Friday.

Director of Curriculum Susan Horn said the proposed 50 minutes each day would not meet state requirement. “The curriculum team looked at options and the bare minimum would be 65 minutes of instruction time,” she said. She also addressed the possibility of utilizing Mondays for remediation. “The 212 program grant stipulation that remediation must be at a minimum number of schools and a minimum of three days per week, for two hours each session. This effectively eliminates the Monday remediation possibility. Horn said social and emotional needs, as well as academics need to be considering factors in any change. She said the timing right now for proposing any change was not good. “This proposal comes at a time when teachers are preparing for testing. They are all very stressed,” she said.

Principal Sandy Irchirl polled her teachers for input. They laid out five ways to obtain and retain certified teachers.

They are:

•Smaller class sizes

•In-school detention

•More teacher for electives

•Do not cut any positions

•Pay raises

Board member Emile Metoyer said he would not favor extending the day of the students who ride buses on those four days.

Metoyer wants the board to begin a feasibility study on reopening the school at Cloutierville. At a recent meeting, Metoyer said some 60 people who are interested in reopening the school attended. He believes the enrollment could be at high as 150 students with the 90-100 who attend Provencal and some 20 on Bermuda Road. He says the 150 does not include students who live at Point Place and Natchez. He says there are a number of students who live in the southern most part of the parish and attend schools in Rapides Parish. When the school board voted to close the school, the enrollment was about 125. Skinner said if the school were to reopen, he would have to reassign two teachers from every school to Cloutierville.

Skinner said he could conduct a signup of parents who would send their students to Cloutierville. The board voted to have an architect do a high level estimate at no charge. In other business, Hart Construction of Hooks, Texas submitted the winning bid of $160,000 to abate the asbestos and demolish the building that was formerly the magnet school. AirTech will charge an additional $25,000 to manage the demolition and monitor the air quality.

The board learned Thursday that there is the possibility of obtaining funding for the project. They accepted the bids, with the contingency that should funding come through, it would be used on the project. Skinner said he should know something on the funding in about a month. There is no time frame yet on when the project will begin nor how long it will take.

The Thursday meeting concluded on a positive note. Assistant Principal Mary Nicholson provided a report on the banding initiative at LP Vaughn. She said a reading specialist was in place in 40 students over 30 levels of growth had been achieved.

She said there have been fewer referrals and a “drastic reduction in the number of students needing additional services.” “Small wins equal huge successes and our teachers deserve recognition,” she said.