When Being Fired Becomes an Epiphany
Being fired as chief of the Lyons Elementary School District in Illinois a decade ago was the best thing to happen to Raymond Lauk, at least career-wise. It forced him down a path to the corporate world, specifically GE Security, as the education solutions manager, which taught him how to focus and to later create better school environments.
“I had a blast” at GE, recalls Lauk, who is now superintendent of the Cook County (Ill.) School District 130. “That unofficial sabbatical shaped and changed my views on public school leadership. I learned so much about school security, technology, leadership, leadership development, corporate versus school culture and came away with a different view of leading schools.”
A Full and Varied Career
Lauk grew up in Medinah, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, as the oldest of four sons. In 1978, at 18, he was elected a school board member at Lake Park High School in nearby Roselle, Ill., where he had just attended high school. He was elected in part due to his journalism background on his school newspaper and his political activism, involved at a young age in a campaign for state Superintendent of Education Michael Bakalis, who was running for state comptroller.
He attended Northern Illinois University while he was a board member for three years, transferred to the University of Colorado at Boulder, and worked as a teachers’ aide and school custodian. He returned to Illinois, taught sixth grade and then became assistant principal in the Keeneyville Elementary School District 20 in Roselle, Ill. After graduate school, Lauk studied abroad at a university in Rio de Janeiro. When he returned to Illinois, he served as an elementary principal for three years. In 1993, he became chief of the Cerro Gordo Unit School District, a rural Illinois district, in which he served for six years. He eventually earned a doctorate in educational administration and an MBA.
After learning Portuguese in graduate school, Lauk was hired in 1999 to run the American School of Brasilia. Lauk, in part, began to improve the weak curriculum but the board bought out the final year of his contract. He admits he didn’t address the curricular issues the way he wanted. “People felt shut out of the process, and I made serious leadership mistakes that led to my early departure from the school,” he says. “I learned valuable lessons about leadership, communication, and human relations.”
After he returned to the U.S. in 2003, Lauk was hired as chief of the Lyons Elementary School District in Illinois, where he raised student achievement by 16 percent in three years and secured a 50 percent property tax rate increase. However, after securing the district’s financial health and increasing student achievement, the board voted not to renew his contract in early 2006. One board member stated it was “payback,” and Lauk later recalled he had dismissed a popular but ineffective principal the year prior.
Now, Lauk thanks those board members because their choice to let him go forced him to go to GE, which hired him in March 2006. “I was sick of the politics of the superintendency and I never thought I’d go back,” recalls Lauk, whose job was to sell technology and access control technology to district leaders. “It was a refreshing change,” he says about his time at GE. “In education, we try to be everything to everyone. And we often have a splintered vision with multiple goals.”
The new job was results-oriented, and timelines for change were shorter, as in days instead of months or even years seen in K12. But Lauk is not bashing public education. “Schools have the gift of scarcity that forces them to be more imaginative and creative,” he adds.
Lessons from Business
When GE sold the business unit, Lauk returned to school leadership, hired as chief of the Cook County schools in 2009. Now, Lauk focuses more on results, in terms of assessments, progress monitoring with Response to Intervention, and using data to modify instruction.
Lauk also pushed for a curriculum that aligns with Common Core State Standards in language arts, math, the arts and physical education and integrating formative assessments. Last year, Lauk, who has dabbled in stand-up comedy, acting and improvisation, created a third grade program, including special education and dual-language students, called “Literacy through Laughter.” The program uses joke writing and improv to develop literacy skills, and makes a teachable moment fun for children. “Humor is high-level thinking. It’s just having fun while learning language and literacy skills.”
In the 2010-2011 school year, when Cook County had an 89 percent poverty rate, it was the highest achieving district in the state at its poverty rate. And with an 85 percent poverty rate and 84 percent minority rate now, 79 percent of all students met or exceeded standards on the Illinois Standard Achievement Test.
Board president Lynne Arendziak points to how Lauk has worked for the students’ sake, retaining art and music, and after-school activities despite financial pressures. Lauk has also put two teachers, a special ed teacher, who is the instructional expert, and regular ed teacher, who is the content expert, in classrooms for students with learning disabilities. This ‘co-teaching model’ provides greater instructional differentiation.
Motivation Is Key
And Lauk, who also runs comedy-based professional development workshops, motivates his staff with a higher purpose, informing his teachers that students need them to show up to school every day. “If teachers are unhappy about something, they largely have the authority to change it or they must stop complaining,” he says.
Overall, Arendziak adds that Lauk’s policies have kept teachers happy, in part with good health benefits. “And he’s empowering our teachers to take responsibility; they have a stake to do well,” she says.
Now a marathon runner and author of FUEL for Learning, a book about creating a successful school culture, Lauk says: “When we do things for the benefit of kids, sometimes it means saying ‘no’ to the adults. We have to do what is best for students. It’s just not negotiable.”
Angela Pascopella is managing editor.
Raymond A. Lauk
- Superintendent, Cook County School District 130
- Tenure: Four years (since 2009)
- Students: 4,100, pre-K8
- Staff and faculty: ~600
- Schools: 13
- Per-child expenditure: $11,125
- Dropout rate: 87% (2011)
- Students receiving free or reduced-price lunch: 85%
- Website: www.district130.org