Voucher Program Transforms Christian School

Mar 18, 2013

Tuesday, the state Supreme Court will hear arguments in a suit from local school boards and teachers unions wanting Louisiana's school voucher program thrown out.

The legal challenges came almost as soon as the program was passed last year as part of Gov. Bobby Jindal's education overhaul.

Despite that, Hosanna Christian Academy in Baton Rouge went all in.

The school took on almost 300 voucher students, nearly doubling its enrollment. And Hosanna is doing everything it can to make sure all those students can perform at grade level.

Tuesday on WRKF's Morning Edition, the Southern Education Desk's Sue Lincoln takes us to Winbourne Elementary to see the impact of the voucher program on the fast improving, but still struggling, public school.

To be eligible for a voucher, a student has to come from a low- or moderate-income family. And they had to have attended a public school rated C, D, or F.

So Hosanna Christian Academy knew many of the voucher students it got would be way behind academically.

To help them catch up, five teachers provide an hour of extra tutoring after school. And Hosanna hired three full-time interventionists and 9 additional aides to pull students out of gym and art and work with them intensively on reading and math.

Four 6th graders are seated around a long folding table in what used to be the boys locker room. English Language Arts Interventionist Beverly Ortego is working with them on editing.

A voucher student considers an editing worksheet in Beverly Ortego's English intervention session.
Credit Amy Jeffries / WRKF

About 85 percent of the voucher students at Hosanna started the school year one or two grade levels behind. So Ortego has had to alter the work sheets to match their age and maturity.

"Their instructional level is very low, and so the material is made for an elementary student. And so often it'll be the font on the page or a drawing on the page that I'll have to fix it so that my students at an older age don't feel like they're being dummied down," Ortego said.

It's testing time, and the pressure is on. Voucher students take the same state tests that public school students do. And there could be repercussions for Hosanna two years down the road. If too many students fail, Hosanna could be banned from taking more voucher students.

State testing doesn't start until the third grade.

And the majority of voucher students Hosanna enrolled last fall are in kindergarten, first, and second grade. Administrator Josh LaSage says they're aiming for the bulk of new enrollments to be little kids again this year.

"We were strategic," LasSage said. "We believe from a spiritual perspective and an academic perspective -- come on -- if we can get 'em young they can be Rhodes Scholars by the time they leave here."

LaSage tracks student progress in the "War Room". It's upstairs, in an old church office.  The walls are covered with pocketed charts filled with color-coded cards. The red ones represent students that scored in the bottom 10th percentile at the beginning of the school year. Some cards have been moved up the chart as students improved toward the benchmark for their grade.

Student progress is tracked in Hosanna Christian Academy's 'War Room'.
Credit Amy Jeffries / WRKF

When he looks around the room, LaSage sighs and says there's a lot of work to do before the school year ends in May.

"I'm cautiously optimistic about our scores in aggregate, but I still see a lot of young people who have red cards are not further up the chart like we would like."

Hosanna learned these intervention and data tracking strategies from public schools in Baton Rouge that have been successful in turning around poor performance. Those turnaround efforts are threatened by the voucher program -- paid for with money that would otherwise go to local districts, it has exacerbated a financial crunch for public schools.

If Louisiana's Supreme Court upholds the lower court ruling finding the funding mechanism unconstitutional, Hosanna stands to lose all the tuition from its current voucher students and then some. But LaSage says there's no contingency plan.

"We've upset some paying parents because we're doing this."

When LaSage went to school here in the '80s, he says it was almost all Caucasian. When he became the administrator a year and a half ago, it was roughly three-quarters African American. Now with the influx of voucher students, it's more than 90 percent African American.  

"You know, some parents, they kind of lose the luster at the beauty shop of "my child goes to a private school" if the private school has "those kids" there. It's sad to say."

Voucher students could make up 70 percent of Hosanna's student body next year. To make room, the school is moving forward with plans to open a second campus.

"We are pressing on with full faith in our governor, and our legislators, and the good people of the state who support parent choice." LaSage said.

Gov. Bobby Jindal has promised that if the state Supreme Court rules against the voucher program, he'll call a special session if need be to find a way to keep it going.