Cenla’s Superintendents

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It’s that time of the year when school supply sales beckon, pencils are sharpened in anticipation of that “first day of class” and when Cenla superintendents, as the chief executive officers, make crucial decisions that will impact student achievement.

The Cenla Focus staff would like to salute all the superintendents as they busily prepare for the new school year by taking the helm to steer their school districts through educational waters that are often troubled. The majority of the school districts face budget shortages, increasing numbers of at-risk students, new federal and state mandates for classroom instruction and shortages of certified teachers.  Yet area superintendents, in true captain-like fashion, are willing to navigate and sail through all the decision-making processes because they are united in a common goal: an excellent education for all students.

Through their leadership and skills, Cenla superintendents are establishing their visions for their parishes by collaborating with students, teachers, principals and staff. As a school superintendent, they must be willing to assume varied roles including top administrator, community liaison, banker, instructional leader, effective communicator, negotiator and often times take on the role of principal, teacher, counselor and friend. With the sometimes competing demands of the administration, school board, teachers, parents, students and community, the superintendents may find themselves assuming the roles of wizard or magician in juggling the tasks of allocating finances and human resources.  But at the heart of these multiple roles, area superintendents say it is all worth the effort to provide a top-notch education for the students in their district. Chalk boards have been replaced by “smart boards” and ipads may have replaced textbooks in some schools, but the basic foundations of the superintendent’s role remain steadfast.

“Everything I do as a superintendent is to assure a quality education for all the students,” declares Shelia Jackson, the Grant Parish superintendent for the last eight years.

Grant Parish has nine schools, with a student population of about 3,200. All the school districts are in the midst of a state-mandated reform that is designed to improve the quality of education through the implementation of a new evaluation system for teachers as well as a more rigorous curriculum for students.

“The biggest accomplishment we have had in Grant Parish is we have moved from a district ranking in the state in the last eight years from 42nd place to as high as 17th, and we are currently tied with another school district at 23rd,” notes Jackson.

She attributes the improved status to hard work of the students, teachers and principals working together as a team. Throughout the school system, Jackson says the five dimensions of teaching and learning detailed through the Orchard Foundation and the Rapides Foundation are embraced. Besides the parish’s educational leadership role and academic improvements, the district has undergone several renovations.  Adjacent to Grant High School, Grant Junior High opened last year. The state-of-the-art facility is home to about 400 seventh and eighth-graders. Plans are in the works to complete the schools physical education fields for this school year. The construction of some new classrooms is underway at Verda Elementary and the demolition and rebuilding of the cafeteria at Montgomery High School is planned. Another important job as a superintendent, Jackson says, is to keep current with the latest trends in education.

“It’s important to keep current and internalize the trends to the point I can communicate them to principals, teachers, students and parents. I always want to trouble shoot in advance,” she adds.

Dr. Gary Jones, superintendent of Rapides Parish School District, will open a brand-new school, Caroline Dormon Junior High in Woodworth, in a few weeks that will house kindergarten through eighth-grade students. The parish has more than 24,000 students enrolled in its schools, and 3,400 employees. In addition, another new school will be constructed within a year beside J.I. Barron Elementary. Other major recent renovations include a new library and new academic wing at Forest Hill Elementary and renovations to all the Pineville schools. Jones, whose superintendent contract ends in December, notes there have been several major accomplishments in the parish during the last nine years he has served as the top administrator.

“It was my pleasure to have been hired by a very progressive school board. I believe my heritage is that I kept kids first in all areas….and I have worked hard to improve the quality of education. When I first started in Rapides Parish, the district was $11 million in the hole, and now it has $16.5 million in the bank. We are in good financial shape,” Jones remarks about the district’s special reserve operating funds.

One milestone for the Rapides Parish school district was the end of a 40-year-old desegregation lawsuit case, that has freed up millions of dollars to spend on academic programs rather than on busing costs, Jones notes. The superintendent, who was named by the Louisiana Association of School Executives as last year’s State School Superintendent of the Year, has implemented several district-wide initiatives. An Open Enrollment policy was created so that students can attend any high school in the district and parents may have choices in what programs their students can participate. A national award-winning Teacher Advancement Program was started at Forest Hill Elementary School.

One of the first digital academies in the United States was instituted at Bolton High School, and students district-wide may now take online high school courses.

“This gives students total flexibility. They can take all their courses online or have dual enrollment with taking some classes online and others on the school campus. It gives students choices,” Jones notes.

Last year, Rapides district piloted a technology program that supplied all the second-graders with Apple iPads to use as instructional tools, and plans are to expand the use of iPads to the third-graders this year. The district is one of the few large districts in the state not to have a school taken over by the Recovery School District.

Dr. Derwood Duke, superintendent of the Natchitoches Parish School District, maintains he is committed to meeting the challenges required to raise the academic standards and positively impact student achievement throughout the parish.

“The 2012 Louisiana Legislature passed acts related to educational governance and accountability that will necessitate buy-in by all stakeholders in order to move our district forward,” says Duke.

Six of the parish schools were on “Academic Watch,” which means they were ranked less than 75 percent in school performance. But Duke says the district has been notified that three of those schools now rank above the 75 percent.  Natchitoches, with a student population of more than 6,800, had several schools, including the magnet and lab schools, ranking as a high-performance school.

“We are beginning to show great improvements.  Although the implementation of these new policies will not be without challenges, the Natchitoches Parish School Board will provide the support and resources necessary to maintain our ‘No Excuses’ focus on raising academic standards and eliminating achievement gaps,” Duke adds.

Dr. Paul Nelson, who became the new superintendent for the Concordia Parish School District in July, says he is prepared to meet the district’s challenges head-on in the upcoming academic year.

“I want people to think of the Concordia Parish School System as a great place for teaching and learning, and I want our system to demonstrate to the public that we are working hard for all our students, every day,” says Nelson, who served as supervisor of academic affairs prior to being named superintendent.

The district, which has about 3,800 students within its 11 schools, employs roughly 300 teachers. “We are one of four districts in Louisiana that have over 75 percent of our students on free or reduced lunch with a district grade of ‘C.’ All others with that same level of poverty are below that mark – Ds and Fs,” notes Nelson.

Part of his vision as the new superintendent is to improve the percentage of students at all the schools that are scoring “basic” or better on LEAP/ILEAP or “good” or better on the EOC tests. The newly established magnet school at Ridgecrest was officially named recently as the Concordia Parish Academy of Math, Science & Technology.

Dr. Gwile Freeman, superintendent of schools for Catahoula Parish, who has been an educator for nearly 25 years, thinks the district has a new enthusiasm spreading across it since being awarded a Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy grant. The federal grant is aimed at improving the reading and writing skills of students. In order to petition for the grant, Freeman addressed the House Appropriations subcommittee in Washington, D.C. to explain about the persistent poverty that presents an ongoing challenge in Catahoula.

The district, which has six schools with about 1,560 students, will use the $1 million grant for their H.E.R.O. project, which stands for Higher Expectations for Reading Outcomes.

“The grant is giving us a wonderful opportunity for our district. It’s given us a resurgence and excitement for our staff. It will have quite an impact on our students,” Freeman says.

In addition to the literacy grant, the district has also been awarded a Jobs for America’s Graduates grant, which is aimed at improving retention and graduation rates of at-risk students.

Several schools were consolidated recently to save resources and funding. In addition, a $750,000 bond package was passed that allowed for renovations to Central High School.

Steve Bartlett, superintendent of Winn Parish School District, says his district is one of the first districts in the state to receive a national Southern Associations of Colleges and Schools accreditation.

“We initially received the accreditation in 2006, and it was renewed in February. This is affirmation to the community that we have a functioning good school system that meets the needs of the students. Our goal is to provide a world-class education to all our students,” Bartlett says.

Winn Parish, which has nearly 100 percent of their teachers certified, has eight schools with a student population of about 2,600, and employs around 245 teachers. During the last 10 years, the district has made renovations to all the schools through five different bond packages. The reoccurring and biggest challenge the district faces this coming school year, according to Bartlett, is the lack of available revenues.

“We have a limited tax base so we have to watch our spending. We do a balance the budget and don’t operate on a deficit,” explains Bartlett, adding the district’s population is decreasing so student populations are decreasing. In addition, the area is not growing an industrial base either, and the timber industry is suppressed.

Bartlett notes that as a superintendent it is his responsibility to oversee the districts’ finances and academic improvements.

Superintendent Roy Breithaupt of LaSalle Parish says he has dealt with some significant problems over the last few years in his role as top executive for the school district. He had only been superintendent for six months nearly seven years ago, when LaSalle High School was destroyed by a tornado. Then later, Jena High School was lost to a fire. The district, in 2007, came under the glare of the international media spotlight through the racially charged “Jena Six” trials.

“Regardless of what comes up now, I think I can handle the task because of what I’ve been through,” Breithaupt says.

The district now has brand new buildings for LaSalle and Jena high schools, and plans to build a new Jena Elementary next year. Breithaupt notes he would like to see improvements in every aspect of the school system in regard to school board policies, and added the child nutrition program has already been greatly improved. There have also been strides made in the instructional programs.

“We are constantly making improvements in teaching practices as we want to press forward in our quest through the dimensions of learning, We want to develop our ability to better be able to recognize the qualities or skills that work together and result in quality instruction,” adds Breithaupt. LaSalle parish schools have about 2,600 students enrolled. The superintendent would like to relocate the school board office to the Jena elementary school site next year.

For the last three years, Jackie Self has served as the superintendent of schools for Vernon Parish, but has worked for more than 40 years in the Vernon Parish school system.

“Vernon Parish continues to be a leader in the state in accountability system for students. We are ranked sixth in the state with student performance scores, and we are ranked in the top 10 districts. We are proud of the hard work of the students and are fortunate to have good teachers. We also have good parental support,” says Self.

The district has a student population around 10,000 in its 19 schools. Renovations are underway at Anacoco Elementary and Leesville High School is in the process of a $21.5 million construction and renovation project.

“Lots of changes are being made statewide and I plan to work diligently to incorporate those changes throughout the school district,” Self adds.

Superintendent Dwayne Lemoine of Avoyelles Parish believes that all children are capable of learning and achieving at high standards. Avoyelles has more than 6,000 students enrolled in the parish’s 10 schools, 300 professionals and 300 support staff. A sales tax that was approved will support the 3 percent raise for employees.

A more than $6 million bond package for school construction allowed improvements to be made at all the district campuses. However, due to continued economic hardships, the district consolidated schools and moved the middle school students to the high school campuses.

“It is working out great. We had three middle schools not functioning adequately, but now they have resources they need. It is very important in Avoyelles Parish that we have educators second to none.  Our district is still tremendously underfunded and we are facing the challenge of trying to retain teachers,” Lemoine says.

Like every other superintendent in Cenla, teaching students and making a difference in the lives of the students make the roles they assume all worth it.

“I use to teach math and science. Teaching kids has been the highlight of my educational career. When the kids come back to you and tell you that you made a difference in their lives, that’s what it is all about,” adds Lemoine. “Being a superintendent is challenging, but you cannot beat the rewards of seeing the students graduate and becoming successful.”