Philip Lanoue's Contagious Ways Lead to National Honors

Profile of Philip Lanoue
2015 National Superintendent of the Year Philip Lanoue

By Paul Riede  

When Nancy Denson met Clarke County, Ga., Superintendent Philip Lanoue in 2009, she was immediately taken by his passion for education. She also admits feeling a little guilty.

Denson, now mayor of Athens-Clarke County, says Lanoue’s insistence that poverty cannot be an excuse for school failure got her thinking about her own assumptions.

“I was doing something a lot of other people were doing,” she says. “I was making excuses.”

Now, nearly six years later, Lanoue’s enthusiasm and “no excuses” attitude in the high-poverty, 13,000-student district have proven contagious. The achievement gap in the majority-minority district has narrowed dramatically.

Lanoue, Georgia’s superintendent of the year and now AASA’s 2015 National Superintendent of the Year, says his success has come from opening up the system -- bringing clarity and transparency to its work and its dealings with the public.

Nowhere has that been more apparent than in the district’s classrooms. Ernest Hardaway, Clarke County’s executive director of school support, says that before Lanoue’s arrival teachers in different schools were taking widely different approaches to instruction – and often getting the same poor results.

Lanoue cracked open that go-it-alone culture, Hardaway says, first with plain talk, then with aggressive action to standardize effective classroom practices across the district.

“What is teaching? What does it look like?” Lanoue says. “If you’re teaching, somebody has to be learning. If nobody is learning you can’t call it teaching, but we have for years.”

Lanoue, 58, called the new classroom practices “non-negotiables,” insisting that all teachers adopt them. Those non-negotiables – now termed “commitments for high student performance” – are readily observable, and Lanoue is not shy about observing them. He has done hundreds of classroom walk-throughs and expects principals and even other teachers to do the same.

“Too often when you were in schools of poverty there was talk of ‘All kids can do it,’ but there wasn’t really a belief that all kids can do it,” he says. “We changed that. And that’s why we take risks with our kids. We got people to say, ‘Do you really believe this of all your kids, and if you do, why are you doing this?’”

Among the risks he took was to offer the high school physical science course to all 8th graders who wanted to take it, regardless of their academic standing. The vast majority of students who accepted the challenge succeeded.

He also opened a career academy that offers dual enrollment with a local technical college at no cost to students, and he provided take-home laptops to all students in grades 3 through 9, with 10th through 12th graders slated to participate within the next year or two.

Despite initial concerns, only about five of the 8,000 or so laptops lent out so far have gone missing, Lanoue says.

The renewed confidence in the district’s struggling students has led to other changes. Lanoue says the district has improved its school climate by reducing student suspensions and expulsions in favor of practices based on “inner control psychology.”

“As adults, we don’t control kids,” he says. “I tell people I have trouble controlling me on a good day. What we want is for kids to intrinsically make good decisions for the right reasons. Instead of commands and suspensions and expulsions, we put in behavior specialists, we do class meetings in the morning. Adults have to role-model exactly what they want for kids.”

In addition to suspending fewer students, Lanoue personally tries to re-enroll those who dropped out. Each year -- usually on Martin Luther King Day -- the superintendent and 15 to 20 other school officials break into pairs and go door-to-door to the homes of dropouts to urge them to come back. The number of dropouts has declined from 222 in 2009 to 132 last year.

For all his emphasis on “non-negotiables” in the classroom, Lanoue is just as passionate in opposing practices he believes are counterproductive. He continues to oppose Georgia’s teacher evaluation system, which bases half a teacher’s rating on observable practices and surveys and the other half on improvement on student tests.

Lanoue maintains his district’s observable practices are tighter and more effective than the state’s model, and he dismisses single-measure student growth scores as an invalid and unreliable measure of teacher performance.

“You cannot distill the hundreds of thousands of interactions that teachers, kids and people have into one score,” he says.

Lanoue has opened up the school district, which is located in the same community as University of Georgia, not only to parents who want to visit schools and classrooms, but to the news media as well. He says being transparent, rather than trying to hide the district’s struggles, is a key to gaining and keeping community trust and support.

“If it’s bad it’s bad and if it’s ugly it’s ugly,” he says. “It’s real.”

In the end, he says, the openness garners far more positive press than negative.

Lanoue, born in the tiny Vermont paper-mill town of Sheldon Springs, near the Canadian border, first made his mark in ice hockey. He says he started playing on “a pond near the swamp” and advanced to captaining and later coaching state championship teams.

He went off to the University of Vermont as a pre-med student, but after discovering that he loved working with children through hockey, he switched to secondary education and became a biology teacher.

By 32, he was principal of Burlington High School, the largest high school in Vermont, and a little over three years later was named Vermont’s principal of the year.

After stints as a principal in Lexington, Mass., and in Weston, Mass., he became an area assistant superintendent in a struggling portion of Cobb County, Ga., in 2005 before being named to lead the Clarke County schools in July 2009.

His wife, Vickie, commutes to Boston, spending most of her weekdays there or traveling as director of event management at MFS Investment Management. Their two grown daughters live in Boston.

Denson, the mayor of Athens, and Hardaway, a central-office administrator, both hope Lanoue stays just where he is, despite being in the national limelight for his effective organizational leadership.

"I've been here 41 years, and the last six have been the best of my career," Hardaway says. "I can see the difference in what we’re doing for kids."

(Paul Riede is an education freelance writer in Cazenovia, N.Y. )

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