Profile: Patrice M. Pujol

Zoning In On Critical Needs

By Kristin C. Hubing/School Administrator, August 2015 
 

Pujol
    Patrice M. Pujol 

Ascension Parish Schools, on the banks of the Mississippi River in Donaldsonville, La., always has been home for Patrice Pujol, superintendent of the suburban district located about an hour south of Baton Rouge.

Pujol has held nearly every role imaginable during 38 years in the 21,500-student district, from an honor roll student in the 1960s to its demanding chief executive today. She’s been an English teacher, assistant principal, principal, director of secondary education, director of school improvement and assistant superintendent.

“In every stage of my career, I always try to be excellent at what I’m asked to do,” explains Pujol, a 2015 National Superintendent of the Year finalist.

What she considers her proudest accomplishment as superintendent is the launch in 2010 of a turnaround zone covering the district’s eight lowest-performing schools. To close the wide achievement gap at those sites, Pujol and her colleagues implemented a Teacher Advancement Program, including a career ladder and pay-for-performance components. She replaced five of the eight principals and gave them the authority to remove any teachers who were not making positive strides in academics.

“We’ve created a culture where our best and brightest leaders and teachers are drawn to the schools in our [turnaround] zone because they know that’s where we’re going to have the most innovation, the most collaboration and the most professional development,” she says. “Great professionals want to work in that kind of environment.”

The success of the turnaround zone’s holistic interventions has put Pujol in the spotlight. Ascension Parish Schools now ranks among the state’s top five districts in student achievement. Within five years, eight schools assigned grades of D and F have been transformed into three B, two C and three D schools.

“Some of our turnaround zone schools are now outperforming some of the other schools in the district,” Pujol notes. Teachers who transferred to the needy schools often return to their original sites after a few years and bring lessons learned with them. “Not only do those teachers and students [in the turnaround zone] benefit, but the rest of our district benefits as well,” she adds.

Pujol recognizes her work is not complete. “We want to be competitive not just in Louisiana, but across the nation, even in our high-performing schools.”

Troy Gautreau, an Ascension Parish school board member and its former president, praises Pujol’s vision for the turnaround zone and calls her work cutting-edge. “She’s able to get people excited,” Gautreau says. “With her level of energy, you would think that she’s just starting in her career.”

Pujol believes the political savvy she has built out of her deep familiarity with the community enables her to make bold moves. “One of my talents is an ability to gather input from a lot of different people in order to have a project or concept evolve to something that the whole organization can buy into,” she says.

The superintendent holds high expectations for herself. “We subscribe to the belief that if we as leaders do not like the results we are getting, we need to look at our own leadership behaviors,” she says.

And Pujol has a barometer close at hand, her 12-year-old granddaughter Addie, an Ascension Parish 7th grader. “She keeps me grounded in what’s really happening in my school system,” Pujol confesses. “She’s my counterpoint.”


Kristin Hubing is editorial associate at School Administrator magazine. E-mail: khubing@aasa.org


 

Bio Stats: Patrice Pujol

 

Currently: superintendent, Ascension Parish Schools, Donaldsonville, La.

Previously: assistant superintendent, Ascension Parish

Age: 59

Greatest influence on career: My mother, a highly capable professional educator who modeled for me what it means to be a strong woman leader and taught me to use my strengths.

Best professional day: Participating in a highly reflective session with a group of teacher leaders from our district. The passion and commitment for our students and the deep professional expertise they demonstrated was so inspiring.

Book at bedside: All In: How the Best Managers Create a Culture of Belief and Drive Big Results by Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton

Biggest blooper: As I left a difficult staff meeting about magnet programs in our lowest-performing schools, I gave a strong chop of my hand and asked much more sharply than I should, “Do we even have a magnet program?” The staff, instead of getting angry with me, sent me a hilarious song they created about my comment with an app called Songify. I love that my team knows how to make me laugh at myself.

Why I’m an AASA member: For connections to the latest education information and, most importantly, to other education leaders who are making a real difference.