Educating America’s Children in the 21st Century
As the Superintendent of Schools in Lawrence, Massachusetts for the past six years, Dr. Wilfredo T. Laboy has set an outstanding example of what one educator dedicated to change and success can do in a short period of time. Upon his arrival, he declared a Year of Literacy, focusing the entire school system on one universal goal—improving the teaching and learning of reading and writing in grades Pre-K through 12. He is the architect of the district’s new Restructured English Immersion Program and Accelerated English programs. Under his leadership, for the first time in over a decade, reading scores have increased across the entire Lawrence Public School system. Attendance, dropout rates and special education referrals have also improved dramatically.
Following is an interview with Superintendent Laboy on the subject of education in America today, and what he has done specifically to turn things around in his own school district.
What, in your opinion, is the biggest challenge facing educators today?
I think the challenge for us is the issue of equity in public education. For too long in this country, the single most important factor as to the quality of instruction a child gets has been the zip code he or she lives in. This has to stop. We have a moral and ethical responsibility to provide a quality education for every single child who comes to the door of our schools every single day.
We have to ask ourselves…what are we going to do to see to it that every child has optimal opportunities? We have a big wave of new, diverse people who are coming to our country. How are we going to deal with language diversity, how are we going to create culturally relevant curriculums, how are we going to provide for America’s 21st century workforce?
For over 150 years, public education has been the bedrock of America’s democracy. We must strengthen and fortify it, not throw stones at it in the dark. And forget about vouchers and charter schools and private initiatives and holding corporations and turnaround specialists and all the other things we’re trying on our kids—they’re all about the bottom line. We don’t have another day to waste in the lives of children anymore.
What problems have you faced in your own school district?
Lawrence, Massachusetts is a mid-sized urban center about 25 miles north of Boston. It’s always been known as an immigrant city. In the 1800s, it was a mill town, filled with European immigrant mill workers. In the 1960s, it began filling up with new immigrants—primarily Puerto Ricans, people from the Caribbean, and Dominicans. So this district that 30 years ago had about a 15% ratio of Latino students today has about a 90% ratio. If you were to look at us by demographics alone, we look more like a southwestern district along the Mexican border in Texas.
So our biggest challenge is the challenge of educating native language speakers. We have the largest group of them in the state. Of the 13,000 or so kids in our district, 22% of them need English language services.
How are you dealing with this?
First and foremost, we’re building the capacity of the teachers to be able to understand the students that are in front of them every day. We’re training them in cultural awareness and sensitivity. We’re giving them good ESL strategies and protocols. We’re doing a lot of professional development along those lines. And the good news is, we’re making gains, because the results have been consistently up for the past five years.
Another thing we’re changing is to hold ourselves to the highest standards for all kids. We are moving teachers from the notion of intelligence as a pedigree—you’re either born with it or you’re not—to the idea that if you work hard and work effectively, every kid can get it. Every kid can succeed.
All too often, we teach down to children. We are repetitious, we’re always summarizing and always repeating and always slowing down the curriculum because somehow or other, we’re always waiting on the kid. We have to change that.
When I got here as superintendent, I said, I’m committed to the idea that every child can learn. We have to say to kids, “You will not fail, because I will not allow you to fail.” We have to remember that if a kid fails, that is our result.
What we’re trying to do here in Lawrence is to provide a coherent curriculum, the kind of teaching practices, the kind of ongoing assessment, the kind of professional development, the kind of student support, family and home connections and leadership that will make this school system a world-class system in the 21st century.
How do you see parents fitting into this picture?
You know, corporate America always worries a lot about providing quality service to the customer. Maybe it’s because they need to have a competitive edge. We in public education seem to have a monopoly. And so we think that if we just put the lights on, and heat up the buildings, they’ll come anyway, because for most families we’re the only game in town. So we don’t create the kind of partnerships in schools that allow parents to get involved.
Now, we know that the more parents get involved in schools, the better those schools will be. So we have made an effort to find ways of meeting the needs of our clientele by creating user-friendly schools where parents can easily get involved.
We have a program called EPIC, which stands for Every Person Influences Children. This is a series of workshops for parents that deal with decision making, sibling rivalry, single parenting, love as a powerful ingredient, how to do a family budget, how to have good parent-teacher conferences, and how to negotiate information from a school system. You give parents these kinds of skills; they’re going to use them for the rest of their lives! And they become empowered to be invested in their schools.
We do other things as well. I have superintendent forums 5 or 6 times a year, where I go out into the community and do a state of the education address. I started a President’s Council when I came here six years ago, where every president of the PTA gets to meet with me the second Tuesday of every month. They all come, because they want to talk to the superintendent.
You need to be creative about these things. Why do we have to have a PTA meeting on Monday night? Why not on Sunday afternoon? Why can’t we meet parents at the local Laundromat, if that’s where they are? If they won’t come to you, you have to go to them.
Those are the kinds of strategies that we use every single day here. And they’re working.
What can you say about teaching and leadership?
You want to be an effective leader in your school? It’s all about building relationships. You want parents to be involved? It’s all about engaging them.
It’s the same with students. Student engagement is about good teaching. I always tell teachers, you want to see a class not act up? Give them a good and engaging lesson. A good lesson is the best classroom management technique you can ever use. Turn them on to learning! I also like to say, if you don’t have a plan for them, they’ll have a plan for you. So now we look at how we manage instruction every single day.
We have to tell children, you know what, this place called school; it wasn’t made for you. School is a serious place, and we must work hard to be smart. But you can make it work for you. You can learn how the routines and rituals work, and you can be a success. That’s how a Spanish boy from New York City, a little boy who came here at the age of seven as a Spanish speaker, now has a doctor’s degree and leads a school system.
I have kids who are graduating from high school on High School Commencement Sunday, who are going on to Dartmouth, Brown, Harvard, Princeton, and to the Naval Academy—Latinos, minorities, girls and boys. How did they do this? They did it because we held them to a higher standard.
This is not a perfect place. We are not where we want to be, but we are not where we used to be! We’ve got a lot of work to do yet. But every day we dedicate ourselves to teaching kids how to succeed in life. That’s just what we do.