Academy director banks on big academic showing

Deidre Cruse
Alison Adams, arts department chair at the Math, Science and Arts Academy – Westside, gives pointers to student Skylar Edwards. Adams’ ninth grade class is learning to draw the human form in preparation for drawing portraits.

The 250 children comprising the first student bodies of the East- and Westside Math, Science and Arts Academies are enjoying educational opportunities unique to Iberville Parish – and their grades are showing it, says Elvis J. Cavalier.

“We’ve been very busy. We hope all this translates into higher [standardized test] scores,” said Cavalier, the parish school system’s director of special projects, is in charge of the two academy programs.

“I’ve made the very bold statement that 25 percent of students will score advanced or mastery,” Cavalier said. Currently, he noted, only two percent of local students score above “basic” on the state’s standardized tests.

The academy program includes 192 students at the Westside campus at E. J. Gay School and 58 at the Eastside campus, housed in temporary quarter at the St. Gabriel Community Center site. Students were chosen by a lottery for the program, which started with the seventh, eighth and ninth grades this year, and will be expanded by two grades next year.

Cavalier said here have been a few rough patches – but no campus fights -- in combining students from 15 different schools.

“With students from 15 different situations, you can anticipate a few issues,” the director said. “For the most part, they are getting along.”

The students were drawn Iberville’s eight public schools, St. John School in Plaquemine, the LSU Lab School and various other public and private schools in the area. In some cases, parents had been sending their children to public schools in East and West Baton Rouge and Assumption parishes, though he said he had “no idea” how they had arranged that.

As word has spread about the program, Cavalier finds himself in possession of a rapidly growing waiting list. He pointed to a letter from a woman who wanted to get her first and fourth graders into the program.

Academy students have the advantage of having their own laptop computers for school and home use, the set-up for which cost some $400,000. The laptops are in use in nearly every class for taking notes, doing power points, working math programs and myriad other uses, Cavalier said.

“So far, none has been lost or stolen,” he said.

The school also has such facilities as first-rate science laboratories and arts classes including music, visual arts and dance.

Cavalier introduced the academy’s art department chair, Alison Adams, also known as the “art lady,” whom he said he “stole” from the East Baton Rogue Parish school system.

“Stole or saved,” Adams remarked.

“It’s refreshing to teach not having to spend 90 percent of my time on discipline,” Adams said.

Adams said her ninth grade art class began studying still life drawing and now is studying drawing the human form in preparation for drawing portraits.

Eighth grade art students are learning perspective in drawing by doing street designs, she said. Since it can be any street, some are using their laptops to find places to draw.

Seventh graders, doing samplers with the alphabet and a quote, are using their laptops to help find fonts.

Students learn the history of each project before they start, the teacher said, and learn life skills through critiques of their work.

“They don’t have to like what other people say, but they can respect it,” she said.

While students draw, the class can discuss just about anything, Adams said.

All the work is in preparation for a big art show in April.

Art students also will provide backdrops for “Talent Machine” productions. The Art Club, which Adams sponsors, produced the decorations for a pumpkin party for Fall Fest, and will make ornaments for the school’s Christmas tree in the lobby.

Like other groups of academy students, the young artists will have opportunities for field trips.

A group of ninth graders recently returned from a Renaissance festival in Plantersville, Texas, with English I teacher Emily Weathers. They got a glimpse of life in medieval times, from jousting to amusement rides operated with ropes, rather than machines.

The seventh graders in the program just returned from a trip to a coastal Louisiana swamp as part of “Ocean Commotion,” a marine education program offered through LSU, Cavalier said. Right after Christmas break, the students will return to plant seedlings of swamp plants to help with coastal restoration. They also will write about their experience as part of the LSU Writing Program with Dr. Elizabeth Willis.

“It might seem small, but it’s a beginning,” the director said of the restoration program.

Cavalier has written a children’s book on environmentalism, was named Louisiana Conservationist of the Year in 1999 under Gov. Mike Foster, and was named National Environmental Educator of the Year in 2000. Hands-on experiences in the swamp studying everything from water quality to alligators are a regular part of the academy program, and of the school system’s summer program.

Last week, 36 Westside academy students participated in Baton Rouge’s Big Buddy Word Play Teen Writing project, with their teachers, Weathers and Paula Perrault. MSA ninth graders Destinee Hamilton and Sheila Turner performed at the “Freshhh Heat” open mic night, a monthly presentation at the BREC Administrative Building at 6201 Florida Boulevard. Hamilton is preparing a new selection for the session at 6:30 p.m. tonight (Thursday).

Cavalier plans to take students who score at advanced and mastery levels on the spring Louisiana Education Assessment Program (LEAP) tests to Disney’s Youth Education Services (YES) Program, where they get to see how things work behind the scenes at Disneyworld.

“I’m hoping to have to get two big buses,” the director said.

He has some reason for hope.

After the first nine weeks, some 50 percent of the student body has earned at least a 3.5 grade-point average on the usual four-point scale, Cavalier said. That includes one percent with perfect 4.0 averages and six percent with averages of 3.75-3.99 percent.

To be invited back to the academy program next year, students must have at grade-point averages of at least 2.5, he noted.

Currently, 28 percent of the students are not in compliance, Cavalier. Of those, 14 percent have at least 2.0 averages.

“You’re looking at 12 percent in academic jeopardy,” he said.

Cavalier noted that was an improvement from the first year of the program he started in St. James Parish, where 33 percent didn’t make the grade.

“We have students here all day,” he explained. In St. James, we only had half a day. The whole-day experience just works so much better.”

.Ninth graders from the Iberville Parish Math, Science and Arts Academy just returned from a two-day trip to a Renaissance festival in Plantersville, Texas. Among those making the trek with English I teacher Emily Weathers are, from left, Blaise Sylvester, Erin Martinez, Taylor Devillier and Nicole Settoon.