By Tammy Mark
Driving along the tree-lined streets of the Village of Lawrence, the picturesque landscape suggests the simple and homogeneous nature of a sleepy suburban neighborhood. Driving further south, past the synagogues and yeshivas, the local fire department and the town library, a different picture emerges. Past the vibrant Five Towns Community Center is the adjacent town of Inwood, dotted with lively churches and bilingual businesses and shops. Further out and over the toll bridge lies the seaside community of Atlantic Beach, its tranquil beach and boardwalk reminiscent of an exotic destination. The unique community of the Lawrence School District is comprised of these diverse neighborhoods.
Situated atop a hill midway between Kulanu Academy in Cedarhurst and the Number Four School in Inwood is Lawrence Middle School, in the center of it all. From the district offices inside the stately building, Superintendent Gary Schall and the Lawrence District School Board of Education partner to navigate the ever-changing terrain.
The Lawrence Union Free School District, district 15, serves the Long Island neighborhoods of Lawrence, Cedarhurst, Inwood, Atlantic Beach, and parts of Woodmere. The students come from families of varied socioeconomic and religious backgrounds, from newly arrived immigrants to third-generation Jewish families to anywhere in between. Many of the students require special education services to meet educational goals. In the Lawrence district, affectionately called a “cultural mosaic,” the range of needs—cultural and academic—is vast and growing each year.
There are currently five public schools within the district, with restructuring imminent. There are a multitude of yeshivas representing the many facets of Jewish affiliations, including two institutions focusing on special education. With an overwhelming majority of Orthodox Jewish families residing in the Lawrence district, there are approximately 5,000 yeshiva students versus 2,500 public school students. While the school board has evolved to reflect the growing yeshiva population, it maintains a constant focus on the enormous responsibility of serving the needs of the public-school students and their families.
School board trustee Asher Mansdorf does his homework. In addition to his regular visits to the schools, he makes time to visit neighborhood synagogues and churches for the chance to speak informally with district residents about their needs. He has been known to walk the school bus routes in order to gain further insight into the students and their neighborhoods. Mansdorf and his fellow trustees are on a mission to keep the Lawrence district a steadfast institution while addressing the needs of the various distinct communities.
One recent development is the necessary repurposing of the Number Five School. As the community’s needs evolve, the board looks for superior solutions to keep the Lawrence district strong. As enrollment has decreased, the district is searching for another educational institution, ideally a special education program, to rent the building. With the intention of the district retaining ownership of the property, this partnership can create additional revenue for the Lawrence public schools and simultaneously address the needs of the community.
Throughout the transitions, Lawrence district continues to pursue high standards of quality in education. More remarkably, the district displays defining examples of achievement, having been recognized on local, state, and national levels. Recently, two juniors from Lawrence High School, Lee Blackburn and Arthur Chen, were named regional finalists in the prestigious Siemens Competition in Math, Science, and Technology.
Working together with Justin Lish from HAFTR High School, the three students conducted research at Lawrence High School under the guidance of Rebecca Isseroff, a chemistry teacher and the district’s science competition coordinator. With an additional student, Russell Charnoff from HAFTR, named as well, the Lawrence district community boasts a total of four regional finalists. They have been recognized alongside students from top schools such as Stuyvesant and Bronx High School of Science, as well as prestigious private schools such as the Dalton School. These achievements are “the pride of the district,” says school board trustee Abel Feldhamer.
Top rankings go to Lawrence athletics as well, as the Golden Tornadoes high school football team celebrated yet another victory this year, winning its third consecutive Long Island Class III Championship Title. Superstar running back Jordan Fredericks received the Thorp Award as Nassau County’s most outstanding player, recognized for leading Lawrence to excellence during his four years there.
With the bar set high for putting all students on a solid path to success, towards the goal of giving students the skills necessary for college, Lawrence public schools remain rich with academic and extracurricular resources. Enrichment programs focus on math and science, including the robotics program at the high school, which is ranked second in New York State. Music and art programs are prioritized to cultivate the students’ talents and enhance educational goals, and are geared for the special education population as well. Lawrence incorporates music instruction beginning in second grade; it is regarded as one of the finest performing arts programs in the state.
The school board strives to give children the best chance for success early on; Lawrence is the only district in Nassau County offering full-day universal pre-kindergarten program with busing. Of the students who begin their education at the Lawrence public schools in kindergarten, the graduation rate is at 99%.
Unlike other Long Island neighborhoods with successful public schools systems such as Great Neck or Roslyn, 70% of students attending Lawrence public schools are currently living at the poverty level. Sixty percent receive free or reduced school lunch. Forty-three percent of the students are Hispanic; many recently arrived in the country. Some students do not have the advantage of an English-speaking parent or other resources at home.
The school board is working to help these students succeed, reaching out to the Spanish-speaking community and utilizing all available avenues. In recognition of the importance of embracing students’ cultures, the school year began with events in honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month. District afterschool programs reflect the many cultural needs of the children, with the offering of Spanish, Italian, and Hebrew cultural clubs. Academic enrichment includes math and English afterschool programs, all with transportation provided.
While any school district assumes the responsibility of educating children of varying needs, the Lawrence school board faces a far greater challenge given the extreme educational, cultural, and socioeconomic differences there are to consider. It is a challenge that district leaders take seriously. “Every child belongs to us,” says Schall.
The primary goal of the Lawrence school board remains constant: for every child in the district to have access to the best resources necessary to succeed, whether they are enrolled in the Lawrence public schools or in the community yeshivas, whether they require special education or have the capability to reach the highest levels of academic achievement. As these leaders continually work to serve their students in the best way possible, they are committed to the success of all of the families and communities that make up the unique district of Lawrence.
By Tammy Mark