Profile

A High Watermark in Public Leadership

by Jay P. Goldman

Doris Voitier got a good chuckle from the news this spring that a demographer with the Brookings Institution had named St. Bernard Parish in Louisiana the fastest-growing community in America.

“It’s like investing in a stock when it’s $100 a share, watching it fall to a dollar, then seeing it bounce back to $3 a share,” says Voitier, waxing a metaphor that aptly captures the fortunes of the school system that she oversees as superintendent.

The St. Bernard school system sits across the eastern boundary of New Orleans. It was wiped off the map, literally, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, with every school facility submerged in deep water save for the second floor of Chalmette High School. That was Voitier’s dry perch and command center (where she managed 1,500 evacuees plucked from rooftops) during the first several days of what has become a remarkable recovery of a public school system, led by a 59-year-old native who refused to take no for an answer or to follow the torturously slow path carved out by the federal emergency management officials.

When the state superintendent of education announced that public schools in St. Bernard would be closed for the entire school year, Voitier already was laying plans for reopening school as soon as the first child could return to live in a place that had been home to 68,000.

“It was a natural reaction to say ‘there’s no way you can open.’ I knew that was not an option,” says Voitier. “If we wanted the survival of the community, I knew we had to have schools.”

In Voitier, the school system had all the ready-to-mix ingredients for a miraculous rebound. Before becoming the superintendent in 2004, she had spent a decade overseeing first support services and then instruction and curriculum. Earlier in her 37-year tenure in St. Bernard, she was the chief financial officer. If the paper records no longer existed, the know-how was all there in her capable hands and head.

In the months leading to the September 2005 floods, Voitier had essentially finished managing a massive districtwide facility renovation plan, including the building of four new schools, funded by a $30 million bond issue passed in 1998.

In the words of Charlotte Reuther, the past chair of the St. Bernard Chamber of Commerce, the superintendent “is the type of person who doesn’t think why she can’t do something.”

Voitier was unwilling to wait six months or longer for federal authorities to find portable classrooms, with families of first-responders and oil refinery workers already moving back to the area in the days immediately following the hurricane. She acted first and sought forgiveness later to procure what she needed from North Carolina and Georgia, enabling the renamed St. Bernard Unified School to open in mid-November, 11 weeks after Katrina. She expected no more than 100 children on opening day, but 334 turned up.

Today the district is working its way back to the fine reputation it once owned for its instructional program. A year ago, in spite of the tumult, St. Bernard earned district-level accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

Enrollment is at 4,300 (the pre-Katrina total was 8,800). Five schools have reopened and two new elementaries will start in September. A new three-story, multi-use high school, combining athletic and cultural centers and including a 9th-grade academy, opens next fall.

Voitier’s personal resolve has been appropriately noted. She was one of four finalists for the 2008 National Superintendent of the Year and became the first K-12 educator to receive the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation’s Profile in Courage Award.

Says Voitier of her accomplishment: “I knew in my gut we could make it happen.”

Jay Goldman is editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: jgoldman@aasa.org

BIO STATS: DORIS VOITIER

Currently: superintendent, St. Bernard Parish Public Schools, Chalmette, La.

Previously: assistant superintendent, St. Bernard

Age: 59

Greatest influence on career: Wayne Warner has been principal of Chalmette High School for more than 30 years. As a young teacher, I learned from him true compassion for students. He is the finest child-centered educator I have ever met.

Best professional day: Without a doubt, Nov. 14, 2005, the day we opened St. Bernard Unified School, after Hurricane Katrina destroyed our 14 schools and every home, church and business in our community. To see the smiles on the faces of the children as they saw their friends for the first time, to see their teachers hug them and each other, to see the tears in their parents’ eyes because their children had some sense of normalcy returned to them — those images are priceless and will remain with me forever.

Books at bedside: Fish! by Stephen C. Lundin, Harry Paul and John Christensen; The New Meaning of Educational Change by Michael Fullan; and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

Biggest blooper: A young teacher who had to leave our district e-mailed me to seek advice on her employment options. In responding, I was not so positive about one school where she was interviewing. Being somewhat technologically impaired, my response went not only to her but to the individual from the school making the offer.

Key reason I’m an AASA member: I was advised to join by a former superintendent, and I have not regretted the choice. I can always find information on education “hot topics” online and in the magazine, and this gives me the sense of being “in the know.”