State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek says Lafayette is probably in a better position than any other city in the state to achieve world class education in its public schools, if school leaders can create the right environment for progress. Louisiana's chief public education official spoke Wednesday night at LEDA at a meeting of The 705 community organization of young professionals. The event was also attended by several of the non-incumbent candidates running for school board (it took place during the school board's meeting), most of whom expressed support for Pastorek's plans.

Pastorek said there are two systemic problems in the state's education system today: The school system is a monopoly with little competition from charter schools and there is a counterproductive habit of shifting blame to students and their parents for the system's shortcomings. "I'm sick of us blaming it on parents and kids, especially poor ones," Pastorek said, "because I know it can be done."

"If we can fix these two problems," he added, "you'll see public education rise dramatically and this is the best city in the state to see that happen." Pastorek noted that there are more kids who pass the eighth grade LEAP test that end up dropping out of school in Lafayette than anywhere else in the state, by a wide margin. "It's not academics that are holding kids back in Lafayette," he said. "This is a target rich environment."

Greg Davis, a candidate in District 2, asked Pastorek if one of his campaign platforms, achieving a 95 percent graduation rate, was attainable, and how long it might take for a parish like Lafayette, with its current graduation rate of about 67 percent, to achieve that. Pastorek responded that he thought a 95 percent graduation rate was attainable in eight years time, if the community rallies around that goal and holds its leaders accountable. Pastorek also said research shows the state needs higher-quality teachers — a focus of the state's recent Race To The Top proposal — and needs to foster more teacher mentoring and professional development.

Asked how Lafayette could best utilize its unique citywide fiber-to-the-home telecommunications network to advance education opportunities, Pastorek replied simply, "I don't know. But there's people a lot smarter than me that do." He said the best strategy would involve local grassroots initiatives that brought in key partners from the IT and business community. This type of ingenuity, he says, has been a cornerstone of the state's charter schools, which largely operate independent of district school boards and administrations. "You know what happens in schools where they don't have a bunch of administrators telling them what to do and how to do it? They get creative," he said. "If you had 41 charter schools in Lafayette, you'd have more creativity and initiative than you could handle."

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