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The Way to Recovery

Patrick Dobard has one of the state’s most challenging jobs

Craig Mulcahy

Patrick Dobard remembers distinctly the day his career took an unexpected turn. Out of nowhere, Paul Pastorek summoned him to the marbled halls of the Louisiana state capitol.

Dobard, then a mid-level bureaucrat at the state Department of Education, had never met Pastorek, yet technically speaking Pastorek’s appointment by former governor Kathleen Blanco to the position of state Superintendent of Education made Pastorek his boss. Not surprisingly, when the messenger said, “Pastorek wants to meet you,” Dobard’s reaction was tinged with unease.

They met in the hallway outside the Senate. The hallways echoed with the usual parade of politically connected people hurrying to committee meetings and floor debates. Pastorek, known for his intimidating, some say brusque style, opened the dialog by saying: “So you are Patrick Dobard.”

Dobard, usually known for affability, met the challenging statement with an equal challenge: “So you are Paul Pastorek.”

That terse exchange in 2007 began a professional relationship that eventually led to Dobard’s ’12 appointment as Recovery School District superintendent. He now monitors 63 New Orleans charter schools educating 33,000 students from a Poydras Street office decorated with architectural renderings of a dozen new multi-million dollar schools.

As superintendent, Dobard completed the RSD’s goal to turn its takeover schools to charter operators a year earlier than originally intended. By phasing out its last remaining direct-run school in the summer of 2014, the RSD, created to take over academically failing schools, became the only all-chartered school district in the United States.

Dobard didn’t know that would be his future when he met with Pastorek. Unknown to him, Pastorek was conducting an informal interview. After half an hour, he asked Dobard to be his confidential assistant.

One of the issues that Pastorek addressed during that time was the power of local school boards. His attempt to require school board members to have at least a high school degree met considerable resistance. The defeat of that measure eye opening. “I learned that in order to make real change,” Dobard says, “you have to do a lot of coalition-building.”

“Patrick Dobard is an exceptional leader,” says Jay Altman, CEO of FirstLine Schools, an organization that manages five RSD charter schools in New Orleans.

When the state took over New Orleans’ “failing” schools after Katrina, many community and political leaders opposed the move, believing it an unjustified intrusion into local affairs.

Standardized test scores, however, presented a dismal picture of the Orleans Parish School Board’s leadership. Some schools’ student proficiency rates were in the single digits with most others not much higher, a state of affairs that the RSD has mostly corrected in less than a decade. The state Department of Education identified only 5.7 percent “failing” New Orleans schools in 2013.

Dobard is the RSD’s fourth superintendent, and each had differing challenges to face.

The first, Robin Jarvis, faced the overwhelming task of reopening over 100 mostly flooded schools. Then Paul Vallas, tapped by state officials to create stability among chaos, quickly moved to find charter operators to manage the day-to-day school operations for as many as possible. That move angered many community leaders and former teachers who felt local schools were being turned over to mostly white outsiders.

Vallas later turned over an emerging chartered district to John White, who replaced Pastorek as state Superintendent of Education in 2011. White’s short RSD tenure focused on trying to calm local suspicions with meetings and dialog. Dobard has continued that policy by including community input into decision-making as often as possible. His own challenge included adhering to a high performing vision by phasing out beloved, but academically failing, high schools.

“Vallas had great vision,” says Rose Drill-Peterson, director of the Eastbank Collaborative of Charter Schools. “But months later you were wondering what happened. I think Patrick Dobard has much more follow through.”

Dobard admits, however, that his administration has had its low moments. One situation he thinks could’ve been handled better was the 2012 management shakeup at Walter S. Cohen Senior High School. His decision to replace the principal, some teachers and staff prompted student and parent protests. He realized too late, he says, that he should have shared his misgivings about the management with students earlier. Two years later, when he decided to phase out Cohen earlier than planned, he met with seniors to discuss his reasons for moving them for their graduating year, an action that smoothed the way.

As a native of New Orleans, raised by education-minded parents near Claiborne and Esplanade avenues, Dobard has a local perspective on local  schools. He enjoys talking about his childhood, one spent with six siblings and parents in a seven-room shotgun. He played Cool Cans, a game that he says derives from Cricket. He and resourceful friends retrieved lost tennis balls and the wooden stakes supporting political signs after elections to use as equipment. He also played alto sax at the insistence of his mother, whose belief in his abilities provided an early desire for success.

His father, a self-employed electrician and part-time movie projectionist, provided as best he could,. When he lost faith in New Orleans public schools in the 1970s, Dobard says his father moved his children to private Catholic schools. Dobard graduated from St. Augustine High School, where he was a drum major.

Inspired by English and math teachers at St. Aug, he gave up music and received an education degree from Southern University at New Orleans. He taught for 10 years and obtained a master’s degree in history. Before he landed his first position at the DOE, Dobard says the traumatic murder of his best friend in New Orleans crystalized a resolve to seek “paths that led to life, not death.”

 

 

 

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