The selection process that brought Dr. Marcia Lyles to Jersey City as its new superintendent of schools was long, contentious and divisive. She has been hired for a job some in the community wish had gone to other candidates. She wasn’t able to officially begin her position until after Labor Day, because several members of the school board refused to approve her employment contract.
Now on the job, Lyles seems unflappable and unfazed by the drama that preceded the start of the school year on Sept. 5. In discussing her vision and plans for the district over the next four years, Lyles focused squarely on the needs of students, parents, and families.
“The important thing is to keep the end in mind,” Lyles said, six days into the new school year. “We always talk about improving student outcomes, accelerating student achievement. For me, my goal is to see that accelerated across the district so that it doesn’t matter where you live, what school you attend. Everything I do is centered around the ideas of excellence and equity everywhere…I see this as a baseline year where we establish things that need to be put into place so that we can meet that goal.”
‘It is important for the parents to feel some ownership and to feel empowered about what goes on in the district.’—Marcia Lyles
Lyles, who last year served as the superintendent of the Christina School District in Delaware, isn’t naïve and knows “excellence and equity everywhere isn’t going to happen overnight.” And she understands that different types of students – and perhaps even different types of families – will come to the school district with different resources and needs.
“We understand that equity does not mean ‘equal.’ But it’s about providing access. That means partnering with those groups and entities that will help us provide that for our families,” she said. Lyles gave the example of a meeting she held with the central office staff in which she asked how the district communicates with parents. She was told that information is posted regularly online.
“I said, ‘Well, not every parent has regular access to the internet,’” she recalled. “So, we clearly need to create or improve partnerships so that our families have the access they need so the students can do well.”
Lyles said the district’s lowest performing schools and students will be a priority of her administration. She expects to assist these schools and students, in part, she said, by strengthening the network of principals and other leaders in the district.
“What I said to principals is they have some wonderful [programs] and I want to replicate the best practices. So I want to very quickly identify the schools that are doing things well and determine why they are doing well.”
She said she plans to build on some of the programs that are already in place.
Lyles moved to Jersey City last month. Throughout the summer, she followed local news accounts of the controversy surrounding the superintendent search process and the discussion around her contract. After attending the special board meeting of Sept. 11, and listening to comments from the community, she seems to understand that many parents right now feel alienated from the school system. She understands that this is a problem.
“It is important for the parents and community to feel some ownership and to feel empowered about what goes on in the district. I think that’s a critical piece. Clearly from everything that’s going on, that is not the universal feeling,” Lyles acknowledged.
At this point she said she wants to work with parent organizations that are already involved in the local schools, like the various PTA groups, for example. Lyles said every time she meets a PTA president she asks that parent to invite her into their school so she can meet other parents and hear their concerns and view of the district.
“I want to expand the feeling that they can make a difference in the schools, that the schools are responsive to them, that the partnership between us is real,” she said.
While the larger community beyond the universe of parents, students, and educators, “has a stake in what goes on here,” Lyles said, “my priority is those parents whose children are affected each and every day by what we do.”
Community groups and activists who lack a direct tie to students and the school system will be a secondary priority for Lyles.
When asked how she felt about the implications her success, or lack of success, may have on Jersey City politics beyond the classroom, Lyles said, “I really do not think about my success impacting adults. What drives me, and what success means to me, is about what our students are able to do.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.