Nathan Wilson | Reporter
A year after school districts nationwide recorded steep declines in student achievement, Natchitoches community members from organizations ranging from the Chamber of Commerce to the Service League are making it their mission to help students succeed. A few standout programs are below.
The Natchitoches Parish Library is at the forefront of efforts to supplement school instruction with after school and summer programs to help children improve their academic skills. It hosts two tutoring programs and other activities designed to enhance students’ enjoyment of academic topics.
Alan Niette, community outreach coordinator at Natchitoches Parish Library, described tutoring services the library offers to younger students. “Through fifth grade, every weekday until we close we have students from NSU that come and offer tutoring in basic reading and math.” He also indicated that the library hosts tutoring offered by the school board. “They have a grant that they received to provide after school tutoring… but we are the place that they actually meet to provide that tutoring service.”
For older students, Niette pointed to test preparation resources like Learning Express, which provides practice for the SAT and ACT exams, and digital resources such as Homework Louisiana. “There’s a live tutor that students can work with, and that’s actually available all the way up through college level courses,” he said.
Darlene Weems coordinates the library’s children’s programs and has seen the challenges students face firsthand. “Sometimes we see kids come in that are having a little bit of trouble with math, but this year it’s been more reading and comprehension,” she noted. She points out that students faced disruption to their learning as schools closed and students quarantined. “(Schools) shutdown for a week or two at a time and kids just lose a lot when that happens, especially young kids,” she remarked.
Weems points out the importance of helping students feel successful. “Even if it’s just a little bit of improvement, sometimes that’s enough to give the child the self confidence to know that they can keep improving,” she began. “Sometimes they just get discouraged with themselves, so when they begin to improve it kind of helps it move along even quicker.”
Weems designs programs to interest students in academic and extra-curricular subjects and offer enrichment beyond the standard school day. “The STEM nights that we’re doing are very popular,” she said. Weems also pointed to a new yoga program that promotes fitness. “That’s my newest thing that we’ve started that the kids are just loving. They love the yoga and their parents are loving it.” While the connection between yoga and academic performance isn’t immediately obvious, studies show that physical activity helps students concentrate in school and get better grades in reading and math.
Niette points out that library programs offer a reason for students to visit. “Any need or desire we see in our community, kids to adults, we try to find a way to draw those people in,” he remarked. Library activities also provide children with opportunities to continue their education beyond the school day and during breaks. Weems is already looking forward to the summer reading program. “This year’s theme is Oceans of Possibilities, so I’m gearing up for that,” she said.
Summer programs will be too late to show up in students’ 2022 test scores, but they mitigate the loss of academic skills students experience every year when school is out. Harriette Palmer, associate director of Northwestern State’s ADVANCE Program, revealed her students get ahead of their upcoming curriculum by earning credit for a high school course of their choice. “They come for three weeks, and they’re in class for 108 hours, and they finish the equivalent of a year of high school (credit) or a semester of college.”
Palmer notes that the program’s goal is to accelerate student’s learning rather than supplement it. “Whatever course they enroll in, they need to have a strong aptitude in that area. They don’t need to come here and get better at it, they need to come here and be able to master it,” she explained. The students she recruits are identified as gifted, so she tailors the program to students who enjoy school. “A lot of those kids want to learn year round. They don’t like taking the summer off; they want to be in class,” she said.
As a residential program, students at ADVANCE live on the Northwestern campus for the duration of the program, but Palmer points out that a number of local students attend too. “It’s not uncommon for us to have, say five to seven kids, who are from Natchitoches. They know about it… They have a friend who went here or a sibling.” She reflected on the impact she sees on the students who attend. “They have a lot of things in common when they get here,” she said. “Really they blossom.”
Boys and Girls Club of Acadiana is planning a ribbon cutting ceremony for their Natchitoches branch March 21. The director, De’Andrea Sanders, was a teacher before joining Boys and Girls Club. She described the academic support provided by the club as holistic, “We’ll have homework help. We call it power hour,” she said. “If they don’t have homework, they get to play an academic game.” Discussing how Boys and Girls Club activities support student learning she offered an example. “I’m a science teacher, so we’ll be doing science experiments… (whether) they’ll line up with every school, every teacher, what unit they’re in, probably not, but it all pours into the same pot.”
Sanders explained that her role at the club offers opportunities to help her students in ways a classroom wouldn’t. “As a teacher you help kids, but in this type of program you can definitely tailor and see things that a school system can’t catch,” she said. She posed the opportunity at the club as a question. “Does this set of kids like art more than they like STEM, or do they like STEM more than they like the recreation part? So we can figure out how to tailor the program exactly to the youth that’s going to be coming.” She also pointed to other skills students learn at the club. “We’re helping them with their social skills, helping them learn life skills,” she said. “I really love creating programs for kids who really need it.”
Individuals and organizations across Natchitoches are dedicated to seeing Natchitoches students succeed, but their progress is gradual. Weems is optimistic that students’ academic performance will recover, but notes that it may take a while. “Hopefully within the next year or two (test scores) will pick back up,” she began. “Every little bit helps, whether it’s somebody in the family helping the child or if they can bring them to the library for tutoring.”
Nathan Wilson | Reporter