A New Role, but for Her, Familiar Turf
Marcia V. Lyles, New York City’s new deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, knows intimately just how students can get lost in the shuffle. In her sophomore year in high school in Harlem, Ms. Lyles was caught skipping class almost daily.
“I knew how to cut, who to cut, where to cut,” Ms. Lyles, 58, said in a recent interview, her embarrassment with her conduct so long ago still showing in her reluctance to talk about her own school days. “I would do it all the time, but I was still passing. My aunt found out with one little mistake I made and that was it.”
Convinced that the school was too easy, her aunt, who was raising her, forced her to transfer from Benjamin Franklin High School to Jamaica High School, making an hourlong trip to and from Queens near the end of her sophomore year. There, Ms. Lyles was shocked to learn that after being in the top of her class at Franklin, which was largely black and Hispanic, and finding school so easy that she could skip out, she was struggling to keep up at what was then a largely white Jamaica High.
It was her first lesson in the problem that still preoccupies the nation’s largest school system — the racial achievement gap. And her memories are telling, because perhaps more than anyone else in the upper echelons of the city’s Department of Education, Ms. Lyles has known the city schools as both a student and a lifelong educator in the system.
She graduated from Jamaica High School in 1965 and went on to Hunter College. She became an English teacher at Washington Irving High School in Manhattan, but like other young teachers in the mid 1970s, she was laid off during the city’s fiscal crisis. She later returned to system and taught at Curtis High School on Staten Island.
She has lived or worked in every borough as she has moved up the ladder for nearly four decades from teacher to assistant principal, from program administrator to superintendent. The way she puts it, each job came at the prodding of someone else.
“It was always someone saying, ‘You know, you ought to ...,’ ” Ms. Lyles said. “So when I tell people all of the jobs I had and then say, ‘You know, I am really not the ambitious type,’ people kind of laugh. But it’s true.”
In June, after Andrés Alonso stepped down to lead the Baltimore public school system, Chancellor Joel I. Klein plucked Ms. Lyles from her post as a superintendent in Brooklyn to become the chief official in charge of curriculum and teaching policies this summer. He said that her experience would make her an “extraordinary asset” to his senior leadership team.
Ms. Lyles has been met with skepticism from other administrators in part because while she was the superintendent of Region 8 in Brooklyn since 2004, her region’s gains in test scores in reading and math, while solid, ran behind those in many other regions.
While some teachers and principals say the Klein administration desperately needs an educator’s voice in a headquarters packed with lawyers and consultants who have little patience for the city’s education establishment, they question whether Ms. Lyles is aggressive enough to be heard.
Certainly, while being interviewed in a barren office across the street from the Education Department headquarters, she was cautious about making any definitive criticisms about changes that have come and gone across her four decades.
“Every time we have had a change, there is a portion that is viable and helpful,” she said. Recalling an African proverb she has repeated to dozens of other educators, Ms. Lyles summed up her philosophy: “When the music changes, so does the dance.”
“I learned all the new steps,” she said. “I just moved with the changes, that’s what you have to do.”
In the late 1990s, she was appointed the superintendent of District 16 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, which had a reputation for turmoil and failing schools. There had been three superintendents in five years. Several district staff members had a pool to bet on how long Ms. Lyles would last — one senior adviser put her money on six months.
“So I lasted five years,” Ms. Lyles said with a broad smile. “It was just a truly wonderful experience of starting to turn around a district and really turning around the perception of a district. And just as soon as we started to really figure it out, we reorganized,” she said referring to the advent of mayoral control under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg in 2002.
Ms. Lyles said her most pressing concern about the school system is the continued gap between the performance of white students in the system and minority students. She thought back to her own high school days, after she transferred from Benjamin Franklin High.
“I just thought, wow, what’s the difference?” she recalled of Jamaica High. “What’s going on, now I have to play catch up? That’s when I saw about inequity, that’s when I saw about low expectations.”
“I knew that there was a difference, because at Benjamin Franklin all of the students were black and Hispanic, and at Jamaica High School in all the academic classes I was usually the only one,” she continued. “And so I saw that there was a real difference.” Benjamin Franklin High School was closed in 1982. “I used to tell my students that I wanted them to do what I did,” Ms. Lyles said. “I defied the demographics.”