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|Webber delivers guarded report on parish school system|
While the Ouachita Parish school system remains one of the few systems in north Louisiana that continues to grow, the demographics here are changing.
Some 54 percent of the school system's students participate in the free and reduced lunch program, which is typically the method used to calculate at-risk children, according to Superintendent Dr. Bob Webber.
Webber spoke late last week at a "State of the Parish School System" luncheon. It was hosted by the West Monroe/West Ouachita Chamber of Commerce. The luncheon was held at the West Monroe Convention Center.
Ouachita Parish Schools is the eighth largest school system in the state with roughly 19,000 students. It is the largest employer in Ouachita Parish with more than 3,000 employees.
The at-risk student population, though, has increased from 42 percent about four years ago to 54 percent today, according to Webber. Some schools have more than 70 percent of children considered at-risk students, Webber said.
"Unfortunately we are judge so many times by test scores, but we do so much more than teach students how to take a test," Webber said.
"We have wonderful teachers and administrators who truly care about our students," Webber continued. "We continue to be a top 10 school district even though it's becoming more difficult with our changing population. Teachers will tell you that their job is more difficult."
Webber commended the West Ouachita chamber's efforts to address the dropout rate among students and other work to help at-risk students in the parish school system.
Last summer, the chamber, along with the city of West Monroe and University of Louisiana-Monroe, initiated a program called "Framework for Addressing Poverty."
Many of Ouachita Parish's first-year teachers are enrolled in the program, which gives them a better understanding of the situations at-risk students face and how they can better help them.
Despite challenges, Ouachita Parish students continue to succeed, Webber said. The system ranks fifth in the state out of 68 school systems for ACT scores.
Webber expects the parish school system will have a district performance score of 100.1 when the state Department of Education releases performance scores in a matter of weeks.
"This ranks us eighth in the state," Webber explained. "That's not really where we want to be, but we're very proud. Our goal is always to be No. 1. We kind of slipped a little last year, but we'll be back."
Some programs that help at-risk students face budget cuts or outright elimination because of the state's budget problems, Webber said.
Ouachita school officials expect "huge budget cuts" when the Legislature convenes its regular session later this month, Webber said.
"We are making plans for adjustments so we will be sure to make it through the next couple of years," he said. "We're blessed to have a very substantial fund balance to help us make it through these difficult years. We have no plans to cut salaries or terminate any employees. Not every system will be able to do this, but we'll be fine."
Webber also stressed the need for the community to get involved in the school system, especially by participating with schools as mentors for students.
"We have a lot of poor children in our district and I don't think many people realize that," Webber said. "We have children that the only meal they get are the meals they get at breakfast and lunch. We have children who go to sleep at night without a supper. They can't wait to get to school.
"Some of our children don't see a friendly face till they see their bus driver or their teacher or principal. One thing we think will make a huge difference is mentoring. We need you in our schools to speak to them how they can make it.
"A lot of times at home, they are often told how they cannot make it. We have to go so fast these days and we need your help in any way."
For more information about how to become a mentor for a local student, contact the chamber at 325-1961.