Turning Tragedy into Change
Few superintendents have suffered and successfully effected change like Doris Voitier of St. Bernard Parish Public Schools in Chalmette, La. An employee of St. Bernard for 36 years, Voitier became superintendent when the 8,800-student district, which is located 10 minutes outside of New Orleans' French Quarter, was thriving. The district had gone through a full rehabilitation just five years prior, building four new schools and renovating the rest. SBPPS became the first district in Louisiana to be fully accredited. There was an adequate funding balance and a universal program for 4-year-olds - another first for the state. "We were a very successful public school system before the storm," she says.
But in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, St. Bernard Parish was a shell of its former strength. "Not a building survived- every house, every church, every business," says Voitier, who earned her bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of New Orleans and her certification in education administration from U-NO/Loyola University.
"If you drive through our community today, a vast portion is still as you would've seen it just after the storm," she says. And according to Voitier, inadequate federal leadership and state resources not getting into the hands of the people who really need them have kept most rebuilding from happening. "We've had a drop in population due to the slowness in recovery. ... But our school system has been a leader in bringing people back," and Voitier (pronounced "Voe-chay") has been the force of change at the center.
"I was always a rule-follower," explains Voitier, "but when we were totally destroyed, and I spent a week trapped in a school with 1,500 people, it changes your perspective when you see people suffering." So in the absence of citywide services for people and children still left in the district, and after months of fruitless FEMA meetings and its failed promises for trailers for a makeshift school, Voitier brought back a few key people from her administration to evaluate how they would rebuild.
They did what she realized they should've done in the beginning: locate trailers on their own.
"My rationale was that, 'I'm doing what's best for the community children. As long as I don't put a penny in my pocket, even if I have to bend the rules and regulations, I'll do it.'" Three and a half weeks later, St. Bernard pieced together a school in the parking lot of a local football stadium after receiving trailers from a company in Georgia to which Voitier herself reached out. "I had to accept an unusual role for an educational superintendent," she said.
Voitier expected no more than 100 students to immediately return, but 340 were there when the doors opened in November 2005. By Christmas she had 640, and by January 2006 there were 1,200.
"It was a time," says Voitier. "And we did it. We did it on our own. ... But that first year," she says, her voice trailing off. "The last year I studied geography, Louisiana was still a part of the country."
Change in Teaching Methods
"What I thought my superintendency was going to be has so vastly changed," says Voitier. "We have a lot more children of poverty, so our teaching methods have had to change. ... My goal was to move children toward student achievement. Now it's getting to rebuild from scratch-smarter."
With St. Bernard's middle class largely replaced by people too poor to live in anything but FEMA's trailer parks, "we had to take children whoever they were, regardless of a lack of academic achievement," she says. Voitier has focused on professional development with staff on how to teach St. Bernard's current below grade-level students, and the curriculum is consistently being rebuilt to accommodate an achievement gap much wider than it was before the storm.
Her district's survival has gone beyond providing just education. Voitier commissioned Howard and Joy Osofsky, doctors from the Louisiana State University School of Health to provide psychiatric and social services to her staff and students. "It's beyond belief what we're seeing behaviorally. People are still living in close quarters. And even if they're back in a regular house, five-year-olds are saying, 'May I have a crayon, or is it under the water too?"
St. Bernard's change in teaching methods is taking place as school locations are changing. "We're centralizing our campus," says Voitier. "We're rebuilding in a way that our new population dictates, better than before."
So far, three high schools have been consolidated into one school that's open and operational. And through FEMA dollars, as well as donations from Exxon- Mobil and the Kellogg Foundation, and by engaging local utility companies and organizations, Voitier leveled an elementary school to build a three-story building where every floor will have classrooms, planning areas for teachers, and space for extracurriculars. Behind it will be a field house and wrestling area, a cultural arts center replete with dance, choral, and theatrical areas, and a fitness center where all second-graders will learn to swim. The New Orleans Ballet will also return to the district to teach classes and work with students as it did before the storm.
The campus will open August 2009.
On Her Nomination
Voitier was a finalist for National Superintendent of the Year, an award co-sponsored by the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) and Aramark Education. We were a population of 68,000 people before the storm, and we have fewer than 30,000 people now," says Voitier. "People maybe are taking note of how people can come back from the greatest disaster in the country. "This award is a recognition of the people of St. Bernard Parish; they are coming back and coming again to be productive members of this country."
Jennifer Chase Esposito is a contributing writer for District Administration.