With nearly three decades of experience in the Byram Hills School District, Jen Lamia has seen educational trends come and go but in her new role as Superintendent, Lamia knows firsthand that the collaborative culture is paramount to the district’s success and goal of “creating leaders of the next generation.” The Inside Press had the opportunity to sit down with her and hear how she plans to continue keeping the district nationally ranked for its excellent reputation.
A New City resident, Lamia recalls playing school with her friends as a little girl and hearing stories about her father’s job as a principal in a New York City high school. In college she majored in English literature and initially planned to work in journalism but when she took her education classes for her minor, she knew it was the right career choice for her. Lamia has two sons, J.P, 17, and Michael, 16 and credits them for giving her a “real sense of what it is like” for high school students and their parents today.
Creating Leaders for the Next Generation
Since assuming the role of Superintendent on July 1, Lamia and the administration hit the ground running with some “lofty initiatives” in a two-day goal making retreat for 23 district administrators. Under the umbrella of creating leaders of the next generation, the faculty discussed the concept of leadership and what that means for students. Lamia feels that in order for students to become leaders they need to “identify who they are, assess what their needs are and what resources are available and figure out who can help them on their journey.”
During our hour-long conversation with much of it focused on leadership, Lamia references Simon Sinek, the popular TED speaker and leadership expert who believes that all leaders must start with the question “why?” “The administrators were asked why are they doing what they are doing? What are the outcomes for students and as an educator how are we going to get them there? The administrators worked on these answers collaboratively this summer,” explains Lamia. When asked why prospective buyers should move to the Byram Hills school district, Lamia’s answer is at the ready. She pulls out a binder that sits on her desk and answers succinctly on how the district is focused on creating leaders of the next generation. It’s a document that she and her administrators “live and breathe everyday.”
Research Underpins Decisions in the District
The district has several research initiatives underway in partnerships with leading universities and institutions. This fall, two administrators were sent to the top three universities accepting Byram Hills High School graduates with the goal of assessing whether their offerings in STEAM education were aligned with what higher educations expectations were. “There’s all this push for STEAM and the next generation standards of science but we wanted to interview our students and ask if they feel prepared.”
Similarly, when the district was choosing a new math program for K-5, the district evaluated seven programs and piloted two. Acknowledging that changes needed to be made, Lamia is quick to explain that they don’t make decisions in haste. The district’s decisions are based on careful research.
Student Wellness: A Key Focus
Lamia believes that students can’t learn until they are emotionally ready to. In order to support student readiness, the district in collaboration with BOCES has a partnership with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Teachers are being trained in the whole growth mindset and mood meters. The district is also working with Stanford University to survey 6-12 grade students on stress, anxiety, support, social pressures and homework. “It is the first time we are getting a snapshot of what’s going on in the district with data. We hear anecdotally that some kids are getting too much homework and others too little but anecdotes don’t give you the big picture,” noted Lamia. “We want to hear their [student] voices and experiences.
Not every child is articulating how they feel and many kids go about their day seemingly enjoy themselves but they may be struggling.”
The district is also working with the University of Michigan and training several educators, guidance counselors and school psychologists on cognitive-based therapy to help struggling students. They also held a panel discussion for parents and addressed questions such as when to get help for a struggling student, where to get help and how long should that help last which offered parents a lot of good guidance.
Lamia enjoys the collaborative culture of the district and feels that it is a hallmark of the district’s success. “The vision of the district and the vision of the community are aligned which doesn’t always happen elsewhere. We have incredibly knowledgeable people on our district’s board of education that bring a unique skill set and care about every kid in the community. Will there be times that people complain? Absolutely but you have to listen because there may be a nugget in there that is very valuable.”
Lamia notes that the Byram Hills mission statement is ‘do what you like, be who you are’. “There are kids who excel at athletics, poetry and as scientists and their talents run the gamut. When I was growing up every piece of knowledge was taught to me. Today your knowledge comes from experiences and its more critical than ever to help students determine what they like and figure out who they are.” One way the students are figuring out their passion is through the eighth grade capstone project. Students undertake a yearlong research project and it can be as diverse as studying ways to increase fundraising for their baseball team to clean water solutions in Nicaragua. Lamia believes projects like these are critical for student growth and development and to help them discover their passions.
A Lifelong Educator
Currently a doctoral candidate with Johns Hopkins University, Lamia is focusing on teacher mentoring through an online course of study. She anticipates completion of her doctorate by May and is in the process of developing an e-mentoring platform that supports pedagogical content knowledge. “The standard for pedagogy has changed. It’s not enough for teachers to read off a PowerPoint. They need to have the students engaged.” Acknowledging that professional development for teachers is often a time constraint especially when they are out of the classroom, Lamia hopes that her platform will make it more convenient for teachers to advance their skills.
Since 1990 Lamia has been with the district holding various titles such as English department curriculum chairwoman, assistant principal, assistant to the Superintendent and an assistant Superintendent for human resources. But it’s clear that she is not the type of administrator to rest on her laurels and sit behind her desk. As the interview concludes, she excuses herself as the Byram Hills Bobcats are playing a home game and she wants to catch some of it. When we get to the field, the Bobcats are winning. “That’s great,” she exclaims. Lamia wants every child in the district to succeed whether it be in the classroom or on the field. With her at the district’s helm, the chances are certainly that much greater.