Donaldsonville, La. – Ascension Public Schools Director of Technology Jake Ragusa is retiring after 28 years in education.
“There is a long list of specific accomplishments that Ascension Public Schools has experienced due to Jake’s vision and leadership. We celebrate with Jake these many accomplishments that were achieved by his team over the years he served as Director of Technology. We also celebrate with Jake that he has arrived at a time in life to shift his own priorities toward more time with family,” said Ascension Public Schools Superintendent David Alexander. “We wish him well, know that he will stay in touch, and celebrate not only his work but also the many friendships that he has formed over the years through our work together.
Born in Dallas and raised in Baton Rouge as one of six kids, Jake Ragusa, III (also known as Tommy to his family) attended Catholic High School for two years and graduated from Broadmoor High School. “I was happy to go to a school that had girls and no uniforms,” he said.
AN UNUSUAL PATH
Ragusa pursued a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Louisiana State University. While in college, he worked full-time at a wholesale company partially owned by his grandfather. At 21 years old he became the managing director of the company. “This began what I consider both a cursed and a blessed pattern of my career — that I was put in places probably before I was prepared,” said Ragusa.
He quickly assessed the company was not changing with the modern world. He presented a 10-year business plan that would integrate new technology with an ultimatum to either let him take the company in a new direction or he would leave. Ragusa left.
“It was hard to convince older people that a 21-year-old punk knew better, and they needed to change their successful business,” he said. Unfortunately, the modern world came, and the business folded a few years after Ragusa departed.
Not a stranger to hard work and an automobile enthusiast, Ragusa became a car wash technician, then an apprentice mechanic, and then a lawsuit warranty technician at McKinnis Peterson Chevrolet. He then started his own mechanic shop, Fair Deal Automotive.
“I learned quickly that I am an innovator and a good manager. However, I am not a great businessman – my problem was giving credit,” said Ragusa. “I was a sucker for a hard-luck story.”
Ragusa worked for three different mechanic companies after closing his business. His life and career took a dramatic change when he reconnected with and married Danette Ellis in 1987.
In 1988, he and his wife decided to go back to school to earn teaching degrees. Ragusa wanted to become a middle school teacher. He juggled attending school full-time and working full-time at Southern Tire Mart. His typical day would involve attending classes from 7:30 a.m. until 3 p.m., and then working the night shift from 4 p.m. until 6:30 a.m. “I worked dispatch for roadside support, so I would do my homework and rest between calls,” said Ragusa.
By his senior year, Ragusa was drained. He and Danette had one child and were expecting a second child. His former elementary school teacher Emily Young hired him as a part-time computer analyst at LSU, leveraging the technology certification he earned as a mechanic. He spent the next three years working for LSU while he earned a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s degree in middle school math.
His first teaching job was at E.J. Gay Middle School in Iberville Parish, where he served as a math and science teacher for two years. “I wanted to teach at an at-risk school. It was challenging, and I loved it!”
GREAT FAILURES & GREAT SUCCESSES
Ragusa said there were what he considered great failures and great successes in his two years at E.J. Gay Middle. His “favorite student of all time” was a young lady who failed a grade and had to attend summer school to pass. According to Ragusa, she struggled with adults because she was the adult in her household. Starting at 11 years old, she managed the family’s finances. He thought she was one of the smartest people he had ever met, but she had been told by others that she was stupid. It took Ragusa a month to convince her otherwise, but once he did she excelled at school.
Another favorite student was a young man who was enrolled in the sixth grade for the third time. He worked all night and got into fights at school. He routinely got expelled between March or April of each year. “He would sit in the back of the classroom and draw pictures, but he was quite bright,” said Ragusa. “I told him, ‘Let’s get you out of the 6th grade.’” Working with Ragusa and other teachers, the 16-year-old student not only graduated from sixth grade in May of that year, but he also graduated high school 30 days later by passing the Graduate Record Examination (GRE).
Although Ragusa found great fulfillment in the classroom, his technology background was sought after by the Iberville Parish Schools Superintendent. Within the span of one year, he went from working hourly to full-time as the district’s technology facilitator.
His expertise was noticed by leaders at Tangipahoa Parish Schools, who hired him to become Technology Coordinator and then Technology Director. “It was the perfect fit for my skills,” said Ragusa. He secured approximately $3 million per year in grants at Tangipahoa, which enabled him to implement a state-of-the-art network, some very early one-to-one programs, and begin to understand the fit for technology tools in education.
However, Ragusa had a vision for instructional technology that was not shared with the administration at the time. “In a fit of anger, I applied to a job opening at Ascension Public Schools,” said Ragusa.
“I was in a meeting at Southeastern Louisiana University, when they paged me because Ascension Superintendent Donald Songy was calling me,” he said. “Mr. Songy taught me in 10th grade at Catholic High School. In fact, he was the teacher who inspired me to pursue math. I did not realize it was the same Mr. Songy until we spoke.”
Out of respect for Superintendent Songy, Ragusa interviewed for the position and declined it. For the next three months, Songy and Ascension Parish School Board Member Troy Gautreau pursued Ragusa until he accepted the position. The deciding factor for Ragusa was a dedicated technology millage passed by Ascension Parish voters that would produce $7 million per year. Coming from a budget funded primarily by grants to a robust, reliable funding source was too good to pass up.
BUILDING FROM SCRATCH
In 2006, Ragusa became the Ascension Public Schools Director of Technology, overseeing a department of five people. “The first thing I did was cry,” he said.
Tangipahoa had a state-of-the-art network, and Ragusa had assumed that with a significantly larger budget, Ascension would also have that in place. He was wrong. “I realized I had to start everything over again,” said Ragusa. “Once I accepted the fact that I was going to spend a lot of weekends, nights, and holidays here, I rolled up my sleeves and put a team together.”
One of the first things he did was hire Ron Timmons, who was working as an independent cabling contractor. He joined Brent Ramagost, Darby Lambert, and Jay Brignac as the Ragusa’s core team. They operated out of the historic B.C. Alwes Building in Donaldsonville until the Data Center in Gonzales was built in 2010.
“Ron and I lived at the Data Center for three days to bring it online with no downtime for schools. We literally slept on mattresses on the floor,” said Ragusa.
A major milestone for Ragusa was implementing the district’s one-to-one student computing program. In the Spring of 2007, they started with 60 devices at Dutchtown Middle and Lake Elementary. Back then, the biggest challenge was training the teachers on new technology.
“We had the funding to buy computers, but they would be useless if there was not a strategic implementation of technology usage to support student learning,” he said.
Ragusa’s department worked together with instructional leaders to incrementally grow the district’s one-to-one program. By 2016, every fifth- through twelfth-grade student had a device they took home every day. In addition, schools were equipped with computer labs and rolling device carts.
A DISTRICT PREPARED
By the time the pandemic closed schools on March 13, 2020, Ascension Public Schools was prepared. “We had a device for every student, even preschool students. Although we had to shift quickly to send devices home and train teachers on remote instruction, we had a strong foundation in place.”
“We had the network, hardware, software, and support to make online learning happen. We created a student technology helpdesk, and we significantly upgraded our firewall to protect the district from harmful attacks,” said Ragusa. “It may not have been perfect, but we were lightyears ahead of many districts across the country.”
There are two things Ragusa is most proud of during his 25-year education career: creating a student worker program in Ascension and building a team and base infrastructure in Ascension and Tangipahoa.
In 2009, Ragusa implemented a student-worker program in which high school students work over the summer to repair and prepare student devices for the next school year. The first year, four students were hired. This summer, there are 76 students and interns at multiple sites throughout the district. In addition to gaining valuable experience, some students get the opportunity to earn certifications and credentials in yearlong programs.
“We’ve built a pipeline of experienced technology students who are being hired by other districts and vendors. Many of them go on to make more than me,” said Ragusa.
Not only did he cultivate a team in Ascension Parish, but almost everyone who currently works in Tangipahoa’s technology division was hired by Ragusa. “It is important to me to cultivate a work family that is so strong it will not fall apart when I leave,” he said.
Ascension Parish School Board Member Troy Gautreau’s efforts to recruit Ragusa have paid dividends to the school system.
“During Jake Ragusa’s tenure as our Director of Information Technology, his leadership and vision has ushered in a digital transformation of Ascension Public Schools. Jake’s vision has spanned all areas including curriculum, business, infrastructure, and cybersecurity technology systems, policies, and processes. In addition to Jake’s technical leadership, he has demonstrated great people skills in developing his department and working with our school leaders to deliver to our students, faculty, and staff world-class information technology platforms and systems that have gained state and national recognition over the years,” said Gautreau. “He has been a tremendous asset to our school system and has always strived to accomplish our district vision of Every Child Successful, in an Ever-Changing World, and on behalf of the Ascension Parish School Board we wish him all the best as he embarks on the next phase of his life.”
Never one to be idle, retirement is just the next step on Ragusa’s career journey. He plans to juggle time between wife Danette, daughter Abigail, son Seth, and three grandchildren with fishing trips and technology ventures like the expansion of rural fiber in Louisiana.