Philip Lanoue, of Clarke County School District in Georgia, second, speaks as his fellow 2015 National Superintendent of the Year Finalists, MaryEllen Elia, of Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida, left, Patrick Murphy, of Arlington Public Schools in Virginia, third, and Patrice Pujol, of Ascension Public Schools in Louisiana, far right, listen. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The nation’s public school systems face many of the same challenges: ­declining budgets, lagging achievement among poor and minority students, and debates about the role of standardized testing and charter schools.

Four school system superintendents have been recognized for their efforts in addressing these challenges, and each is a finalist for the 2015 National Superintendent of the Year by AASA, the School Superintendents Association. Patrick Murphy, Arlington’s superintendent, joins counterparts from Hillsborough County, Fla. (MaryEllen Elia), Clarke County, Ga. (Philip Lanoue), and the Ascension Public Schools in Donaldsonville, La. ­(Patrice Pujol), as candidates for the top honor.

The superintendents gathered in ­Alexandria for a panel discussion Thursday, where they talked about the issues that their districts face — from long-standing community mistrust to widespread poverty and poor communication with parents — and their attempts to turn them around. Their answers will be part of what they are judged on as the organization selects the next superintendent of the year, which will be announced next month.

Dan Domenech, AASA’s executive ­director and the former superintendent in Fairfax County, said his organization values equity and is looking for leaders who have had success in closing the achievement gap.

“It’s mostly based on the success that they have had in improving student achievements, particularly in situations where you have superintendents who are working with minority ­students, with disadvantaged students,” he said. They’re also looking for trailblazers, “people who have the courage to be willing to risk their career, to risk their job, to do the right thing for kids.”

Guests listen to a panel discussion by the 2015 National Superintendents of the Year Finalists at the National School Boards Association on January 15, 2015 in Alexandria, Va. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Here are three lessons the educators offered from their experiences:

1. Engage the community.

When Lanoue started his job in 2009, the district was facing “austere” times. This meant cuts to bring the school system, which serves more than 13,000 students, back to solvency.

So Lanoue used the local newspaper to solicit community input. He said he sensed that the community did not trust the school district, where four in five children qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, a rough measure of poverty.

“We had a lot of work to do with the community,” he said. He took the ensuing public ­comments “to heart and used that as a platform to set our priorities.”

“Our performance improved. Our classrooms improved,” he said. “We put resources where they should have been.”

Even affluent communities struggle with some disconnect. In Arlington, Murphy said, he heard from parents who said they weren’t getting the information they needed about academic planning.

“We went to families and we asked them directly: What is that you want to hear about? What do you want to know?” he said. “As educators, we sometimes put ourselves in the position of ‘We know, so let me tell you.’ No, we wanted to be able to say, ‘This is what we’re hearing from families.’ ”

2. Focus on teachers.

When students perform poorly, teachers often take the heat because people often blame teachers “for the ills of society,” Pujol said.

Elia, who leads one of the nation’s largest school districts (it has 206,000 students), said that in the decade she has been at the helm, she has instituted new teacher evaluation systems, a mentorship program that pairs veterans with novices and a voluntary incentive program that rewards teachers for gains in student achievement with bonuses.

Many teacher evaluation systems have faced scrutiny for their ability to measure teacher effectiveness. Elia said she got buy-in from the teachers’ union and used online surveys to gauge how teachers felt about the new system. If more than 50 percent disagreed with a particular aspect, she made a change. It met with success.

“We went from 74 percent of our teachers staying with us to 92 percent,” she said.

The result of that consistency, Elia said, is that achievement increased across the board.

3. Give schools — and students — individual attention.

Pujol became superintendent in 2010, and she said it was a priority to improve the district’s eight lowest-performing schools.

She replaced five of the eight principals and began providing additional guidance on best practices. She moved highly rated teachers into the low­performing schools and instituted team teaching.

“We really restructured our entire school district to support these eight schools,” she said.

The schools — which were rated D and F schools in the state’s accountability system — rose quickly to become B and C schools. That level of attention trickled down to individual students.

“It’s all about setting expectations and then taking individual students — student by student — and tracking their progress toward that mastery,” Pujol said in an interview after the panel. “Teachers collaboratively look at the student’s work and say, ‘Where is this student going awry?’ And then they collaboratively come up with a plan.”

Nearly all of the panelists talked about the importance of raising expectations and not writing off low student academic performance as an inevitable byproduct of poverty or minority status.

When asked what he would change about public education if he had “a magic wand,” Lanoue said he would “give all our kids the same level of hope and the same level of confidence that they can get them where they want to go.”

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