Historic hiring at St. Augustine
St. Augustine High School in New Orleans began writing a new chapter in its history June 13 with the announcement of a non-Josephite and a woman as its fourth president and chief executive officer.
Troy Henry, chairman of St. Augustine’s board of directors and a 1978 St. Augustine graduate, introduced Karen Collins, Ph.D., as the school’s new leader.
“It is truly an exciting day for St. Augustine High School,” Henry said.
Her appointment signals the end of the battle of governance between the Josephite Fathers who founded the school and St. Augustine’s previous board of directors that had erupted in 2010 after the Josephites ordered the school to stop the use of corporal punishment as a form of discipline.
In late 2011, the two parties resolved this issue and devised a new set of bylaws giving a board of directors “controlling authority of the school, but the board of trustees (the Josephites) has approval rights over the president and the budget,” Henry said. This opened the door for a non-Josephite priest and a lay person to serve as president. Previously, the Josephites had appointed the president, and it was always a Josephite, the last being Father John Raphael.
Looking to the future
When searching for a new president, Henry said the board had the best interests of the school in mind. He said the nominating committee of the board of directors made a commitment to cast their net wide to conduct a national search. Initially, 22 applicants were recruited, of which 10 were alumni. Of those, there were 18 applicants, including two women and one white man.
Ten candidates made it to the first round of interviews, Henry said, each meeting these basic qualifications: business and financial management experience; leadership; fundraising/development experience; secondary education experience; board experience and job experience/cultural fit.
Henry said the 11-member board of directors interviewed the four final-round candidates.
“Dr. Collins was the top person throughout the process,” he said.
She demonstrated tremendous presence and vision for St. Augustine High School when asked some difficult questions during her interview. She also created a 90-day plan for the school that paralleled a strategic plan that St. Augustine had recently developed with Bellwether Education.
“We asked, ‘Who had the skill set to navigate across all those competencies and do it on a level as an executive?’” Henry said. “I saw that she had in-depth experience and knowledge and had a vision for each of those aspects of the school. ... It was clear she had a good pulse on the current status of the school and what to do about it, rooted in best practices.”
The board of directors is united behind Collins, and is enthusiastic about her appointment and the rededication of St. Augustine to excellence in every endeavor, said board member Daniel Davillier, a 1985 graduate.
Collins, a New Orleans native, attended St. Mary’s Academy and is sister of a St. Aug graduate. She has 32 years of educational experience at the elementary, high school and college level. She has taught and been in administration, most recently as principal at McClure South Berkeley High School and as adjunct instructor in the special education department at the University of Missouri and assistant professor at Harris-Stowe State University.
Collins has a doctorate in special educational and educational leadership, a master’s in educational leadership and special education, and a bachelor’s in elementary and special education. In New Orleans, she was principal at Frances Gaudet Elementary and Sarah T. Reed Senior High School.
While Collins had heard about the turmoil at St. Augustine, she said she wasn’t daunted about applying for president. The issue didn’t seem all-encompassing, mostly focusing on one area of discipline. She knew she could lend her expertise to make St. Aug one of the best institutions in the nation.
“I understand the mission of this school and every place I’ve worked, and I have a vision for accomplishing that mission,” she said. “I know that we have a fulfillment to academics and to our Christian and Catholic beliefs ... and want to improve the lives of the young men that attend.”
During her first three days on the job, she had already achieved three goals on her 30-day plan – she met community members at a press conference; met the school’s administrative team, board, staff, students and parents; and met the president of the PTA. She was given a warm welcome from all.
“I was embraced from the moment I started,” she said.
She said she believes that students – 650 in sixth through 12th grade – must be properly prepared in high school for what awaits in college.
“My plans are to support the school-site administrators ... to increase the academic performance of the students at St. Augustine.”
That was good news for St. Aug principal Don Boucree.
“It provides me with a colleague to bounce ideas off of and reinforce the academic vision of the school,” he said. “I think she is going to be a great colleague.”
Other target areas Collins plans to address include: strengthening development by contacting alumni (numbering 7,000) and community partners to provide funding to improve academics; and giving students more competitive edge by adding advanced placement courses, swimming, soccer, lacrosse and music theory and encouraging participation in national events.
A community hug
New Orleans City Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell had worked alongside Collins as a local public school principal and lauded Collins’ innovative skills. With City Council President Jackie Clarkson, Hedge-Morrell presented Collins with a proclamation.
“This is a monumental step, the first step to bring St. Augustine to the next level,” Hedge-Morrell said. “I’m so excited because I know St. Aug is in good hands.”
“I will not let anyone down in this room or in this city,” Collins said at the press conference. “I will truly work hard to make everyone proud.”