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Defying Expectations: Jefferson Parish Public Schools

Part I: Introduction to JPPSS: The first installment in a four-part series exploring the reform of the Jefferson Parish Public School System


Louisiana has garnered national recognition in recent years for “putting students first in its education policies,” and for its leadership in education reform. While much of this attention has focused on the transformation of New Orleans’ public schools, you might be surprised to hear what State Superintendent of Education John White said about neighboring Jefferson Parish: “I think this is one of the most exciting places for public education in Louisiana. This is the largest school system in the state, and in that way what Jefferson does is a message you send to the rest of the state.”

White has good reason to be excited about the example set by Jefferson Parish. In the space of just three years, the Jefferson Parish Public School System (JPPSS) has emerged as one of the most improved school districts in Louisiana. As recently as the 2010-11 school year, JPPSS ranked 51st out of 70 districts in the state based on academic performance. Nearly 40% of the district’s 8th graders were below basic in ELA and Math on Louisiana’s LEAP test and approximately 30% of high school seniors were failing to graduate on time. In addition, the district faced the potential takeover of several its schools, 59 of which were graded “D” or “F” by the Louisiana Department of Education.

However, in the course of the past two years, JPPSS has witnessed a startling turnaround thanks to a series of bold reform initiatives spearheaded by Superintendent James Meza. The district’s performance has increased in almost every grade and subject area, and in particular, among district’s long-underserved African-American and special education populations. And just this month, Jefferson Parish officials announced that the number failing schools in the district had fallen from a high of 18 in 2010 to only 4 this past school year.*

While much attention has been given to the “New Orleans Miracle,” the turnaround in neighboring Jefferson Parish Public Schools has implications for districts across the country.
While much attention has been given to the “New Orleans Miracle,” the turnaround in neighboring Jefferson Parish Public Schools has implications for districts across the country.

What makes these gains particularly noteworthy is the fact they have been achieved within the context of a traditional, school board-governed district. In this sense, the lessons from Jefferson Parish have broader application than those of the “New Orleans Miracle,” where officials had the singular opportunity to rebuild the school system after Katrina. In contrast, the reforms in Jefferson Parish were developed by district leaders and implemented with the support of the school board and community.

As those involved in public education know, JPPSS is an all-too-rare example of successful “reform-from-within,” which raises an important question: Why did Jefferson Parish succeed where innumerable other districts have failed? With the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to identify three key factors that made the reforms in JPPSS possible:

  1. Community Investment: There was a recognition in the community that the school system needed reform, as reflected in the election of a pro-reform slate of candidates to the school board.
  2. Determined Leadership: JPPSS Superintendent James Meza began implementing long-overdue changes almost immediately after his appointment, all-the-while carefully building support for a comprehensive reform plan.
  3. Strategic Planning: Jefferson Parish partnered with Mass Insight Education to develop a comprehensive reorganization plan that reoriented the district around the needs of schools and students.

In subsequent posts over the next week, we will look at each of these elements in greater detail to examine the critical roles that each factor played in Jefferson Parish’s transformation.

Check back on Thursday for Part II on the role of community investment in Jefferson Parish schools.

* Only one of these four schools is a traditional JPPSS school; the rest are temporary alternative schools that students attend while on expulsion.

A version of this post originally appeared on the blog, In The Zone.

Written by Peter Cook

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.

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