Former GMMS principal sees success as superintendent

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 7, 2012



LAPLACE — St. Helena Parish School Board Superintendent Kelli Joseph said the blueprint to creating a successful school system is clear — it just comes down to maintaining the commitment to implement each step, consistently, each and every day.

That takes a lot of work. But somehow, Joseph has made things look easy from an outside point of view.

Joseph, who spent six years as principal at Garyville-Mount Airy Math and Science Magnet School, took over as St. Helena’s Superintendent in June of 2011.

She inherited a job that saw two schools under her watch, St. Helena High School and St. Helena Elementary, deemed by the state Department of Education “as academically unacceptable.” The district ranked at the worst in the state in terms of test scores.

Joseph was steadfast in her assertion that brighter days were ahead, and skeptics were steadfast in their criticism. A year later, St. Helena Parish officially ranks as the most improved in the state by those same measures while managing to trim the budget deficit by $1 million at the same time.

“I relished the challenge,” said Joseph of her thoughts upon accepting the position. “They’re children. We need to make sure that they receive a quality education. They represent our future, and it’s up to us to make sure our future is bright.”

Still, Joseph deflects praise, noting that while things are trending back in the right direction, in no way, shape or form is the job complete.

“Yes, we’re the most improved. But remember, when you grade out as the lowest performance in the state, there is plenty of room for improvement,” said Joseph. “There is a whole lot of work yet to be done. We have a clear vision of where we want to be and how to get to that point.”

Immediately after taking over her new post, Joseph got to work. New supervisors, new principals and new teachers were hired and directives were issued; everyone needed to be pulling together on the same rope, Joseph said.

“The board allowed me to make decisions to change leadership, to bring in experts in the field, to set priorities in our schools,” said Joseph. “All of those things make a big difference.”

Accountability is the name of the game.

“Give them exactly what to teach, and communicate with them on strategies. Monitor what’s going on. Have a principal who is visible and present,” said Joseph. “There is no big secret on how to make improvement in the school system. You set a clear vision, and you work with everyone on staff, every day, toward implementing it.”

Joseph said that before 2007 she had never heard of St. Helena Parish. But after serving on a quality assurance review team that worked with the parish, she said she was always interested in seeing how St. Helena was doing.

“One day, I was perusing a website and saw the opening,” she said of the superintendent position. “I filled out an application, but went away from it for a bit. When I came back to it, I saw that the deadline to apply had been extended. At that point, I hit the ‘send’ button.”

She went through a few rounds of interviews until there were no rounds left, the job hers to take hold of.

And, as she said, the challenge was hers as well. She said she understands why critics surround the school system. Rebuilding trust in the community, she maintains, is the biggest challenge the system faces.

“You must have trust,” she said, “to have a sound school system. It takes time, but I guarantee you that we’re up for that challenge.”

Especially troubling to Joseph was a recent complaint levied to the state Department of Education alleging that teachers helped students cheat on state tests at St. Helena Central Elementary School — the school’s LEAP scores jumped by 13 percentage points this year when compared to 2011 scores.

An investigation found no basis for the allegation.

But it fuels Joseph’s fire.

“We’re all fired up,” she said. “They want to keep it going. It’s absolutely false, and it’s so unfair to the kids that what they’ve done be tarnished at in that way. When we heard about it, it made us ready for school to get started again.”

Joseph began her career in education as a teacher at Leon Godchaux High School in 1998.

She moved on to teach at Lutcher High School, then returned to St. John Parish to teach at East St. John Elementary.

“Making a difference in a child’s life is such a reward,” she said. “You have kids who are so appreciative, and it makes you want to continue to educate.”

She was appointed by then-St. John School Board Superintendent Mike Coburn as assistant principal at Lake Pontchartrain Elementary before moving on to Garyville Magnet.

Now, the ambitious educator combines a big picture vision with some clear short-term goals. In the end, it leads to a bright future — and, potentially, a heck of an inspirational worst-to-first story.

“I want to make St. Helena the best district in the state of Louisiana,” said Joseph. “A successful school system that instills trust in the community absolutely takes time to build. We’ve started the process.”