NIAGARA FALLS – The decision to name Deputy Superintendent Mark Laurrie the next Niagara Falls School District superintendent has been decades in the making.
Laurrie worked his way up the ladder as a special-education teacher, principal and administrator. He has been the deputy superintendent since 2009 and will take over the top job on July 1 following the retirement of Superintendent Cynthia Bianco.
“I tell people I’ve been on a job interview for 31 years,” said Laurrie. “And I tell them I started when I was 11.”
Humor and passion are not two words that usually go together, but Laurrie, who turns 54 on Wednesday, has both. He is disarmingly candid when he talks about his experience over the past three decades and his plans for the district.
“I’ll be blunt. People were asking if the board was going to do a search or do outside interviews,” Laurrie said. “But I think the best predictor of someone’s future performance is their past performance. They had 31 years of work to evaluate me on.”
Bianco is pleased with the board’s choice.
“I am fully confident that the district is in good hands,” noted Bianco, who has worked closely with Laurrie for a number of years. “Not only is he eminently qualified for the job, he also possesses an organizational history that is invaluable in serving the students of the district.”
Laurrie said the city’s schools are not perfect, but called them “a reflection of real life beyond school.”
“You are going to see everything in our school,” he said. “You are going to see kids that are challenged academically, kids that are challenged emotionally and socially. You are going to see kids that excel socially and academically and are involved in a million things. You are going to see kids of all races and all sexual orientations.”
Laurrie is fiercely proud of the district and, for him, it is part of a family tradition. His father, Robert, started as a social studies teacher in the district, and was also a counselor and administrator. Laurrie graduated from Niagara Falls High School and his three children also attended public schools in Niagara Falls. A son, Matthew, 22, and daughter, Katherine, 20, have graduated, and another son, Michael, 17, is a junior at the high school. Matthew has a teaching degree and certification to teach English.
A family tradition
“My three children went to school here,” he said. “They went to our schools. Some parents gave me a hard time. I tell them, ‘I’m not just doing it for your kids, but I am doing it for my own kids. They are sitting right next to your kids.’ It was really important to my wife (Laura) and I that we sent our children to public schools and the Niagara Falls public schools.”
He said his children have benefited from experiencing the diversity at the high school, which mirrors the world. Accepting diversity can be a key part of education, he feels.
Laurrie said it is the district’s job to motivate students and provide a safe haven.
“There’s no doubt that poverty is a big challenge here, but we have tried to use poverty as a commodity and we have leveraged it to get grant money for capital projects and foundation aid,” he said.
Laurrie most recently spearheaded the $68 million capital projects “Inventing Tomorrow,” which improved security districtwide, remodeled much of Henry J. Kalfas School, improved athletic facilities, and constructed science, technology, engineering and math classrooms for every school.
He said a lot of students come out of the high school with college credits.
“We have all the issues other schools face. We don’t hide it. We deal with it and move on,” he said. “We have security measures in place, cameras everywhere, security officers, but they do that at the mall. It’s safe in the schools.”
Laurrie readily admits he is not perfect, but said he tries to be upbeat and at peace with himself, something he has learned to do better over the past 31 years in education.
“I try to be who I am, a person who can talk to people. I enjoy being out there and being able to listen and learn,” he said. “I tell young administrators, ‘You make a hundred decisions a day. Ninety-eight of them are good ones and two are tough ones. You learn from those and move on.’ ”
He said as superintendent he wants to have fun, while also staying on task and focused.
He also said he wants to be approachable and someone people can talk to – from a cleaner to a cook to an administrator.
Working his way up
Laurrie said getting the nod from the Board of Education made him both excited and a little bit anxious. It was certainly not something he had envisioned when he began his career.
Surprisingly he said he never intended to get into education when he was in college, but instead was a political science major at Niagara University and had been toying with the idea of going to law school.
“My father was a counselor and administrator and in 1984 they had created these classrooms called independent study rooms,” he recalled. “What they are now are in-school suspension rooms. I applied and got the job at Gaskill. Even though it was a difficult job, because you are dealing with kids who are almost suspended, I really enjoyed being in the school.”
He said he decided to go back to school for a career in education and went to SUNY Buffalo State where he received a master’s degree in special/elementary education. He also has master’s degrees in administration and supervision from Niagara University.
Laurrie started at Abate Elementary School as a special-education teacher. He also taught third grade for one year at Niagara Street School.
“That started my journey of schools. In five years I had been at three schools,” said Laurrie. “In 31 years I have been vice principal at Gaskill, the vice principal at Abate. The principal at Maple (Elementary). The principal at old Niagara Middle School, now Cataract Elementary School, I was the principal of Niagara Falls High School when it opened. I came to the Central Office and was the chief educational administrator at Niagara Falls High School and came back here in 2009 as deputy superintendent.
“I guess the moral of the story is I couldn’t hold a job down, but looking back it was the best thing I could have done to see the district from pre-K to 12. I got to work in all three levels. I got to know a lot of the community and got to meet a lot of good teachers.”
He said as superintendent he plans to continue to be on the move. He said he’d like to start every one of his days in a school building, rather than the central office.
A hands-on approach
“I think one of the tenets of my administration is that I am going to be in the place where kids and teachers and administrators and the community are – in the schools. I plan to start each day in one or more of the schools, if I possibly can,” Laurrie said.
He said he already has started this model and is walking the hallways talking to the teachers, cooks, custodians and principals and is watching the kids come into school, saying, hello and asking how are things going.
“I won’t be there to evaluate staff, but to get a real sense of what is breeding in the school. That’s one of the first things I want to do,” Laurrie said. “I need to be out there seeing and hearing and touching.” He said when he was principal at the high school, he visited every classroom every single day.
He said he hopes the trust in his performance that the board has given him will also extend to the community.
Laurrie serves on a number of volunteer boards, including the Boys and Girls Club, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, Leadership Niagara and church organizations. He said he has tried to extend his reach beyond the school district.
Laurrie said he needs to be “out there” in the district’s 11 schools so he can make the best decisions when he is back in the office or in front of the Board of Education.
Board President Nicholas Vilardo said that Laurrie is “tied to the fabric of the community.”
Laurrie said everyone’s goal is getting students to graduate and then on to the next step in their lives.
“There’s a lot of talk about parent involvement, but we have to teach these kids how to advocate for themselves, because we are not going to all of a sudden create parent involvement,” he said.