Superintendent answers questions, outlines approach
By JEAN L. KAESS
Superintendent Donald Aguillard submitted to an hour of questioning in his bid to become Lafayette Parish’s next superintendent. The first nine sections consist of predetermined questions given to the candidate in advance of the interview. Those present asked the remaining questions as follow-ups to the previous information relayed during the interview. Aguillard’s answers are summarized.
Q: Our public forums asked for the citizens’ top priority for a new superintendent. Among them were: improve the reading skills of students, improve the math and science skills of students, and improve communication between the community and schools. What are you going to do to achieve these results?
A: I assume we will want to identify (reading, math and science) as the highest priorities … we would identify the students who need to be targeted with remediation programs. Do we know which of our students are targeted? Do those targeted students attend remediation programs?
We need to use the data, find targeted kids and make sure they attend the program. Lafayette Parish School System is within one or two students per class of being a top tier school district with a District Performance Score of B. We need to identify the students, make sure the programs are effective and then measure the effectiveness. Communication with the community through the media is key also.
Q: How would you prioritize the different resources of the Lafayette Parish School System, and on what area would you place the most emphasis during your first year as superintendent?
A: I would expect the board would tell me the performance goals you expect me to meet. In that absence, I want to scan regular education, federal programs and IDEA budgets to make maximum use of dollars available. Secondly, I will use the data to drill down where we are being unsuccessful with respect to student achievement. It’s not going to be entire areas; it’s going to be pockets of opportunity.
Communication with Stakeholders
Q: Building relationships with the community is an important part of the Superintendent’s responsibilities. Please tell us how you have developed relationships with parents and external community stakeholders in your current position. How would you develop and maintain relationships with parents and external community stakeholders as superintendent of the Lafayette Parish School System?
A: When I joined St. Mary Parish, I went around and visited every faculty at each of the district’s 26 schools. We also held public forums during which I asked the community to explain their concerns about the school system. In 2004, there was a tremendous disconnect between the school system and the community, a tremendous distrust … We also created a climate survey, but it was more like a satisfaction survey. We sent out paper copies to households and had online versions as well. It’s sometimes hard to hear what they have to say, but if you commit to using that data, it’s successful.
Q: Through community conversations, we have learned that three of the top concerns for Lafayette Parish public education are narrowing the achievement gap, increasing graduation rates and improving school performance scores. As a candidate for superintendent of this parish, tell us how, in your professional experiences, you have addressed any of these issues. If so, what strategies did you implement? What was the most challenging? Surprising? How did you involve the community? What were the results?
A: SMP has demonstrated the ability to raise student achievement. The most impressive gains have been at the elementary levels. We have discovered that it was about literacy, the ability to read and comprehend. With Fast ForWord, we saw double-digit achievement gains in our pilot programs in the lowest achieving elementary schools. It was literacy.
Increasing graduation rates by reducing ages in junior high also increases grad rates in high school. With credit recovery, online learning and similar programs, there is literally no reason for a child today in the LPSS or SMP to fail or drop out of school for academic reasons.
Student Quality of Life
Q: What are your successful experiences with improving discipline, and how would you apply these experiences to the Lafayette Parish School System?
A: The students in SMP are, by and large, well-behaved students. The one thing I would insist upon is that we hold the students accountable for their behavior. Classrooms have to be orderly. You’ve got to have a good, effective commitment to kids being accountable. I asked the principals to be judicious with who gets sent to the alternative school. Also, we, as many other districts, have battled with cell phones in the schools. The new rule to allow junior and high school students to have them on campus in lockers appears to be working, but the jury is still out.
Q: How would you keep the board informed about the school district’s activities?
A: My board members receive on schedule, every week, a Friday packet of information from the superintendent’s office for the approximate 50 work weeks every year. It is never a request for votes or personnel information. It’s strictly informational. Some board members say I send too much information. Because the Lafayette Parish School Board meets twice monthly, I likely would send the packets twice monthly.
Q: The public forums indicated that there was a “lack of vision and a plan for the future.” What would you do to change that?
A: “You have the beginning seeds of a realization of things that are important.” Referencing a document with the survey results of 215 Lafayette Parish respondents, Aguillard cited resource management, communication, and student quality of life as items the LPSS needs to focus on.
“The board needs a strategic plan to get us to where you want this district to be. I can help you to develop a road map to get us to where I think you want this district to be. You do that by strategic planning. You do that by addressing the needs and the greatest resources.”
Q: What will it take for Lafayette Parish schools to make significant progress in reducing the achievement gap? What experience have you had in reducing the achievement gap and leading students to significant gains? What would be your approach to improving teacher quality and teacher morale?
A: I’ve been fortunate to witness some of the incredible stories to come out of SMP. We had a school, now closed due to consolidation. Of the 39 fourth graders, three of them passed the LEAP in 2004. The school was in academic warning in that year. In the 2006-07 school year, the school grew 25.4 points in one year. How? We taught English Language Arts and math. “We barely taught science and social studies. We taught what those kids needed.”
In the next year, the school grew the exact same amount, 25.4 points. In two years, the school grew 50 SPS points. That tells me that the concept “these kids will never be able to be educated” is a fallacy.
Meanwhile, Hattie Watts Elementary School was a one-star school in 2004. This year it was named a 2011 Blue Ribbon School with an SPS approaching 110.
Q: The community recently voted two to one against a property tax to support facility needs. What would you recommend as the next steps to address facility improvement needs?
A: First, I would make sure we could leverage every dollar and push it toward the greatest structural and health care needs of those schools. I would spend bond money in the places that impact instruction. Figure out how you’re going to propose to the public how you’re going to help them by spending the money they approve.
As an example, maintenance funds tax districts works in SMP because that parish is geographically distinct. It may not work in Lafayette Parish, but there are other options.
One mill of ad valorem tax in Lafayette Parish produces $1.2 to $1.5 million, so 5 mills would bring in $6-7 million and 6-7 mill would bring in $10-12 million. Could you use a maintenance tax to address the health and safety of your schools? It’s not nearly the plan you’ve already offered to your voters. You’ve already identified the needs. Now maybe you need to prioritize the needs.
Would a pay-as-you-go program work or a half-cent sales tax? With this method, you could build and propose a maintenance plan for new construction as a more palatable way to generate revenue that everyone who travels to Lafayette has to pay.
The construction plan you’ve proposed is impressive. It’s aggressive. The question is, will you get the money you need to fund it?
Q: Many of the successful programs in SMP were seeded in the LPSS and since abandoned in LPSS.
A: Fast ForWord came to SMP because I knew of it in Lafayette. We started with five licenses. We bet the bank that our problem was reading literacy. It’s not the only program we’ve adopted — DEEP in Math also has been hugely successful and the TAP (Teacher Advancement Program) from Ascension Parish has been very effective as an improvement program for teachers. We’ve borrowed many of the good ideas and taken full advantage.
Q: Is it unfair to expect that a superintendent can fix all of the problems in a failing segment of the parish? The specific areas discussed have a history of longer than 10 years in this situation.
A: It might be unfair to expect a superintendent can fix it immediately. It would be fair to expect the change. The superintendent can affect the change in the culture over time.
Q: What is your policy on filling positions within the LPSS?
A: I want to find the person who can do the job effectively, not the person who is being promoted as a reward for services rendered. I’m not interested in promoting from within as a reward.
Q: Are you willing to look at personnel and make changes? Are you willing to bite the bullet?
A: I didn’t know anyone in SMP. I was able to appoint a personnel director, assistant superintendent, fill the chief financial officer position … the jobs are really straightforward. I need people to do their jobs incredibly well. I’m not interested in helping people finish with their highest three years in a position.
Q: You said earlier that the board has to give vision and direction to a school system. How does that happen?
A: In the absence of a board knowing where they want to be, I’m prepared to articulate that. I can articulate several opportunities for Lafayette Parish and provide a road map to achieving those opportunities. The board’s role is agreeing that these are priorities and providing funding to achieve those priorities.
Q: What was your greatest disappointment in SMP?
A: I thought we could have improved faster than we did. Maybe that was unrealistic. I didn’t push harder and the district was capable. We let off in some areas, and we didn’t take full advantage.
Q: SMP’s DPS is at 96.7. If you were there for another seven years, where would they be?
A: I’d expect us to be at 105 in three or four years. We are growing 3 to 4.5 points per year.