RaeNell Houston

RaeNell Houston

Provided by the Archdiocese of New Orleans

RaeNell Billiot Houston, a former teacher who has served as an associate superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, will take on the job of superintendent starting this summer, becoming the first African-American to hold the job. 

Archbishop Gregory Aymond announced Monday that Houston, 42, will replace retiring schools chief Jan Lancaster on July 1. 

She will assume leadership of a system with roughly 37,000 students across eight civil parishes in the New Orleans area, a figure that has fallen in recent years as public schools have improved, tuition has risen and Catholic birth and baptismal rates have declined.

In an interview Monday, Houston said she never anticipated landing the job.

“But, as I look back and I reflect now, I see God’s fingerprint all over my life,” she said. “Like he’s put me in places for a reason. At those times I didn’t know why or what was going on, but it all makes sense now.”

It will now be up to Houston to implement a strategic plan engineered by Lancaster and Aymond, the latter of whom led a shakeup in Catholic education seven years ago by calling for the resignation of Ursuline nun and schools chief Sister Kathleen Finnerty and others and later handing Lancaster the task of schools management.

Under that plan, the archdiocese has closed or merged some struggling campuses and has realigned grades at others — moves that have been controversial. It also has called upon schools to expand their offerings for students with special needs and has made scholarships available for families who need help paying tuition, among other changes.

Houston holds a doctorate in curriculum and instruction from the University of New Orleans, a master’s degree in business administration from Southern New Hampshire University and a master's in curriculum and instruction, with a reading specialty, from LSU.

Before serving as associate superintendent, Houston taught at Holy Cross College and Southeastern Louisiana University, as well as in public elementary and middle schools in Boothville, Shreveport and Baton Rouge.

Among her top priorities, she emphasized improving offerings for children with disabilities and other challenges. Aymond has acknowledged that Catholic schools have fallen short in that regard in past years.

The goal is personal for Houston, whose 9-year-old daughter has Down syndrome, she said.

She will continue the archdiocese’s commitment to low-income families, who currently receive help through the state’s voucher program and her office’s own scholarship programs. And she will incorporate parts of the archdiocese’s overarching strategic plan, called the Synod, into daily life within Catholic schools, she said.

In the hours after the announcement went out, she was heartened by the reaction.

“I just see all the messages coming on my phone, like ‘Congratulations. We’re so excited. We’re praying for you,’ ” she said, adding that she fought tears as the good wishes poured in.

“That means more than anything, having the support of my colleagues.”

Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA​.