Part II: Community Investment
Although enrollment numbers had ominously fallen over the previous two decades, the introduction of statewide testing in Louisiana in 1999 brought the full extent of Jefferson’s problems into focus. And over the next several years, lagging test scores, falling graduation rates, and a sizable achievement gap between student subgroups became impossible to ignore. At the same time, with almost 37% of school-aged children in the parish attending private or parochial schools (the 2nd highest percentage of any county in the nation), it was clear that a large segment of the community had lost faith in the school system.
Recognizing that strong public schools are vital to the long-term success of the parish (and no doubt influenced by the progress next door in Orleans), business and civic leaders began to mobilize support behind a slate of reform-oriented candidates for the 2010 Jefferson Parish School Board (JPSB) elections. As board member Michael Delesdernier later remarked, “The 2010 elections were significant in that the community, namely the business community, made it known that public education was important in Jefferson Parish and that the performance of the system up to 2010 was unsatisfactory.”
Indeed, when the ballots were counted, the message from voters was clear: five reform candidates were elected to the board, unseating four incumbents in the process. A month after the new board was sworn in, Superintendent Diane Roussel announced she would retire at the end June. With the start of another school year only weeks away, the board approached Dr. James Meza, recently retired as Dean of the College of Education at the University of New Orleans, to serve as Acting Superintendent while they sought Roussel’s replacement.
It was at this point that the board made a critical decision that reflected the sense of urgency within the community that JPPSS needed to change. Rather than wait until they had hired a permanent superintendent, a process that could take up to a year or more, the board directed Meza to prepare a district reform plan over the coming months. By the time Acting Superintendent Meza formally presented his initial proposal later that fall, board members were so impressed with his performance that they suspended their search and extended Meza’s contract (and later made it permanent).
In recent years, school boards have come under fire from influential voices in the education community who see them as obstacles to reform. Furthermore, communities across the country have turned to mayoral control, appointed boards, or state takeovers in an effort to overhaul their school districts. On the other hand, the Jefferson Parish School Board has drawn accolades for taking on even those controversial proposals — such as school closures and layoffs — that would send most other politicians running for the hills.
It is this perseverance in moving forward with reforms, rather than simply retreating at the first sign of resistance, that distinguishes the current members of the board from their predecessors. While their efforts have enjoyed the ongoing support from leaders in the community — in particular the business community — it also reflects the trust they place in the leadership and decisions of their superintendent. By standing firm and allowing Superintendent Meza to lead, the Jefferson Parish School Board has been able to successfully steer the school system through a period of significant change.
Tuesday, in Part III of our four-part series on the reforms in Jefferson Parish, we look at the role played by JPPSS Superintendent James Meza.
A version of this post originally appeared on the blog, In The Zone.