The three finalists for East Baton Rouge Parish school superintendent all spent time as “turnaround” principals charged with improving the operation and academic performance of low-performing schools.

Whoever lands the top job will be tasked with turning around some 32 schools, more than a third of all the schools in the state’s second largest traditional school district.

The three finalists are Sito Narcisse of Washington, D.C.; Marla Smith of Kansas City; and Adam Smith of Baton Rouge. Sheppard interviewed Wednesday and Narcisse interviewed Thursday, answering questions for four hours each.

Smith, who is the interim superintendent in the school system, started his interview Friday afternoon, but about 30 minutes in, he complained of ringing in his ears and abruptly collapsed. He was taken by EMS to the hospital for examination, but returned home that night and is expected to return to work Monday.

Smith will get a chance to finish his interview, but it's not clear when.

Smith’s unexpected collapse complicates the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board’s plan to select a new superintendent Thursday night. School Board President Mike Gaudet said he expects to know soon whether the board can stick with that timeline.

“Waiting for Adam to see his doctor Monday morning,” Gaudet said Sunday. “We will make a decision after that.”

Narcisse, Sheppard and Smith all fielded questions at interviews this past week on a variety of subjects.

Narcisse, who is chief of secondary schools in Washington, D.C. public schools, home to 52,000 students, emphasized his range of experience in multiple large school districts, saying he’s worked at “all all all levels of this job.”

“I come here not with theoretical approaches. I come with actual practice,” said Narcisse, who is 45.

Sheppard, deputy superintendent in Kansas City Public Schools, highlighted her own broad array of experience, most of it in schools in the Houston area, where she grew up, and said she’s always been a hands-on leader.

“There is nothing I was going to ask them to do that I wasn’t willing to do myself,” Sheppard said.

Smith said his approach to education is informed by his upbringing in south side of Chicago, a “troubled” son of a teenage mother who was raised in his early years by his grandparents in a crowded household. He said he didn’t enjoy school until his junior year and he had a history teacher, named Mr. Jackson, who loved his subject and cared whether Smith succeeded or not. It’s informed his view on education ever since.

“My strength is building leadership, hiring well and looking for what I sought as a student in school: passionate, competent adults,” Smith said.

This is the second search in a year to find a leader for the school system, home to more than 40,000 students. The new search was prompted by the unexpected resignation of Leslie Brown in October due to an unspecified medical condition that she said made her unable to continue in the job. Brown replaced Warren Drake, who retired in July after five years at the helm. Smith was promoted to interim superintendent in October after Brown's departure.

While school letter grades and related accountability measures were waived last year — and may be waived again this year — because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the issue will likely return to the top tier of local education issues once the pandemic has eased. Whoever is hired will be asked to draw immediately on formative experiences in school turnaround.

Narcisse’s first principalship was in Boston, where he spent three years seeking to turn around English High School. After that, Narcisse moved onto high administrative jobs mostly in two Maryland school districts, in Nashville and then finally in his current job, where he’s been tasked with improving multiple low-performing schools.

Narcisse noted high teacher turnover in many of Baton Rouge’s lowest performing schools. He said once there’s “victory in the classroom” and improved quality, teachers are more likely to stay.

“People love good environments,” Narcisse said. “The more they love the environment, the more they want to engage in their school.”

Sheppard was a “turnaround principal” at two schools in Houston, Fleming Middle and Yates High. Sheppard said she tried to put people in jobs they were trained for and felt comfortable doing.

“First thing I did was to have people who wanted to be here, people who had a sense of efficacy,” Sheppard said.

Sheppard has spent three-plus years as the No. 2-person in Kansas City schools, home to more than 14,000 students. She said one way she tries to improve schools is to motivate students more than punish them by, for instance, expanding art programs.

“Sometimes our answer is not in being more punitive,” Sheppard said. “Sometimes it’s giving kids something to do, something to be more engaged in.”

Smith is the only local finalist. A 24-year veteran of the school system, Smith has risen through the ranks and is well-liked. He spent six years in the classroom before moving to administration. He served as principal of Park Forest Middle School from 2005 to 2008 where he was named principal of the year, before moving to Central Office where he's worked ever since.

Smith has been called upon repeatedly to stabilize schools in turmoil, including serving temporarily as principal of Glen Oaks and Scotlandville high schools. He said he’s passed over chances to work at schools with better reputations.

“My passion was working with at-risk students,” he said.

In the schools he’s worked with, improving the school culture has always been his first order of business.

“You have to change the experience of the people in the organization before you can turn around the culture of the organization,” said Smith.

Each candidate are touting past successes.

Narcisse, who is the son of Haitian immigrants, notes that during his three years as chief of schools in Nashville increased the number of “reward: schools that showed improved performance on Tennessee academic standards from 15 to 37.

Sheppard highlighted that Fleming Middle was a “failing school” that later became “Recognized” school by the state of Texas.

Smith noted that during his three-year tenure, Park Forest Middle improved its school performance score during the three-year period by 6.9 points.

Narcisse was the only candidate who was put on the defensive about his record at English High School in Boston. His tenure there was the subject of a critical Boston Globe story, which noted three-quarters of the teachers who were at the school when Narcisse started in 2009 were gone by the time he left in 2012.

Narcisse, who came to Boston to take the job, said on Thursday that he was tasked with implementing a school turnaround strategy that relied heavily on changing school staff. He said that it was not the best approach in retrospect.

"The lesson I learned is it’s not always the best strategy to go into a school and get rid of everyone,” Narcisse said.

Narcisse said he’s learned over time to work harder to keep staff on board with his changes and not make changes too fast that they are not accepted.

“Sito Narcisse at 45 (years old) is not Sito Narcisse of 25,” he said.


Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.