Defying Expectations: Jefferson Parish Public Schools Part III

This week, our colleague Peter Cook will complete his four-part series on the education reform process in the Jefferson Parish Public School System in Louisiana.  Click here for Part I and Part II.  Part IV will be posted on Thursday.


Defying Expectations: Jefferson Parish Public Schools 

Part III: Determined Leadership

The third installment in a four-part series exploring the reform of the Jefferson Parish Public School System


In an exchange over his proposed reorganization plan at a board meeting last April, Dr. James Meza said what, in effect, has been his mantra since assuming the district’s top post: “We’ve got to be more successful. We need to focus all of our attention and energies on teaching our children. Everything else is secondary.”

While it’s exactly the kind of clear-cut statement that one might expect from a former colonel in the Army National Guard, Meza’s tenure in Jefferson Parish has shown that he is not easily pigeonholed. Over the past two years, Superintendent Meza has demonstrated an uncommon ability to build support on the board and in the community around his initiatives. As a result, he has been able to push through a series of far-reaching reforms in rapid succession.

Immediately following his appointment, Meza shifted nearly every senior district administrator to acting status, making clear that the decision to renew their contracts would hinge on their performance. He also initiated a high-level review of the district’s policies and academic performance to identify JPPSS’s strengths and areas-for-improvement.

Superintendent Meza addresses an audience in JPPSS.
Superintendent Meza addresses an audience in JPPSS.

When he presented his findings in a presentation to the board two months later, Meza put forth a strong case for a radical change in the structure of the central office from a top-heavy bureaucracy to a decentralized support system focused on the needs of schools. In addition, he outlined his plan to give schools greater autonomy over their use of time, money, and talent, while holding them to higher expectations for performance.

Although his proposals won the support of the school board, not everyone was enthusiastic about the changes outlined in Meza’s plan. For example, when it became clear that layoffs were necessary to offset a projected budget shortfall, Meza’s plan to base reduction-in-force decisions on performance rather than seniority was challenged by the local teachers’ union. Furthermore, his intention to close or consolidate a handful of chronically low-performing, under-enrolled campuses ran into opposition from members of those school communities.

Superintendent Meza greets a young Jefferson Parish student.
Superintendent Meza greets a young Jefferson Parish student.

Whereas other leaders might have wavered in the face of opposition, Superintendent Meza pressed ahead with his reforms, arguing that they were necessary to provide more resources and assistance to schools. Meza’s determination to see through his reform plan is a reflection of his belief that all children, regardless of race or socio-economic background, can thrive academically when given the right amount of encouragement and support. As a long-time friend noted, “Jim’s always had the conviction that where you’re born and the zip code where you were born … should not be the determining factor for the rest of your life. He believed urban schools could be successful.”

In the end, Meza’s relentless focus on students carried the day, and as a result, he has been able to accomplish nearly all of the goals he has established over the past two years. It’s a record of success that has earned what in New Orleans Saints territory is considered the highest form of praise, when board member Mark Jacobs referred to Meza as a “Drew Brees-caliber superintendent.”

On Thursday, we conclude our four-part series on Jefferson Parish, with a look at Mass Insight’s role in developing the district’s reorganization plan.


Peter Cook leads Mass Insight Education’s engagement with the Jefferson Parish Public School System and lives in New Orleans. You can follow him on Twitter at @petercook. Peter’s tweets are his own.