Melissa Martin Stilley
Superintendent Melissa Martin Stilley
When local historians look back on 2018, Tangipahoa Parish School Superintendent Melissa Martin Stilley says she hopes it will be remembered as a turning point for her home parish.
In June, the local school board named Stilley as their new superintendent—and the first woman ever appointed to that position in Tangipahoa Parish.
“It’s an honor and a privilege that comes with a lot of pressure,” Stilley said, noting she is keenly aware that her performance could play a huge role in paving the way for future female superintendents, not only in Tangipahoa but also across the state.
The timing of her rise to superintendent could not have come at a more critical time in the parish’s educational history. One of the state’s fastest-growing parishes is mired in a more than half-century-old federal desegregation case and strapped for recurring local revenue. The public has twice turned down tax proposals to help the district, and the parish finds itself tapping the last of its savings to keep the public school system operational.
These challenges push Stilley even harder, as she champions public education throughout the community.
“Some would say Tangipahoa Parish is like a diamond in the rough; I see limitless potential that we haven’t even begun to explore,” Stilley said.
In her first six months as superintendent, Stilley has tackled challenges head-on, going into the community to address concerns one-on-one. Her series of “coffee talk” sessions held during the summer months was a smashing success and surprised everyone—including Stilley.
“In the back of my mind, I wondered if anyone would even sit down with me,” Stilley said with a smile. The first session drew more than three-dozen visitors. By her fourth stop, she had a packed house and the two-hour gathering expanded well past breakfast and into the lunch hour.
“People have been so encouraging, so open to talking about their concerns and their fears about our school system. I have no doubt that as a community, we share a common goal of building something better. How we go about doing that from here—that’s going to make the difference.”
Stilley sees her role two-fold. She wants to unify the parish, and she wants to empower the community to take ownership in their schools.
“When we come together and focus on a single goal, we can do anything,” Stilley said.
“We are doing things differently than we ever have. I actually enjoy it when I hear people say, ‘We have never done this before’, because there is a great opportunity in change.”
One such opportunity was a pep rally Stilley and her team planned at the start of the fall semester to welcome back her teachers. An event that size was too big for any facility at her public school campuses, so Stilley reached out to Southeastern Louisiana University, who welcomed them to the University Center. First Lady Donna Edwards was the featured speaker.
“It was GREAT!” Stilley said, adding that she heard from employees who were there how much they loved it and from employees who could not be there and want to attend the next one.”
A spring event to celebrate students from every one of the parish’s 32 schools is next on her agenda.
“We have great things happening in Tangipahoa Parish, and I’m so proud to be able to serve at this critical time in our history,” Stilley said. “I have no doubt that a year or two from now when you hear the words ‘Tangipahoa Parish School System,’ it’s going to be synonymous with excellence in public education. That’s my goal.”