Amite middle schoolers are improving their grades with a nontraditional learning style this year.
Star Academy, a program which uses a curriculum of project-based hands-on teamwork, functions almost as another school within Amite Westside Middle Magnet School. The program’s goal is to bolster the academic careers of kids most at risk of dropping out.
Gov. John Bel Edwards joined state, parish and town officials Wednesday morning to visit his junior high alma mater for a tour of the Star Academy classrooms he funded last year with $1 million in COVID relief.
When the funds came up for the educational use of his choice, Edwards picked Star Academy and funded it for six schools in Louisiana, two of them in Tangipahoa Parish.
Also using the program this year is Greenville Park Leadership Academy in Hammond. Another nearby is St. Helena College & Career Academy in Greensburg.
“It has been proven effective all over the country. It works in a unique way to make sure kids have every opportunity for success,” Edwards said. “You take kids who may be on a path that’s not very bright and you put them firmly on a path where they’re going to be successful in high school.”
Star Academy has programs in 15 states, about half of those in the southeastern U.S.
“If you get to be two years older than the other kids in your classroom by the time you get to ninth grade, you are the most likely to drop out of school,” Edwards said.
Star Academy students who are behind a grade level can potentially complete two grades in one school year since the curriculum lets kids work at their own pace.
“They’re going to do a lot of hard work, but it’s going to be more suited for them and it’s going to be fun and they’re going to learn an awful lot,” Edwards said. “It’s sort of a school within a school approach. For kids who may not be that suited for traditional education, they have something that’s a little nontraditional.”
Reaching more of the parish
Among those nontraditional traits, Star Academy classrooms feature flexible seating, with students often sitting in pairs at large work desks outfitted with kinetic materials, rather than in uniform rows facing the front of the room.
Those layout choices are not random; they’re part of the methodology.
“It’s proven to be effective in other places with students like ours,” Tangipahoa Superintendent Melissa Stilley said. “From the color of the paint on the wall to the tables, everything is very planned, and you’re just replicating that.”
School administration works together with specialists from NOLA Education, the New Orleans company which created Star Academy, to implement the program. The school system advertised last year for teachers who they would hire specifically to teach the new program and offered them a stipend.
While the governor’s office chose Tangipahoa for the program, Tangipahoa Parish School System had the choice of which schools would receive the “Star” treatment.
However, Stilley’s goal is for the entire parish to benefit starting next year. In much the same way as students travel between schools for magnet programs, Stilley hopes to open qualification for Amite’s and Hammond’s Star Academy classes to other parish schools.
“This is our first year, but next year we can actually open up slots,” she said. “Other schools across our parish will have the opportunity to come here for the Star program.”
Edwards said he hopes to see the program replicated across the state but is glad that Tangipahoa Parish was among those who have already committed.
After noting his visit was being seven years to the day since his inauguration as governor, he recalled meeting his wife at Amite Westside in the ’70s.
“I happened to be a seventh grade student here one day, and I looked up and there was Donna Hutto,” he said. “So I am especially thankful for this school. The biggest blessing in my life actually came from right here, and I have a lot of really special memories here.”
“This is a great way to kick off 2023, and it’s a great way to kick off my last year as governor,” he added. “My commitment to you is we’re going to work hard every single day between now and then, and then about a year from now Donna and I will be right back here in this community every single day.”
Stars in action
Leading guests on an open house tour of the Star Academy classrooms were student ambassadors of the program. They were joined by NOLA education support specialist Shannon Charles.
“Everybody goes at their own pace,” Star Academy language arts teacher Amber Morris told her visitors.
She showed guests an assignment requiring students to form text sentences while designing a character on their computers. They receive verbal instructions through earbuds.
“It helps me get a better understanding,” said Sabrina Roe, one of the student ambassadors.
Star Academy’s methodology was new to Morris, who came into her Amite Westside job over the summer, but she said it also benefits her teaching style.
“I love learning new things. It’s taken me a step further in life,” Morris said.
She teaches four sections, the smallest of which includes 10 students, the largest, 14 or 15.
“It gives you a chance to actually learn and work at your own pace,” student ambassador Alonzo Bourgeois said of Jyothi Sathyanarayana’s math classes.
“It really connects them with real-life applications,” Sathyanarayana said.
Dedriana Perry’s science classroom layout is divided by different types of science: body systems, genetics, energy and weather. Two students donning goggles and lab coats, Brennan Coleman and Colby Smith, worked on a chemical reactions project.
“I love it, compared to the traditional setup,” Perry said. “The kids work together more; they ask more questions. They feel like little scientists when they put those goggles on.”
School Board Member Joey Piazza II asked Charles how specialists help eighth graders aging out of the program adapt to a more traditional ninth grade.
“We’re continuing to build out into ninth grade,” Charles said. “It’s definitely something we have to think about, because our kids love the program. We really try to develop just a love of learning and lay the foundation.”
NOLA has also opened its first elementary Star Academy program in Mobile County, Alabama.
After the tour, Stilley said she was impressed with the results she saw of the program’s first six months and also praised the work of the faculty who have taken it on.
“The program’s only as good as the teachers teaching the program,” she said. “We’re here to support them and give them what they need.”
She noted that the methods of Star Academy could appeal even to students who aren’t at-risk and that the program could have an influence on other classes.
“Other teachers are paying attention to how they’re doing things. It’s a ripple effect,” Stilley said.
Jonathan Rhodes, a computer literacy teacher at Amite Westside who isn’t part of the Star Academy program, confirmed that he has noticed academic improvement among the program’s students, including some who struggled in his social studies class last year.
“This is helping them get up to speed. This catches them up,” Rhodes said. “Some of them come up to me and say, ‘Hey, I got an A in this, I got an A in social studies. I’m doing much better than what I did last year.’”