LAFAYETTE — The final round of interviews to find the district’s next superintendent wrapped up Friday.

Board President Mark Allen Babineaux said the interview committee, which includes all School Board members and two community representatives, will likely meet next week to discuss top choices.

The top three candidates will move on to more interviews before a selection is made in December. That person will replace Burnell Lemoine, who is retiring.

Interviewed Friday were Pat Cooper, Walter Gonsoulin Jr. and John Pate.

Cooper suggested universal early childhood programs — starting as early as birth, coordinated school health programs and flexible school schedules that allow for additional in-school remediation for failing students.

Cooper has had success with such programs in 14 combined years as superintendent of two different districts and the head of a New Orleans foundation that created the Mahalia Jackson Early Childhood and Family Learning Center. The center, in the Central City section of New Orleans, houses early childhood programs: birth to first grade; a library branch, health clinic; and social service agencies.

Lafayette has services and agencies to replicate the same successes, he said.

“You have all the things I need as a superintendent to make these things happen. It’s a fit,” Cooper said.

Reducing the achievement gap can start before students reach kindergarten, he. He showed data of verbal skills among toddlers of college-educated parents, working-class parents and welfare parents.

“At the first 16 months, everyone’s even,” he said. “It gets wide at about 18 months. It gets wider and wider … not because these kids are inefficient.

“If you can make that achievement gap here close, you’re not going to have to worry about it at the fourth grade,” Cooper said.

Both Cooper and Gonsoulin discussed partnerships with child-care centers or agencies to ensure quality early childhood instruction that prepares students for school.

“Some of the things that need to be done, we won’t have the means to do,” Gonsoulin said. “Tap into the community: how can we partner with different agencies?”

Cooper also recommended adding a mandatory eighth period to the school day for failing students.

Pate suggested piloting a tutoring program structured around students’ nine-week performance in Lafayette that produced success in his East Peoria, Ill., school district.

After the first nine weeks, students attend optional tutoring three days a week, but the tutoring becomes mandatory if no improvement is made after the second nine-week period. The consequences escalate after the third nine weeks, with three hours of tutoring on Saturday and after the final nine-week period, the student must attend a summer session.

“Any child who failed the last nine weeks, they stayed until they passed,” he said.

The program should help improve graduation rates and overall performance, Pate said.

“Research basically says that holding a child back does no good whatsoever except for one grade — kindergarten,” he said.

As principal of Scott Middle, the number of expulsions have been reduced from more than 200 in 2007-08 to 42 last year. Initiatives that reward students’ positive behavior has helped, Pate said.

“We’ve made a difference in the climate in our school. Our goal was to make an environment conducive to learning,” he said.

As assistant superintendent in Starkville, Miss., Gonsoulin said he sought the expertise of Mississippi State researchers to analyze dropout data to understand why 35 percent of students dropped out of schools. Trends starting as early as elementary were identified and prompted interventions. Direct outreach to drop-outs for feedback produced results, as well, even with some students choosing to complete school.

Within three years, the rate dropped from 35 percent to 16 percent, he said.

When tackling achievement gaps, it’s important to define achievement gaps because even high socio-economic students from one geographic region may be outpaced by high socio-economic students from another region, Gonsoulin said.

“When you look at individual student growth, everybody gets better,” Gonsoulin said. “My focus is on the group of all children and recognizing what that gap is and allowing the administrators, faculty and staff to become experts in reducing that gap.”

Pate shares the same philosophy of focusing on overall student improvement.

“You’ve got to raise everybody, but you’ve got to raise those who don’t have the money faster,” Pate said.

Pate asked the board just how quickly it would like to see positive change in the district.

“How many of you will be happy to wait five years? How about three? How about two years?” he asked

“You’re getting warmer,” said board member Shelton Cobb.

“Most of you want to see it in the first year,” Pate said and pitched himself as the likely candidate to produce those results.

“Here’s your choice,” he said and unfurled a blue T-shirt with the iconic logo of Superman.

“You get to decide who wears this shirt. It fits me,” he joked.

Pat Cooper

EDUCATION: Ed.D., in administration, University of Northern Colorado, M.Ed. in special education, Ed.S. in special education administration and B.S. in biology, physics education, LSU.

EXPERIENCE: Since 2007, president and chief executive officer of Early Childhood and Family Learning Foundation, New Orleans; superintendent experience, from 1997 to 2007, McComb School District in Mississippi and 1989 to 1993 in West Feliciana Parish.

Walter Gonsoulin Jr.

EDUCATION: Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction, Mississippi State University; M.Ed., in administration and supervision, Southern University; and B.A. in elementary education and B.A. in interpersonal counseling and communication, University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

EXPERIENCE: Since 2007, assistant superintendent of federal program and operations for Starkville School District in Mississippi. Began teaching career in New Iberia in 1991 and held school administrative positions.

John Pate

EDUCATION: Ed.D., in education administration and foundations, Illinois State University; Ed.S. in educational administration, Western Illinois University; M.S. in school administration, Nova University; B.S. in science, physical education and health, Mississippi State University.

EXPERIENCE: Since 2008, principal of Scott Middle School. Superintendent experience, 2002 to 2007 in Riverview Community Consolidated School District in East Peoria, Ill.

What they had to say

About student performance and reducing achievement gap:

COOPER: “Until we get 100 percent graduation rates, we’re still failing.”

GONSOULIN: “My goal for student achievement is that we become one of the top schools in the 5 percent (of) school districts in the state and that we can compete nationally and globally.”

PATE: “Technology levels the playing field for poor children. It’s one of the things that makes the difference.”