Mark Laurrie remembers a time when he had no clue what he wanted to do with his life.
In the mid 1980s, he had just obtained a bachelor’s degree in political science from Niagara University and started attending graduate classes at the University at Buffalo where he thought he might try his hand at law school.
“I absolutely did not like it,” he said. “I remember driving home and thinking this is not where I want to be. This is not what I want to do. I just knew it.”
When he heard about a job opening for an in-school suspension monitor in the same school district where he attended classes as a youngster, he took a chance. He was chosen for one of the two available positions and assigned to Gaskill Junior High School, a place where he roamed the halls as a student himself.
Laurrie, it seemed, had found his calling.
“I loved being back in the school,” he said. “I loved the whole atmosphere.”
More than three decades later, Laurrie still loves it.
On June 1, he officially took the helm as superintendent, the district’s top job and one he said he never imagined having when he started his career in education 32 years ago.
“Other people thought, ‘You might be a superintendent,’ “ he said. “I kind of thought of where I was at the time. I never lobbied for the job. I never campaigned. I always thought ‘be the best of where you are right now and things will take care of themselves as you grow.’ “
CAREER IN THE DISTRICT
The new superintendent’s career was inspired, at least in part, by his father — longtime district social studies teacher, counselor and administrator Bob Laurrie.
In 1986, Mark changed his career path by securing a master’s degree and his certification in special eduction and elementary education from Buffalo State College. A year later, he became a special education teacher at Abate Elementary School.
“I just loved being with the kids,” he said. “I just loved being with the students. I loved the atmosphere of the school. It was really invigorating.”
In 1989, Laurrie went back to college again, this time to obtain an administration and supervision degree. In 1993, Laurrie became the dean of students at Gaskill. He was named assistant principal three years later.
In 1997, he shifted over to Maple Avenue Elementary School as principal and was later assigned the same post at Niagara Middle School. Halfway through his first year there, former Falls Superintendent Carmen Granto selected him to become one of four “house” principals at what was then the new Niagara Falls High School building on Porter Road.
“I always thought I’d never want to leave elementary and when I got to middle school I thought I’d never want to leave there,” Laurrie said.
Laurrie completed one year at the high school before being transferred to the district’s central office. In 2004, he returned to the high school as a house principal before being named the district’s chief education administrator.
“I think of anything I’ve ever done, that really prepared me best for this job,” he said. “There were more than 2,400 kids and about 180 faculty members in the district. That was like running a city. That’s really where I think I got the most preparation. There was always something going on.”
Laurrie held the post through the 2008-09 school year before becoming deputy superintendent. He served in that capacity until being officially elevated to superintendent, replacing Cynthia Bianco who announced her retirement last year.
School Board President Vincent Cancemi said Laurrie had not only the experience and record of service for the district’s top job, but has also demonstrated something more important: A strong desire to see student achievement levels improve across all grades. He praised Laurrie for demonstrating a willingness to listen to concerns raised by faculty members and parents and for making sure he’s fully engaged in day-to-day operations through frequent visits to each of the district’s school buildings.
The visits are part of a larger, multi-task approach for improving the district that Laurrie presented to members of the school board before he assumed the position as chief administrator.
“I can’t think of another superintendent that’s made the effort to visit every single school on opening day,” Cancemi said. “That’s a monumental task. I think the teachers appreciate it and I think they see he’s eager to make a difference.”
Up until recently, Laurrie said he never gave much thought to one day being in charge of the district.
“At every stop I liked where I was,” he said. “When I was an elementary principal, I liked it a lot. Then they said ‘you are going to be a junior high school principal’ and I liked that. Then I was pretty anxious going to the high school because I had never been there. Once I figured it out, after a couple of months, I said I never want to go anywhere else, I just want to stay at the high school.”
At the same time, Laurrie said he knew he wanted to be as involved as possible in helping to guide the direction of student education in each of the positions he has held over the years.
“I never wanted to be one of those people who sat in the back of the room and complained about what was going on without ever having a chance to do something about it,” he said. “I never wanted to be a person who said ‘I wish they would do this, or I wish they would do this or why can’t we do this?’ I thought ‘I might as well be the person who says, well, maybe we can do something.’”
Now that he has the job, Laurrie said he’s most surprised by how many people want to speak to him about something on a daily basis. He said he receives hundreds of emails and dozens of telephone calls per day, as well as requests from parents, faculty and others who need a few minutes of his time.
“What surprises me is how many people would like for me to spend five or 10 minutes talking with them,” he said. “It’s just a non-stop request to speak to you about a varied number of issues.
Laurrie has vowed to respond to everyone, including parents, who reach out to him and said he prides himself on being accessible.
So far, he said, he’s really enjoying being involved in so many different elements of the educational system — from issues related to teaching in classrooms to building maintenance and extracurricular activities.
“It is so varied,” he said. “I had four things I wanted to get to today and I hope I get to those, but there are 15 other things that will come up during the day that I never saw coming. It’s so varied. It’s never the same. One minute you are talking about maintenance, the next minute you are talking about test scores, the next minute you are talking about a community program, the next minute you are talking to the Gazette.”
Laurrie said the toughest part of the job is having to make the tough calls, some of which rub those who may be impacted the wrong way.
“You can’t please everybody. I’ve learned that fast,” he said. “Every decision you make is not going to make everyone happy or they are not going to understand it.
“I’m really enjoying it” he added. “It’s a little overwhelming at times, but I’m really enjoying it. I feel like we have a good team of people and we know what we are doing. I think I’m enjoying it more than i thought I would. There’s pressure and it’s intense, but I’m enjoying it.”
Laurrie said his goal for the district moving forward is to improve the academic achievement levels of students across all age groups. He said he’s determined to get the job done as quickly as possible.
“I told the teachers the other day and I told the board, we’re going to move to a district of high achieving schools,” he said. “That’s going to happen. You are going to see more high achieving schools.”