Cover Story

Persons of the Year

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The LPSB's Gang of Five' found common ground - and the common good - in fighting the status quo to chart a bold, new course for closing the achievement gap in Lafayette's public schools. Photos by Robin May

By Heather Miller Photos by Robin May

Tucked away in a far corner of Jolie's Bistro, the grand finale of a landmark Lafayette Parish School Board superintendent vote is finally winding down. Dr. Pat Cooper has been named the next leader of Lafayette Parish schools, and the overflow of excitement at an impromptu fête stirs board member Kermit Bouillion to a pause.
"I'd like to propose a toast," he says as he raises his glass to more than a dozen friends and colleagues surrounding the table. "To the team ..."

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The LPSB's Gang of Five' found common ground - and the common good - in fighting the status quo to chart a bold, new course for Lafayette's public schools. Photos by Robin May

By Heather Miller Photos by Robin May

Tucked away in a far corner of Jolie's Bistro, the grand finale of a landmark Lafayette Parish School Board superintendent vote is finally winding down. Dr. Pat Cooper has been named the next leader of Lafayette Parish schools, and the overflow of excitement at an impromptu fête stirs board member Kermit Bouillion to a pause.

"I'd like to propose a toast," he says as he raises his glass to more than a dozen friends and colleagues surrounding the table. "To the team ..."

The marching orders were tall seven months ago when the Lafayette Parish School Board set out to find a replacement for retiring Superintendent Burnell Lemoine. A broad community of professionals, parents and civic leaders was unyielding in its demands for more transparency, more public collaboration and a concrete plan to address the problems - namely our failing north Lafayette schools - that keep our children ranked consistently in the middle.

Accepting their fate as the "Gang of Five" - a sobriquet bestowed derisively on the group by fellow board member Tommy Angelle - Bouillion, Hunter Beasley, Tehmi Chassion, Shelton Cobb and Mark Cockerham hired one of the most dynamic résumés to ever take charge of the Lafayette Parish School System.

No more excuses'

Stakeholders took note of subtle changes that began brewing on the board this year when Chassion and Bouillion were sworn in as new members, but it wasn't until May that a new majority board jump-started the search for Lemoine's successor - and began a months-long battle to buck the status quo.

Beasley, Cobb and Cockerham all say that despite their established pattern of similar voting records and open communication during their first terms in office, they were a minority bloc still learning the ropes.

"I started recognizing some of our inadequacies in the district, and I didn't agree with some of the things being done," Beasley says. "It seemed like this expectation that we're just supposed to take this information as given to us and vote on it without having any background knowledge of what's entailed. Whether or not it was selective filtering so to speak, I don't know. That's why I asked so many questions. I don't operate that way. Maybe that's what's been done in the past."

Bouillion recalls a heavy reliance on other board members for guidance during his transition into public office this year. The current alliance, he says, reflects those who stood up and stood out.

"I was trying to figure out where I'd fit in," Bouillion says. "It seemed to me there were some very, very kind people on the board, four or five guys who really reached out. That really stuck with me as a new board member."

With 2010 election platforms largely revolving around the looming super search, Cockerham says the newer and younger blood flowing through the board was ready to plunge into the search. Five months later, however, the board was unexpectedly asked to vote on an extension of Lemoine's already extended contract. Again, five board members had other plans.

When news of the simple majority spread to board members and eventually to Lemoine - before the public meeting took place - Lemoine decided to announce his retirement and forgo a vote of the board.

It was mission accomplished for the unassuming gang, but two meetings later Angelle offered a very public and critical explanation of why Lemoine's contract extension never made it to a vote.

"Mr. Angelle, on an open microphone, in a public meeting, accused me of caucusing the votes," Bouillion says. "I never felt I did anything wrong, but the board president [Mark Babineaux] felt he should report me to the DA. Did that create some animosity? It probably did. After Mike Harson said I didn't break the law, only the spirit of the law if anything, the board president called in one of the most respected lawyers out of Baton Rouge to talk to us about ethics, like to slap me on the wrist again. It probably sealed the Gang of Five. My four friends, my fellow board members, really came to my side at that point. They knew I was down, a new board member on the front page of the papers accused of breaking ethics violations. They came to me. They supported me.

Shelton Cobb, Kermit Bouillion, Tehmi Chassion, Mark Cockerham, Hunter Beasley

"Since then, we've just galvanized," Bouillion continues. "We can talk to each other. We won't always be together. We'll vote against each other one day. But even though we disagree we'll still work together. That's how it has to be. The news media seems to like the Gang of Five thing a lot. They've stuck with it."

Though Chassion still somewhat cringes when he hears the Gang of Five reference - the 30-year-old school board freshman sees it more as a simple alignment of philosophies for worthwhile reform - he's quick to join others in conceding that it was Angelle's fateful few minutes on the board floor in May that officially coined the term.

"The people on the losing side, they're the ones who call us a gang," Cobb adds. "I don't care what they label it, progress is progress. I see quite a different approach from the board right now. We don't accept the philosophy that poor, minority children can't learn. We can't accept the excuses used in the past. The community has accepted our position. I welcome them to join our side."

Key stakeholders and reform advocates made it clear from the beginning that the best choice in a super would likely come from outside the confines of LPSS. No lifers, no search firm and no restrictions on the level of public input.

But the well-noted resistance from the Sore Four remained in place until the last few seconds of the selection process, as board members Angelle, Mark Babineaux, and Greg Awbrey cast their super votes in favor of veteran LPSS administrator Katie Landry.

Worth noting: Awbrey told The Independent in a May phone interview that he did not support hiring a super from within LPSS.

"All nine of us see the effort that the current administration and system is giving," Chaisson notes. "We all acknowledge their effort. But I think when it finally breaks down, there are certain board members that just want more done. Nobody wants to see schools fail. We just see that a change needs to be made. There's no reason we should have had to close N.P. Moss. They were aware of the test scores 15 years ago, 10 years ago. Something had to change. It didn't. I know a lot of people put their blood, sweat and tears into trying to save that school. But it didn't work."

The lone vote cast for Starkville, Miss., Assistant Superintendent Walter Gonsoulin came from Rae Trahan, who did not attend a single interview for the top 10 super candidates - and joined three other board members in fighting against a proposition from Beasley to allow LaPESC and 100 Black Men participation in the interview process.

"The five of us said let's get the community involved," Bouillion says. "Then board members on the other side said No, you can't do that. You're diluting my vote. I'm the elected official.' You know, it's terrible to read the papers and see the ugly comments people make about the school system. We're trying to regain the trust of the community as a school board. There's a reason they have no faith in us."

In the end, the Lafayette Parish School Board unanimously accepted the Gang of Five's majority vote and selected Cooper as our next superintendent.

After seven months of eyeing curve balls, the Gang of Five achieved "a grand slam."

"Our team hit a home run in Dr. Cooper," Bouillion says. "If people want to join our team, we're more than happy to accept anybody. We're just thinking in the same direction right now. We're not trying to alienate four people. We're voting with our hearts."

LaPESC's Margaret Trahan and Chip Jackson were instrumental in the search for a new LPSS superintendent.

The Dream Team

When Bouillion began his toast amid the lively banter at Jolie's, his praise to "the team" was celebrated by a rare combination of civic leaders, board members and public officials who have been working behind the scenes on behalf of public education in Lafayette Parish since long before the Gang of Five took shape.

It's been two years since the concept of the Lafayette Parish Education Stakeholders Council was formed, uniting nine civic organizations and public entities with more than 5,000 collective members on a reform-minded front for effective change in our schools. The road to our new superintendent would have taken a different path without the persistence of LaPESC- and its handful of diehard stakeholders who attend more school board functions than even some board members.

Despite opposition from some on the board, United Way Executive Director Margaret Trahan and 100 Black Men representative Chip Jackson were able to join in the interview process for the top 10 super candidates. Looking back, board members says their presence was a much-needed addition to the panel.

"I really don't know what we would have done without Margaret and Chip," Cockerham says. "They came with their all and poured a lot into this search."

When The Independent called United Way's Trahan one morning trying to verify attendance records for board members during the superintendent interviews, she - within seconds - was able to reference her well-kept files and list the name of every single board member who did or did not attend superintendent interviews for the final 10 candidates.

"When we were stuck on ideas and bouncing things around, they seemed to chime in at the perfect time," Cockerham says of the presence of outside stakeholders during the process.

Cajundome Director and civic leader Greg Davis, who's been openly vocal on local education reform and openly critical of our district's performance scores for years, has been touting Cooper's name as a person of interest in what Lafayette's failing schools need for the past few years. The Independent first heard Cooper's name two years ago thanks to Davis, and the same can be said for Gary McGoffin, a Lafayette attorney, active LaPESC member, Civic Cup winner and regular attendee of school board meetings.

Davis, who ran in 2010 for the Lafayette Parish School Board and lost to Angelle by four votes, even stepped down as chairman of LaPESC in September of last year when the group realized his role in LaPESC hindered its relationship with LPSS, which has little - if any - love for Davis and his efforts to shake up the district's stagnant scores.

The "Persons of the Year" are undoubtedly  our "Gang of Five" who overcame central office and the school board's often heated power struggles to bring big change - but Bouillion's toast to "the team" is spot on.

"The working relationships that have come from this, the open discussions with the community - it's just unbelievable," McGoffin says.

Our Super
It's time for Lafayette Parish to show Dr. Pat Cooper the proper welcome for which Cajuns are known.

Seven months, endless meetings, scandalous board games, unprecedented public input, and one fine superintendent.

It's a been a laborious era in the public education community of Lafayette Parish, but the Dec. 14 decision by the Lafayette Parish School Board to hire Dr. Pat Cooper as our next superintendent brings the months-long search for a new leader to a worthwhile close.

Cooper spent several years as a classroom teacher in Baton Rouge before working his way up the ranks in the state Department of Education. His roles at the state education department included overseeing a program for emotionally disturbed and autistic children and eventually serving as the assistant superintendent for special education services in Louisiana.

More noteworthy, however, is Cooper's 22 years of experience as a top education administrator with a proven track record of narrowing the achievement gap and drastically turning around graduation rates in districts where he's formerly served as superintendent. His model includes a coordinated school health program that focuses on poverty-stricken children from birth to 5 years old receiving solid developmental training - and health care resources - to ensure that underprivileged and often under-performing children are ready and able to learn when they begin public school.

Cooper's first superintendent stint was in West Feliciana Parish, where he developed and administered the first birth-to-5 program in Louisiana and began a district-run family health clinic. West Feliciana Parish schools have been among the highest performing in the state since the start of those programs.

From there, Cooper took on the McComb, Miss., public school district, a system with 90 percent of its students living in poverty. During his 10-year tenure in McComb, graduation rates climbed more than 20 percentage points from 75 percent in 1997 to more than 95 percent when he left in 2007.

Since 2007, Cooper has served as CEO of the Mahalia Jackson Early Childhood and Family Learning Center in New Orleans, a post-Katrina birth-to-5 facility under the umbrella of the Orleans Parish School Board that brings 17 state and national partner agencies "under one roof to perform one-stop' services for residents in one of the most impoverished and crime-ridden neighborhoods in New Orleans."

A native of Springhill in north Louisiana, Cooper testified twice before Congress on education reform, the coordinated school health model and the importance of early childhood education. He also works as an education consultant with schools in roughly 45 states, offering advice on early learning, school health models, funding strategies and overall education reform.

"For children coming out of poverty, you don't make excuses for the families," Cooper told board members in his final interview Wednesday afternoon. "Yes, families ought to be doing a lot of stuff. Parents ought to be doing a lot of stuff. The reality is they're not. Maybe they can't. Those kids are still showing up at school ... Whether it's black or white, we have to really do some soul searching about the social services aspect."

Referencing Maslow's hierarchy of needs, Cooper says achieving maximum potential means "you have to make sure you're physically healthy, have to feel safe, have to feel like you belong and have a sense of self-esteem."

"I think we have to do that process with a lot of these children," Cooper told the school board. "The mistake is that we let them get to school and they're so far behind already at 5 years of age."

United Way of Acadiana Executive Director Margaret Trahan says Cooper met with community stakeholders twice before he submitted his application for the superintendency, first when he served as keynote speakers at a community forum in 2007 at the recommendation of Cecil Picard Center Director Dr. Billy Stokes.

Cooper returned to Lafayette in March of this year to speak at the UW's annual banquet, where he shared inspiring stories of success in the trenches of poverty-stricken school districts with a crowd of UW donors.

Though Cooper has already heard from United Way, LaPESC, 100 Black Men of Greater Lafayette and others with high hopes for the new head of public schools here, he says there are 52 other public entities, organizations and people he plans to meet with in his first few months as superintendent.

"If we fix the north side of town, we essentially fix the school system," board member Mark Cockerham says. "Every school board struggles in this area. This is no time for on-the-job training. We're looking for someone with experience in this, someone who's done what hasn't been done here. We've got the greatest superintendent we could have asked for in Dr. Cooper."

Now, says board member Hunter Beasley, "It's time to run with it."