This past school year, Cherie Labat looked at 15 different school districts that needed new superintendents — but only Columbus caught her interest.
“I didn’t have the passion to go anywhere but here,” she said.
Every other word Labat said to her husband related to the city of Columbus.
“We knew that this was what she wanted,” her husband Myron Labat said. “She saw the potential. It’s just one of those things. There was no steering away from it. When something feels right, you go after it.”
The Columbus Municipal School Board chose Labat as the district’s new superintendent June 1. Now Labat’s top priority is engaging with the Columbus community.
Thursday night, the Columbus Visitor’s Bureau held a welcome reception for Labat and her husband. Hundreds of people filtered in and out to meet and talk with Labat, including city officials, representatives from Mississippi University for Women and many other members of the Golden Triangle community.
Since moving to Columbus earlier this month, Labat said, she has met with community leaders and worked throughout the district meeting CMSD faculty and staff. During her free time, she has started trying every restaurant at least once.
“I can say, we haven’t had a bad meal here,” she said. “Juva Juice is number one in my book. I know the employees there really well, now that I go there so much.”
Immersing herself in the community has always been a priority of Labat’s. While living in Hancock County, she organized a campaign to adopt and maintain a portion of Highway 607 and spent many mornings picking up trash on the 2-mile stretch.
Tish Williams, executive director of Hancock County Chamber of Commerce, said that kind of energy and enthusiasm were contagious during Labat’s 11 years with the chamber while she worked at Bay St. Louis-Waveland School District. Labat also served as chairman of the Hancock County Community Development Foundation for two years, where she worked on funding for more than 20 nonprofit organizations. The chamber even recognized Labat as the “Outstanding Citizen” in 2014 for her dedication to the community.
“She is a committed individual,” Williams said. “She gives her entire self. She’s not going to do anything halfway. She is somebody that has a contagious energy.”
Labat says she plans to have the same focus here in Columbus.
“I think that was one thing that I think the board was excited about, is understanding how education works with economic development,” Labat said. “It’s something that I was heavily involved in my prior community, and I hope to be able to continue that work here.”
A life in education
Labat, the daughter of two educators in the Chicago suburbs, grew up imagining herself as a teacher. With four of her seven siblings also choosing to be educators, Labat says it was in her heart to do the same.
“I grew up playing school and watching my parents and they’re really inspirational for me, as far as their love for kids,” Labat said. “We had foster children in our home and (that) really taught me a love for others at an early age.”
Labat accepted a volleyball scholarship at Jackson State University, where she met Myron, who is also an educator. The couple later earned their doctorates in educational leadership from the University of Southern Mississippi and have worked together as educators.
Together, they have published articles on gun violence in public schools, school culture and school leadership. They have been able to present their research on gun violence in public schools and school culture on regional, state and international levels.
“We’re not only practitioners but we are also researchers. We understand the theory of what we do,” Myron said. “We try to apply that theory, based on sound research, on the actual practice.”
But Labat’s favorite aspect of being in the classroom has always remained the same throughout her career: Her impact on students.
“The moments came from not only teaching but coaching,” Cherie said. “To understand that if you give and work hard, you can really make a difference in the life of a child. It’s community.”
Labat previously served as principal at Bay-Waveland Middle School from 2006-17, until her promotion to assistant superintendent of curriculum, accreditation and federal programs.
Under her tenure as principal, the middle school received four consecutive B accountability scores from the state, and an A rating in her last year at the helm.
Labat has replaced Philip Hickman as CMSD Superintendent who was fired in February.
She said she hopes to adopt her previous successes on the coast to CMSD. For that, she said, she will rely on the faculty and staff at CMSD.
“I’m one person, but I can’t do it without them,” Labat said. “I’ve been very happy with their commitment and work ethic. I just know my principals and my team are going to be ready by August.”