It was the first Monday for West Baton Rouge Schools staff, and not a student in sight.
The smell of piping hot black coffee in small red cups filled the auditorium as school district employees, business leaders and public officials convened for the annual West Baton Rouge teachers convocation.
Hundreds of teachers, coaches and support staff filled the auditorium for the annual conference at the West Baton Rouge Tourism Convention and Visitors’ Bureau. The event serves as a sort of pep rally to excite and inspire school district staff, but it also serves as a reorientation of the school district’s goals and recent accomplishments.
The 2017-18 year marks the beginning of a new year after the passage of two new millages aimed at increasing school staff wages and improving/adding new school facilities.
West Baton Rouge Schools Superintendent Wes Watts teased artistic renderings of major changes and improvements to Cohn Elementary School, Brusly Elementary School and a theater at Port Allen High to the sound of gasps from audience members. Other “major capital improvements” are in still in the design phase, including two entirely new school campuses.
“I’m really excited for what we’re going to do for our kids,” Watts said. “Our kids are excited.”
The school facility upgrades will continue through 2050, but some smaller projects are already in the works, he said.
The voter-approved facility upgrades and wage increases, while a sign of strong community support, are just one step on the path to the school district’s ultimate goal of landing a top 10 placement in the state’s 2020 school performance scores.
Last year, the West Baton Rouge school district was ranked 20th in the state, making a 17-place jump from 37th the year prior. However, Watts hinted that changes to the school performance scores in 2017 could have a negative impact on the district’s next assessment, which is released in November.
The school district has made significant headway on its 2020 goals so far by revamping its transportation system and adding funds for personnel and facilities. But improving students’ academic excellence remains at the core.
Watts urged the school district staff to “inspire academic excellence” in their students this year.
“There are a lot of smart students who are not doing very good,” he said, adding that 70 percent of the student population is economically disadvantaged.
“Our students are not disadvantaged because they come from poverty – they’re not disadvantaged because they have you,” Watts said to the hundreds of staff. “You have to impact the whole school.”
On that note, the parish made big news after Brusly High School teacher Kimberly Eckert was named the state’s Teacher of the Year by the Louisiana Department of Education last week.
Eckert offered some of her own advice to her peers before the convocation ended.
“Your best year is this year,” she said. “Take a chance on everyone, including yourselves.”