MSA wins national award

Deidre Cruse

The nation's largest magnet school association has selected the three-year-old Iberville Math, Science and Arts Academy-West for its top honor, the Magnet School of Excellence Award, school officials learned last week.

“Education wise, I don't know of any [thing] bigger that Iberville Parish has accomplished,” said Elvis J. Cavalier, academic officer for the school system and director of the academy since its inception.

Magnet Schools of America chose the MSA-West for the honor based on a theme of “Cultivating an Academic Family in a Digital Environment,” explained in a detailed application describing a supportive environment preparing students to compete globally.   MSA-West was only Louisiana high school to rate the excellence award, though four of the state's elementary magnet schools also won.

“I told the School Board we'd do it in five years,” Cavalier said.” I didn't think we would do it in three.”

Notice of the honor has been added to the school's official stationary, and soon will be up on its marquis. Cavalier is sending out a letter this week congratulating the students, parents, faculty, staff and supporters on the achievement.

“This is an amazing accomplishment for our school, our teachers and students who worked very hard to make our city on the hill,” said MSA Assistant Director Alicia Franklin.

Magnet Schools of America's executive director, Dr. Robert G. Brooks, notified Cavalier last week by letter.

“This is the top category of awards given by Magnet Schools of America, and is based on a commitment to high academic standards, curriculum innovation, successful diversity efforts, and the consistent delivery of high education to students,” Brooks wrote.

Cavalier said he, Superintendent P. Edward Canine Jr. and four MSA teachers would attend the organization's national conference May 17 in Indiana to receive the award. They also will provide an exhibit for the 1,000 conference participants.

“It's a big highlight for the superintendent,” Cavalier said. “It was one of our goals.”

Dr. Cancienne brought Cavalier with him from the St. James Parish School System. Cavalier said the magnet school they created their earned honors as a magnet school of distinction, but never the top award.

Here, students are chosen for the MSA by a lottery system that guarantees a 50:50 black/white ratio within the student body, reflecting the parish' demographics.

The school has drawn more than 500 Iberville students into the public school system on the offer of a “technology-rich” curriculum that includes an Apple laptop computer for all students in sixth and higher grades, as well as hands-on science programs and extensive cultural offerings, including orchestra, dance, theatre, art and even Mandarin Chinese programs.

MSA teacher Chandler Smith and his digital media class produced a 20-second video as part of the school's application for the award, Cavalier noted.

“We have a third of the student body that had never been to public school before,” Cavalier said. The student population grew to 970 this school year, and will be 1,200 strong next year, when it will have its first graduating class.

“It's amazing how all this came together so rapidly,” Cavalier said. “I think people in Iberville Parish were hungry for quality programming.”

The success of the school's approach is borne out in its test scores, he said.

In its first two years of operation, MSA-West students' test scores in both mathematics and reading were far ahead of their peers in the local school district and the State of Louisiana in the numbers scoring at basic, advanced or mastery levels on standardized tests. Ten MSA teachers achieved 100 percent proficiency in their classes.

In 2008-2009, nearly 77 percent of MSA students showed proficiency in math, compared to just over 51 percent in the district (which includes the MSA) and 62 percent in the state. In 2009-10, the percentage topped 84 percent, compared to 57 percent for the district and 66.4 percent for the state.

In 2008-09, more than 86 percent of MSA students scored at basic or above in reading, compared to just over 45 percent in the district and 63 percent statewide. In 2009-10, MSA's numbers rose to nearly 89 percent, compared to 50 percent for the district and 65.6 percent statewide.

Students have competed well and won major awards at regional and state science fairs, literary rallies, art and poetry contests and music festivals. They also have participated in numerous community outreach efforts.

The school “simply works” because the students are engaged, the parents are continuously active and the staff is “the best in the state, no doubt,” Cavalier said.

He said many MSA-West teachers were upset at an email School Board Member Darlene Ourso of White Castle sent out Saturday to teachers parishwide.

In the email provided by Cavalier, Ourso congratulated the MSA's students and teachers on the award, but went on to say “I do this knowing that all teachers across the parish should share in this award. The MSA was opened three years ago and the majority of the MSA students come from within this parish. So, even though the award is given to the MSA, just know that many of you have given these outstanding students, at the MSA, the foundation they need to be successful...You made it possible for all students to be successful even though you don't teach them anymore!”

“Luckily, that point of view is in the minority,” Cavalier said. “If it ever gets to the majority, I'll head to the house.”

In his own letter of congratulations, Cavalier wrote:

“This award belongs to the MSA-W students, staff and parents. We are an academic family that is dedicated to high educational standards through a technology-rich, innovative curriculum. We employ a high[ly] qualified, exceptional teaching staff that creates a challenging yet nurturing environment...This national award is the ultimate vindication and compliment to the vision of the superintendent and the support of the Iberville Parish School Board.”

The school has succeeded even though “a few politicians are like mules with blinders on,” Cavalier told the POST/SOUTH.