Profile

A Force for Workplace Understanding

by LIZ GRIFFIN

Few superintendents know what it’s like to be a student in the school district they now lead.

 

Jo Ann Matthews is part of that rare breed. She is superintendent of the Lafourche Parish School Board, a district serving 14,430 students in 28 schools in southern Louisiana, where she laughingly says, “The only task I haven’t done is drive a school bus.”

Profile_ JoAnn MatthewsJo Ann Matthews

Matthews is a 1981 graduate of Thibodaux High School, where she was the self-described shy “nerd in the corner” as well as a violinist with the Louisiana All-State Orchestra. Her career path to the superintendency began in earnest when she was encouraged to leave her job as a secretary for the Lafourche Parish School Board to become a special education teacher.

From there, she found her passion in educating children. She subsequently became head teacher for special education, then assistant principal, principal, supervisor of personnel, interim superintendent and, on Jan. 1, 2006, the first woman to land the top job.

Matthews sees her role as serving all students in Louisiana, not just those in her district, which stretches 150 miles from the small city of Thibodaux located 50 miles southwest of New Orleans to remote communities near the Gulf Coast.

While Matthews is decidedly proud of her achievements at Lafourche, including the initiation of a districtwide music program, universal prekindergarten and a comprehensive guidance model that was recognized by the state, she is mild-mannered and low-key. She deflects opportunities to brag, saying, “It takes everybody to come up with solutions.”

Matthews says her biggest job is altering the culture and the attitudes of staff, students and the larger community, including state legislators. Toward that end, she has reached out to build positive relationships with parochial schools and homeschooled students. She oversaw the opening of the district’s first charter school in her parish, a development she hopes will lead to replication of successful instructional practices.

She has advised state officials at times. When school districts were under financial pressure because of mandates governing teacher sabbaticals, sick leave and pensions last spring, Matthews offered to convene superintendents to craft solutions for the legislature.

“She’s the conduit between the districts and me … the one I turn to when I need to know what the market will bear,” says Christopher Meyer, special adviser to the state superintendent of the Louisiana Department of Education, who speaks with Matthews at least several times a month.

Gayle Sloan, a former superintendent who works for the state education agency, says Matthews’ common-sense demeanor made her a logical choice to serve as spokesperson in a department video promoting the state’s plan to tie teacher evaluation to student performance through a value-added measurement. “She has a professional educator’s credibility and innovator’s courage. It’s a combination that puts her at the forefront of her field,” Sloan says.

Matthews understood teachers’ anxiety and “helped convey that the new approach will help teachers do a better job, giving them the feedback they need and the support they deserve,” she adds.

In her six years as superintendent, the native of Thibodaux, La., has faced hard facts, including a high dropout rate, three reductions in force and budget cuts of increasing severity. Last year, she had the unenviable task of breaking the news of job layoffs to 65 classroom teachers, three support staff and 15 bus operators. Of that difficult assignment, Board President Rhoda Caldwell says, “Jo Ann has the gift of dealing with people, even when she has to let them go. She can talk to them and make them understand the situation.”

Adds Meyer: “She has a sense of optimism and is not shy about reaching out or asking for persistence despite tough financial times. You get (her) passion; it’s nothing canned. You can feel it.”

Liz Griffin is managing editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: lgriffin@aasa.org

BIO STATS: JO ANN MATTHEWS

Currently: superintendent, Lafourche Parish School Board, Thibodaux, La.

Previously: supervisor of personnel, Lafourche Parish

Age: 47

Greatest influence on career: My mother, an elementary teacher in Lafourche Parish for more than 30 years, inspired me with her dedication to education and the students she taught. She always encouraged persistence and working together to complete a task.

Best professional day: My first day as superintendent addressing all district employees.

Books at bedside:Weakfish: Bullying Through the Eyes of a Child by Michael Dorn and The Pursuit of Happyness by Chris Gardner

Biggest blooper: During a school board meeting, when recommending an applicant for a principalship, I intended to recommend a current assistant principal who had applied for the position and instead named his brother (a teacher at the school who hadn’t applied for the post). Everyone laughed when the brother “accepted.” Then I tried again — and once again recommended the brother. On the third try, the applicant quickly accepted for him and his brother.

Why I’m an AASA member: The organization provides current information on key topics of concern in education.