The six candidates vying to be the next superintendent of the Jefferson Parish Public School System got a chance Thursday to publicly lay out their vision and qualifications for the job and field questions about issues they’d face if they get it.
The interviews, hosted by the Jefferson Parish School Board, were designed to give the public a sense of the views of the two men and four women seeking to replace Superintendent James Meza, who stepped down in late January.
The interviews will air at 5:30 p.m. Monday on JPS-TV, carried on Cox Channel 8 and Channel 99 through AT&T U-Verse. They were designed to allow the public to hear from the candidates in advance of the board’s decision, which is expected Wednesday. The board also has a series of video profiles available on its website.
The candidates were asked the same set of questions, such as how they would approach bargaining with teachers unions, how they would guide the system out from under a state corrective action plan related to special-needs students, how they would better serve students who don’t speak English as a primary language and what their plans would be for the first 100 days and first six months of their administration.
Among their responses:
Sharon Wegner, of Gretna, director of Jefferson Parish government’s Workforce Connection and a former teacher and longtime administrator, said the system should strive to make sure that students are taught to be problem-solvers and thinkers. She said the curriculum should mix academics with occupational skills to accommodate students who plan to enter the workforce right after high school.
In her work with the parish, Wegner said, she sees young people looking for work who don’t have any of the necessary skills to qualify for many jobs.
“They don’t have the luxury of going to training,” she said. “They need a job.”
Wegner said she can motivate groups toward a common goal, shown by the fact that she turned the parish’s workforce department around from failing in six of nine performance indicators to passing all of them.
Isaac Joseph, of Harvey, the school system’s executive director of grants and federal programs, said academics would be his first priority, followed by fiscal responsibility. He said the system needs to develop a public relations campaign to help sell public education and dispel myths about the system.
He also said the system needs to have a difficult conversation about why black and Hispanic students do not succeed academically as often as their white and Asian counterparts. “As professionals and educators, we are going to have to address that head-on,” he said.
He said the key to student discipline is applying corrective action consistently.
Overall, Joseph said, he feels that climate and culture trump strategy, and that he would work to foster the former from the ground up to help the system excel.
Michelle Blouin-Williams, of Gretna, a former teacher, deputy superintendent and now interim superintendent, said she would make it a point to listen to all parties — students, parents, board members and administrators.
Blouin-Williams, who was named publicly by Meza as his choice to replace him, said schools should be given the tools they need to succeed and there should be more room for different approaches to academic success.
As for negotiations with the teachers union, she said she would encourage all sides to listen to one another but that, as superintendent, she would ultimately respect any decision made by the board.
The students, Blouin-Williams said, “are always first in my heart and will always be first in every decision that is made under my leadership.”
Charles Michel, who has lived in Metairie for the last nine years and is now special education director for the Lafourche Parish school system, said he thinks the Jefferson system would benefit from having a superintendent come in from the outside.
He said that despite its successes, the system still has 10 D-rated schools and three F-rated schools, and that support teams should be created to make recommendations on how to improve them.
Michel said he would meet with all stakeholders and work to repair broken relationships and rebuild trust.
He said discipline issues and academic achievement are more closely connected than people realize. Many students who are “acting out” are doing so because of an underlying academic problem, and they would rather be seen as bad than stupid, he said.
Germain Gilson, of Gretna, a chief student support officer for K-12 students in the system, said schools can succeed if they are given the proper support.
“The standards don’t scare us as educators,” she said. “We have been dealing with standards for a long time. … What scares us is if we don’t have what we need to teach the kids (to) the standard.”
Gilson said the test results of students who don’t speak English as their primary language are incorporated into the overall results much earlier than they should be. “It takes more than one year for those students to be able to be tested like their peers who have … lived here all their lives,” she said.
On negotiations with teachers unions, Gilson said she has been a union representative and that any agreement should be a compromise among professionals that deals with work-related issues, not one that restricts teachers from helping their students succeed.
Carolyn Van Norman, of River Ridge, the Jefferson school system’s executive director of performance management, said the system should allow principals and schools to take an individualized approach to instruction to fit the needs of their students.
She said students who are falling behind should be identified early and given additional instruction.
Van Normand said the superintendent should work closely with the state Board of Secondary and Elementary Education to make sure state policymakers understand the needs and challenges of educators at the local level.
She said the system should embrace the influx of non-native students but bolster resources to bring them up to the level of their English-speaking peers. She said it takes longer to do so than current standards recognize.
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.