Jan Lancaster, who led area Catholic schools through grade restructuring, school closures and declining enrollment, will step down in June after six years as superintendent for the Archdiocese of New Orleans schools, she said Thursday.
Simply put, she’s moving on because she’s finished her work, she said.
“We have done most of the components of our strategic plan,” Lancaster said. “And so now I think it’s time for another superintendent to come in and utilize their gifts and talents to further the ministry of Catholic education.”
Lancaster, 55, would not say whether she is retiring or taking another job offer, instead shifting the conversation during a brief interview to the goals she hopes to accomplish over the next several months.
When her successor is selected — the archdiocese will begin a search this fall — the transition will be seamless, she said.
The archdiocese oversees Catholic schools in eight civil parishes in the New Orleans area.
When she departs, she’ll leave behind a system that looks vastly different from the one she took over in 2011. The moves Lancaster and Archbishop Gregory Aymond implemented, which were outlined in a long-range strategic plan, included the closing of some schools and the realigning of grades at others, controversial moves that led to an uproar in some school communities.
She also has worked to implement the Common Core state standards, expand enrollment in the state-sponsored tuition voucher program for low-income families and raise money to help other needy families afford Catholic school tuition.
Much of that work was aimed at stabilizing the system's post-Katrina enrollment. That figure has leveled out at about 37,000 students in recent years, after dropping sharply from nearly 49,500 in 2004.
The decline is attributed in part to new public charter schools luring parents away from Catholic schools, higher tuition for Catholic and other private schools and declining birth and baptismal rates among Catholics.
Some schools in and near New Orleans have leaned heavily on the voucher program to make up those gaps; about 8 percent, or roughly 3,000, of all Catholic school students in the archdiocese are on vouchers.
Under the strategic plan, Lancaster’s office contacts schools when their enrollment dips below 200 to see if their parishes have the financial resources to keep them open, she has said.
Three schools — St. Agnes in Jefferson, just one of the schools Lancaster previously led over a 20-year career as a school administrator, plus Holy Ghost in New Orleans and Our Lady of Grace School in Reserve — did not have that ability and closed last year as a result. Some parents decried those closings.
The new grade configurations, which required all Catholic elementary schools to teach preschoolers through seventh grade and all high schools to include grades 8-12, were highly controversial.
Common Core changes also sparked pushback. A group of parents called Louisiana Catholics for Excellence in Education began questioning the changes, which Lancaster said are simply standards, not curriculum. Schools implement curriculum themselves, she said.
In a letter accepting Lancaster's resignation, Aymond spoke to the challenges of her tenure.
"Through prayer and dialogue you have made some very difficult decisions," he wrote. "There is no doubt you have provided creativity and stability to the Office of Catholic Schools."
In her last year, Lancaster said, she’ll work to wrap up one of the last pieces of the strategic plan: improving options for special-needs students, a group Aymond freely admits Catholic schools have not always served well.
“On my first day as superintendent, the archbishop said to me, ‘We need to expand what we do for God’s special children.’ And we’ve done that over the last five years,” Lancaster said.
This year, 10 schools have expanded their programs for children who need special attention, she said. Starting in the 2017-18 school year, the archdiocese will launch a pilot program that places children with Down syndrome, autism and other challenges in an inclusive classroom setting, meaning in classes with regular students.
That’s in addition to St. Michael Special School in the Lower Garden District and Holy Rosary Academy and High School in the Freret neighborhood, which exclusively serve students with special needs.
Before taking the top schools job, Lancaster served as chairwoman of the education department at Our Lady of Holy Cross College, now known as the University of Holy Cross, in Algiers.
Before that, she was principal of Mary, Queen of Peace School in Mandeville for seven years. That school's enrollment tripled under her leadership. She also worked at St. Agnes in Jefferson and Our Lady of the Lake in Mandeville.
As she leaves, Lancaster said, she wants people to know that a Catholic education is the very best available.
“To see what I’ve seen firsthand, people being the face of the church to the people they serve, and true servant leadership … that’s been the most rewarding thing to me,” she said.