Award for the principal

John Bennett sees education at work from his principal’s desk at St. Aloysius Catholic School, in talks with teachers and students and as a member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Before the school’s book fair and book drive after Thanksgiving, Bennett saw things from the roof of a covered walkway as he read to students seated on blankets in the parking lot.

“He’s the best,” said librarian Anne Blanchard, who with fourth-grade teacher Carolyn Murphy asked Bennett, 58, to mount to the rafters in the cause of reading.

Bennett squeezed his 6-foot, 2-inch linebacker’s body into a “Dorothy” costume, complete with red shoes, when the faculty dressed up for Halloween. He was “Shrek” at a faculty luncheon, Blanchard said.

“I made a good ‘Shrek,’ ” he said. “My Dorothy was pretty ugly.”

“He’s a good sport,” said Blanchard, who’s taught at St. Aloysius since 1984, the year before Bennett arrived.

The principal wore a business suit in October when he accepted a Distinguished Principal Award in Washington, D.C.

Bennett was among 60 principals nationwide, three of them principals of Catholic schools, to receive awards from the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

Appointed to BESE five years ago by Gov. Bobby Jindal, Bennett almost left education in 1985. He was an assistant principal at a Port Allen public school when he saw an ad in the newspaper for the principal’s job at St. Aloysius.

“As soon as I walked into this place, I knew I was home,” Bennett said. “It felt like my student days at Holy Family” in Port Allen.

Bennett calls the school, its 1,169 students and 102 faculty and staff, 67 of them teachers, a ministry of the St. Aloysius parish.

When he dresses up as characters from books and movies or plays rock ’n’ roll and seasonal music in the cafeteria, he’s “cutting loose and having fun. It’s good for the kids to see that we don’t take ourselves too seriously.”

Through the school year, Bennett plays CDs that he burns.

“I don’t believe in a silent cafeteria,” he said.

Bennett’s wife, Debra, teaches kindergarten at St. Aloysius. A public school teacher most of her career, she and Bennett married in 1976. Two of the Bennetts’ five grandchildren attend the school.

Bennett meets with student advisers over pizza, Blanchard said.

“I meet with them five or six times a year,” he said. “They bring a list of things they want to talk about, things like playground equipment, uniform rules, what we do for enrichment. I ask them about bullying. I want to know if it’s a problem.”

The advisory board’s students produced a school safety video that won a national award. The students recommended more water fountains and suggested strategic placement around the school. Their suggestions on meal choices were forwarded to the cafeteria manager, Bennett said.

“He encourages continuing education for faculty, and he has a bonus fund to show his appreciation,” Blanchard said.

“Our teachers work for less than public school teachers,” Bennett said. “We try to give them small bonuses, staff, too, at Christmas and at the end of the year.”

“There’s a sense of partnership among faculty, staff and the (church) parish,” Bennett said.

“Parents pay extra to send their children here. They’re putting an emphasis on academics and a Catholic education.”

Bennett calls scholarships and vouchers for public school students to attend Catholic and other private schools a “great, calculated experiment.”

A district judge in Baton Rouge recently ruled the governor’s voucher plan unconstitutional because it diverts public funds to private and parochial schools.

Lawyers for the state and school-choice advocates say they’ll appeal state District Judge Tim Kelley’s ruling, adding that the judge’s decision will not have an impact this school year on the nearly 5,000 public school students statewide who qualified for vouchers to attend private or parochial schools.

“I want public schools to be successful,” Bennett said. “Who wouldn’t? I want parents to have choices. You have to have that when you look at the decades of poor performance in many public schools.”

Sister Mary Michaeline Green, then superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Baton Rouge, recommended Bennett to the Louisiana Catholic Conference as a nominee to be presented to Gov. Jindal as the nonpublic school BESE representative.

“I suggested John because he is an outstanding educator and a competent negotiator,” Green said. “Furthermore, John had experience in both public and Catholic schools.”

She called Bennett’s national principal’s award “a well-deserved honor.”

“John was always someone with whom I could confer and get a candid and honest opinion,” she said.