With first year under his belt, St. James supt. has higher test scores, new initiatives to his credit

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 16, 2008


Staff Reporter

LUTCHER – With more and more talk of economic development in the parish, the St. James Parish School Board was hoping for a well-adapted leader to make sure the schools could keep pace with the expected growth and change after former Superintendent Ed Cancienne stepped down last year.

A review of Superintendent Lonnie Luce’s first year on the job and a glance at what he has planned shows he hasn’t disappointed.

Luce said he’s proud of what he and the schools have accomplished so far.

The 10 public schools in St. James, which have struggled academically in the past, have been showing serious signs of improvement as tests scores are up. And Luce has been a big part of continuing that trend. He’s most proud of the growth and potential the schools have exhibited in just his first year as superintendent.

“Our ninth grade math scores were the highest in the state and 10th grade math scores were the second highest in the state,” he said. “That’s huge for a little parish like this that struggles in different things.”

Luce recently developed a five-year strategic plan for St. James with five focus areas designed to improve everything from test scores and new technological proficiencies – such as the 1-to-1 laptop initiative – to relations between the schools and the community.

The parish also just successfully finished its first year of busing high school seniors to and from Nicholls State University where they earned college credit for taking courses.

The list goes on.

Luce is excited about the implementation of the Science and Math Academy in Vacherie, the new gifted center with accelerated classes for 4-6 and 7-8 graders.

“A lot of people are wanting to get tested,” Luce said. “We’ve had a lot of private school kids come in and want to get tested.”

Of late, Luce has been cooperating with parish and state officials in trying to land some economic development projects.

“Lately the most interesting thing has been the economic development and how our school system plays in the role of bringing Nucor’s deal and some of these other major industries,” he said.

Luce said the hardest part of the job is finding enough time to spend in the schools with all of his new responsibilities. “It’s been a challenge a little bit to figure out how to juggle all the balls.”

Luce, with his extensive experience and local background, has been a unique fit in St. James, and the transition, for the most part, has been smooth.

“I think at the very front there were a couple [school board members] who were a little leery about who I was, but in general our board has been pretty receptive to me,” he said.

Luce said there “hasn’t been a single issue brought [to the board] with explanation that wasn’t approved.” Cooperation with the Parish Council has also been better than previous years, Luce added.

Luce already had the credentials to make a difference, but he is also a local – sort of – and has enough knowledge of the area to understand the idiosyncrasies and expectations of the parish. He knows, for example, that St. James loves its high school sports, so he’s been looking for ways to engage parents and achieve that same enthusiasm at the academic level.

“They’re very open,” he said of the parents, “they just need to be challenged.”

Luce, 39, was born in Hammond but moved all over – he’s lived in Pennsylvania and New York among other places – before settling in Ascension Parish.

He graduated from St. Amant High School and from there went to Southeastern Louisiana University where he earned a bachelor’s in social studies and math education. He furthered his education at Louisiana State University, picking up a master’s in public administration and a Ph.D. in educational administration.

Luce also has some interesting world experiences to boot.

Shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Luce spent nearly a year in Kandahar, Afghanistan, as an engineer officer in charge of all engineer operations there. Luce said the hardest part of that stint was being away from his family – he has three daughters (ages seven, 11 and 15) and a wife of 16 years – for so long. He spent much of his time on the base, but “when we did convoys and would go outside the compound is when it got a little bit interesting,” Luce said laughing.

Away from the office, Luce is a huge sports fan in addition to being the family man.

“The difference between my work and play is sometimes hard to tell because I like what I do,” he said.

On Sundays, Luce can be found at First Baptist Church of Gonzales. He actually still lives in Ascension Parish – in Pelican Point to be exact – as he has had trouble finding a place to live in St. James.

He’s an avid LSU fan and said he brought that with him even when he worked in the school system in Greenville, S.C.

“I had a lot of fun with the people up there,” he said. “I had all my LSU paraphernalia and, of course, many of them were USC fans,” he said referring to the University of South Carolina.

He’s still does the military thing as well, a lieutenant colonel and battalion commander a few weeks out of the year in Monroe.

All in all, Luce is looking forward to next school year and other years to come in St. James.

“I think we’re offering opportunities to our kids that can’t be compared to private schools,” Luce said.  “I think we compete with everybody now.”