Irma Trosclair glances back at her phone, texting, and apologizes. “It’s about a student,” she says, her eyes showing tears. Trosclair has a reputation for tough-mindedness and an affinity for colorful blazers, but she can have a soft touch with her students. Last year, she was tapped by a unanimous vote of the school board to serve as interim superintendent for the Lafayette Parish School System and hopes to land the job on a permanent basis.
She has spent much of her 35-year career in St. Landry Parish, and she’s taught every grade from first through 12, but it was her 10-year stint as principal of Eunice Elementary that set her on the path to roles in leadership. Between 2002 and 2012, she led Eunice Elementary to National Blue Ribbon School status, a program by the U.S. Department of Education that recognizes schools based on their progress in closing achievement gaps, an accomplishment she duplicated in Crowley in 2015 in a high-poverty school district. For those efforts, she was awarded the Terrel H. Bell Award for Outstanding School Leadership.
Trosclair — called “Miss Tros” by both students and staff — is tough on discipline and academics, she also has a big heart for children. At South Crowley, she installed washers and dryers in the school after she noticed a young girl getting off the bus each day and hiding a stain on the front of her pants with her backpack.
She says working with struggling schools is “something along the way I fell into a passion for.”
After almost nine months as interim superintendent, Trosclair is hoping to make the job permanent. She spoke with The Current in late 2019.
What was one of the first things you did as interim superintendent?
Pray. [She laughs.] I started building my team. We had several positions open and started filling them. The associate superintendent position is a new one, and we needed someone to help provide oversight for operations and academics. I knew Francis Touchet from my work in South Crowley, and he has worked with districts across the state, so he provides that outside perspective. Dr. Mark Rabalais [chief academic officer] and Jennifer Gardner [chief administrative officer] are from within the district and know the pulse of our schools and our teachers.
We also identified our big buckets for . We are not jumping into everything. We are going to work on the big pieces first and slowly identify areas for improvement.
Tell me about your time in Acadia Parish.
I was at Eunice Elementary [in St. Landry Parish] for 10 years. I felt like the school was running itself. We had built a staff that’s outstanding. You know you’ve done your due diligence as a leader when you can walk down the hall and be OK with your own child in any of those classrooms. The challenge in a high-performing school is, “How can you continue to move forward?”
In the middle of year 10, Johnny Bourque, who was superintendent in Acadia Parish and knew me, called me one day and said, ’You’re not bored over there yet? I have a place you wouldn’t be bored.’ South Crowley Elementary had been an F school for years and years. I was more than intrigued. I wanted to see if we did some laser focus, if we’d have the same results as Eunice. Five folks from Eunice came over to South Crowley, and the results were the same. We saw significant growth.
How long does that growth actually take?
Real school change takes three to five years to notice. In year one, we grew 24 points. There was such a need for protocols, structure and expectations on behavior. The teachers were able to teach. The first year, I was stretched thin. We weren’t able to focus deeply on the curriculum, but the teachers were able to promote accelerated reading, and our kids were reading. It took three years to move the school to an A.
Where do you start with a struggling school? Is there a formula to it or is each school different?
The basic foundational components are there. Teachers have to have classrooms they can teach in. You have to recognize social and emotional needs and how that impacts academics so much. Structure and discipline on campus and high expectations for teachers. They have to be prepared for instruction. We have to hold everyone on campus accountable: the teachers, students and leaders.
You’ve said that you’re “effective at building teams that turn schools around.” Can you give an example of that?
It’s folks that come in enthusiastic and believe every child deserves a quality education. I’ve never believed or communicated that I’m over someone else. I work right alongside them. In our classrooms is where the magic happens. Teachers are in there doing hard work, and they know their feedback is important. I need a team that is willing to step up and speak up, and you need leaders who are willing to accept that. You need them to buy in and support you as a leader, and you are going to grow because you don’t know it all. People want to be a part of something successful.
How do you build a team when teachers are underpaid and overworked?
Thirty-six years ago, I was underpaid and overworked. I saw it as part of the job. I spent every Sunday planning my lessons for the week. There are a lot of added pressures now, but that’s not anything new. We visit a lot of schools to identify trends and offer support for teachers. The work is hard, but the work is important. We’ve tried to keep as much off the teachers’ plates as we could as an administrative team. They have families, some have other jobs and obligations. I didn’t want them to have to take away from teaching. They have to plan their lessons, do reports, parent/teacher conferences. Things you can handle in the office, you want to keep off their plate so they can focus on teaching.
We have a New Teacher Academy that started in the Transformation Zone last year . AIM Academy is funded by the Pugh Family Foundation and Schumacher Family Foundation. Mentor Annette Breaux works with teachers on common challenges, like classroom management, time management, building relationships with children and parents. Each school has assigned a mentor to these new teachers. We pay stipends to new teachers and mentors. Teachers feel they have some support, and it helps with retention and encourages them not to give up.
Can you talk about the Transformation Zone and how that is working?
Lafayette Middle [a Transformation Zone school] got some good numbers we’re really excited about. Carencro Heights [Elementary] is another school with significant growth. The Every Child Succeeds Act requires districts and states to build plans to support struggling schools. The zone is for schools that fall into the Comprehensive Intervention Required range, persistently D or F schools. They got a $1.2 million grant. We chose to build a transformation zone of CIR schools with Tier 1 curriculums. The board allocated funds to have master teachers on all of those campuses. There are 18 master teachers in the zone and seven schools in the zone. Year two, Alice Boucher and Carencro Heights officially came out of CIR status. We are also interviewing for a new transition zone officer.
Last year’s Love Our Schools initiative seemed to go well and give a great start to the school year. Do you see public/private partnerships as a way to address shortfalls in supplies?
Love Our Schools is an example of when we don’t work in isolation, when we open our doors and let the community in. It’s the community in the end that needs students ready to work. The community has a vested interest. I’ve never seen a community step up in the way this one has. This work is from a place much higher than any one of us. I’ve seen too many things line up. It’s a good time to be a student in Lafayette and a good time to be an educator.
There still seems to be a stigma about public school in Lafayette Parish despite all the successes. What would you say to parents choosing between private and public education?
I believe in parents’ right to choose a Christian or Catholic education. I do feel that our public schools have so many academic choices and opportunities. Just come and see. Your view may not be the reality.