Concordia Parish schools leader reflects on past year

Published 11:57 pm Saturday, January 17, 2009

VIDALIA — Even though she initially took over as interim superintendent of Concordia Parish schools in November 2007, this month marks one year since Loretta Blankenstein officially took the helm at the school board office.

The principal at Ferriday Upper Elementary at the time, Blankenstein was hired following the contentious removal of the previous superintendent.

But Blankenstein said while there were a few lingering emotions following her hiring, the situation that preceded her appointment did not come into play much in the initial months.

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“I think everyone who works in the school system wants what is best for children,” she said. “Once the decision was made, everyone — even if they maybe had some different feelings about it — decided to get back on track toward that common goal.”

It is also important to remember that when working with the school board, she is working with nine different people, all with different personalities and representing different areas, Blankenstein said.

“You have to keep in mind that when they have a different opinion, it is because they are looking out for the people they represent,” she said.

In the months that followed Blankenstein’s hiring, the school district faced two major events.

The first of those was a U.S. Justice Department order to remove out-of-district children from schools.

Blankenstein described the call that she received telling her that the Justice Department was coming to inspect the schools as “a big surprise.”

The reviewer was actually pleased with many things she saw in the school, but the big issue of contention was that there were out-of-district children in the system, which ran counter to a Justice Department desegregation order.

“When you have to tell people that their children can no longer attend the schools they have been attending, that’s not a fun thing,” Blankenstein said.

The efforts to come in line with the order are still under way, but the school board does allow someone new to the district a few days to produce the proper documentation when they register for school.

“It is certainly not my goal to keep a child out of school,” Blankenstein said.

The second major incident was an accident involving a school bus in October, an incident that Blankenstein called one of the worst days in her life.

“When you drive up on a scene like that and you don’t know the severity of what has happened, it makes your heart feel like it is going to stop beating,” she said.

The bus driver was critically injured, two students suffered broken bones and dozens of others suffered minor injuries.

Following the accident, the school district reviewed accidents, talked about safety procedures and listened to the community, Blankenstein said.

“We looked into the pros and cons of what the community was saying about the issue of seat belts on the bus,” she said.

The shift from principal to superintendent hasn’t changed how she lives her life, but it has given her a heightened sense of responsibility, Blankenstein said.

“As a principal, I was responsible for everything that happened at one location,” she said. “In this job, I am accountable for everything that goes on at every location.”

Because she has different duties now, there are other roles educators get to fill that Blankenstein said she misses.

“The children, that’s the part I miss the most, the ability to walk out my door and talk to a child and be a part of a child’s life,” she said. “It’s not the same to just visit a school.”

And with that disconnect, it’s important to remember that the most important people in the school district are the children, Blankenstein said.

“Whenever I make a decision, I try to keep in mind how it will affect a child,” she said.

“I recognize that the schools, that is where the students are, so that’s the most important part of our system.”

The big challenge the school district will face in the coming year is funding.

“We don’t what type of economic problems may be passed down to the district in funding from the state level,” Blankenstein said. “Along with our routine needs, we have a lot of old buildings and equipment that need updating.”

Looking back at the last year’s test scores, Blankenstein acknowledged the school district is not where it can be academically.

“I am proud of the improvements we have made, but we have a long way to go,” she said.

But she said she is proud of the job that the teachers and staff have been doing over the last year.

“When we go to the schools, we see a lot of teaching and learning going on, that that is what we are supposed to see,” she said.

The past year hasn’t necessarily been easy, but it has been enjoyable, Blankenstein said.

“I have enjoyed this year,” she said. “It has had its challenging moments, but it has had its proud moments.”