Hanna’s Education Corner – An Interview with Lawrence School Superintendent Wilfredo Laboy


HannaBy: Hanna, Age 10 – October, 2004

What is the difference between a teacher, a principal and a superintendent?

Teachers work most directly with the students in the classroom. Principals run the schools and are in charge of everyone in the school building. Superintendents are in charge of all the schools. We make sure that all of the teachers, principals and all the workers in the schools are doing the best they can to educate the young people we are in charge of during the school day.

I love to read books, what is your favorite book?

I am currently reading a book called “True Notebooks.” It’s by Mark Salz-man and it’s about a juvenile detention center in Los Angeles. It’s a marvelous book on the life of these youngsters.

What do you think of MCAS?

MCAS is a four-letter word. It is a necessary evil but it’s a good tool of accounta-bility. It holds standards for all children. What it is attempting to do is to make sure every child in every school is held to the same standard. I don’t think MCAS is the only way to assess children, but it is an essential tool in the schools, especially urban schools.

What does your day consist of?

My day starts off very early in the morning. I am usually here by 7 o’clock. From Monday to Thursday I visit schools to talk to teachers and students. On Friday I will meet with principals and have meetings here in the office as well as in the community. I meet with a lot of people who are very interested in education, sometimes with constituents or educators; sometimes I meet with journalists like you. I have evening meetings too with politicians about the school system.

Who do you want to win for president?

I haven’t decided. I voted for George W. Bush last time. I am very concerned with the war because I have had many family members and friends who were killed or wounded in Vietnam. So I have a lot of mixed emotions right now. But I am an Independent and I haven’t made up my mind.

Is it hard being in charge of so many schools?

This would be a great job if only children like you were involved. It’s the adults that make it difficult. It is a challenging job and I have always said it would be a great job if adults weren’t involved. I do have 7 other people who are School Committee members, and they make policy. Although it is a hard job, it’s more difficult when I have to continuously make adult arrangements.

What do you do when a teacher is mean to students?

I always start from the fundamental premise that all children are good. My focus is on the child and I start from the child to make sure kids have rights and due process. I don’t believe children should be seen and not heard. Children need to have a voice so we need to balance that out. (Hanna’s note: I don’t think he answered that question)

Do you believe in peer mediation?

I happen to be very interested in peer mediation. In 1983 peer mediation started with a group called Educators for Social Responsibility in Cambridge. I had the privilege, in 1985, to work on a ‘resolving conflict’ creative project for the NY City Board of Education. We created a program called SCOPE, Schools and Communities Opting For Peace Education. It teaches skills to children so they can learn how to get to a win-win situation in resolving conflicts. We do have it in Lawrence, it’s called “Safe and Caring Schools.”

What did you do before you came to Lawrence?

I had my sanity. I was sane. Before coming here I served in New York City. They have 32 school districts. I was deputy Superintendent of Community School District 15, which happens to be twice the size of Lawrence with about 26,000 students in 51 schools. I went through the NY City Public Schools both as a student and through my career.

How are Massachusetts Schools different from New York schools?

Well, they have the same challenges on a larger scale. If you look at the challenges here in Lawrence, there are similar challenges in NY City. But it is unique here and it is wonderful. I am learning how to talk like a New Englander.

Do you have children in the public schools?

Both of my children are products of public schools. I have a 33 year old daughter who went to NY Public Schools, she serves there, and I have a son who also went to the NY City Public Schools. He is a chef at Windham Properties. I have grandchildren who also go to public schools. I am a strong believer in public education.

Do you decide how much teachers get paid and when they get breaks?

Well, we negotiate just like when we talked about peer mediation. We come to a consensus, an agreement with the unions. I wish I could do that, I just don’t have the power.

Does a bad teacher get paid the same as a good teacher?

Just like bad superintendents get paid the same as good superintendents. We are having a great discussion about that right now, the parity of pay versus performance incentives. I am a big supporter of paying teachers according to how they perform. But that is not how we do it here in Lawrence. There is a pay scale and according to your years of service and qualifications, all teachers get paid the same, unfortunately, whether you are good or bad.

How do you become a superintendent?

It only takes four friends in a committee of seven. There are seven people on the School Committee and four out of seven people elect you to be superintendent. Just as they can hire you, they can fire you. They look at your experience, credentials, maturity, and knowledge. Tthe School Committee has the last say over whether I stay or go.