Vouchers Threaten Public School's Turnaround

Mar 19, 2013
Originally published on March 19, 2013 6:02 pm

The state Supreme Court hears arguments Tuesday in a case against the statewide school voucher program.

At issue is whether private school tuition can be paid for with the funds that would otherwise go to struggling public schools.

At Hosanna Christian Academy, the tuition is being used in the battle to bring voucher students up to grade level. Hosanna's intervention strategies were inspired by the turnaround efforts at public Winbourne Elementary.


Brenda Wilkinson is principal of Winbourne Elementary School in Baton Rouge, she calls the preparations for state testing, "war time", because so many students at Winbourne are so far behind state norms.

The state rates Winbourne Elementary as failing. That doesn't tell the whole story, however.

Winbourne students are all African American, and all poor enough to qualify for free lunch. Assistant Principal Penny Brisco gives an example of what that really means for students, teachers, and the entire school staff.

“We received two students, later on in the school year, ages 6 and 7. As far as I know, who had never been in a school setting—no pre-K, no kindergarten, no daycare—children who had just come to us from home.”

Briso says both students — siblings — were placed in the classroom of one of the school's most nuturing and caring teachers — but even she had a tough time with these kids.

“She would say ‘red’. They had no clue what she was talking about. She would say, ‘Open the book.’ They turned it upside down and tried to read it as they saw other children doing. Purely lacking academically, socially—you name it—they’re lacking," Brisco said.

But that teacher persevered, and came up with an intervention strategy — a plan to help them fit in and catch up. They were tested and their lacks assessed, then they got one-on-one instruction for those gaps. They were re-tested and taught individually anew.

“They have blossomed. They continue to grow," Brisco said. "The entire faculty has just wrapped their arms around these children. When we see a problem, when we see a need, we address it. We don’t run from it.”

Principal Wilkinson adds that unlike the voucher schools, Winbourne can't hand problem students back.

“There are many of them who left Winbourne, going to one of the parochial schools or the schools that were taking the vouchers, and later on, you’ll see those children back.”

Although Wilkinson shared her "war time" intervention strategy with Hosanna Christian Academy, a voucher school, Winbourne's principal is worried the voucher program is draining the public school funding that supports WInbourne's student interventions.

“At this point in time no one knows exactly as to what’s going to happen, as to how much of the personnel I will lose here at Winbourne.”

Even though Wilkinson's team has brought Winbourne's scores up 40 percent over the past four years, the school's consistent "F" rating means state takeover is a possibility.

But for voucher schools, student failure on standardized tests only means they will become ineligible for additional voucher students two years from now.

The Southern Education Desk is a public media consortium exploring the challenges and opportunities for education in the region.

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