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Paul Vallas
Paul Vallas

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News Release

Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-9472

January 15, 2008

New Orleans educational leader Paul Vallas
to give two presentations at NIU

DeKalb — Paul Vallas, the former CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, will give two presentations Thursday, Jan. 31, at Northern Illinois University.

Vallas is now the superintendent of the New Orleans Recovery School District. His visit is co-sponsored by the NIU College of Education, the Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations and DeKalb Unit Community School District 428.

He will speak at 7 p.m. in Altgeld Hall Auditorium on topics ranging from the politics of schools, school funding and the need to ensure educational opportunities for all. The speech is open to the public, including lawmakers and media. For more information, call (815) 753-4404.

Called a “veteran tamer of hard-case schools” by the New York Times, Vallas also will deliver an afternoon symposium and question-and-answer session for NIU students and faculty involved in teacher education. The symposium, which is also open to the public, begins at 2 p.m. in the Regency Room of the Holmes Student Center.

Organizers hope both audiences walk away with a sense of the complexity of challenges facing modern school administrators and, at least for the students and their professors, some inspiration to teach in or lead urban school districts.

“Paul Vallas is a very innovative leader in education,” said Charles Howell, chair of the Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations.

“We’re quite interested in what he has to say about the challenges for contemporary administrators in terms of political stability and increasing public confidence in schools,” Howell added. “We also recognize that he has original ideas about student engagement, technology in schools, small schools, teacher professional development, building community support for schools and finances for schools.”

“District 428 is pleased to partner with Northern Illinois University in hosting Mr. Vallas to share his views about reforming education, particularly in urban settings,” said Paul Beilfuss, superintendent of District 428. “We believe educators, both young and seasoned, will benefit from his experiences and insights.”

Before his arrival last year in New Orleans, Vallas earned praise in Chicago and Philadelphia for contributing to higher test scores, opening new schools and launching after-school programs.

“He was confident that he could raise the level of achievement in a school system that had been very inadequate for a long period of time,” Howell said. “He opened magnet and charter schools with the goal of maintaining the economic and racial diversity of the Chicago public school system and stabilizing student enrollments within the city.”

In post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, however, he faces a profoundly different set of challenges. The devastating hurricane came on top of an already troubled school system and frail city infrastructure. Vallas has tried to meet these challenges, Howell said, by refurbishing school buildings, reducing class sizes, introducing technology and more rigorous curricular materials and even offering health services to New Orleans students.

“These are kids who’ve only ever been to schools that operate in an environment of low expectations,” Vallas said in a recent issue of Education Week. “What we are telling them now is that we have high expectations for them, and they have to step up.”

Cynthia Taines, a professor in the Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations who focuses on urban schools, admires Vallas’ energy, his focus and his “controversial” and “exciting” solutions to urban educational problems.

“He’s doing some cool things in New Orleans,” Taines said. “He gave every high school student a laptop, which some think is pretty risky given the crime there, but he said he trusted students to use the laptops as educational tools. He thinks this technology will advance their education.”

Taines conducts research with urban students to gain their perspectives on schooling and school reform. She wants those in leadership positions to recognize urban students as stakeholders in reform and to involve them in the process.

Students in the College of Education can benefit from Vallas’ message, she said.

“I think the students will leave with maybe a certain sense of hope that some of these urban issues can be tackled,” Taines said. “I believe that many students think, ‘This is just the way it is. It’s so depressing and there are so many problems.’ Vallas shows just how much effort and energy and investment in going into solving these problems. Maybe this will inspire students to contribute to an urban system when they get their teaching credentials, or to take up the call of leadership.”

Other sponsors of the event include the NIU chapter of Kappa Delta Pi and the NIU Society of Educational Administrators.

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