CSD Alum Looks to Turn Around a Struggling School District

March 25, 2019
Photo of Cynthia Paris
Cynthia Paris gave the keynote address at the CSD Class of 2018’s academic ceremony.

Cynthia Paris, CSD ’96, hadn’t even settled into her role as superintendent of schools in Lawrence, Mass., last fall when a series of gas explosions and fires rocked the city and towns in the surrounding Merrimack Valley. Even though two school buildings were converted to temporary public shelters to accommodate displaced families, Paris had all classes back on schedule within days. 

Such an incident might have shaken some educators, but she viewed it as an opportunity to serve as a source of strength for her new community. “Being decisive and clear are things people look for during huge challenges,” says Paris, a single mother of two children. “They look for someone to give guidance.” 

Her Puerto Rican heritage, fluency in Spanish, special-education and speech-language expertise, and experience as a principal who turned around two Boston elementary schools were cited as reasons why Lawrence school officials believed she would be the right educator to lead a 14,000-student school district the state Department of Education reports is 92.9 percent Hispanic. 

“What stood out about Cynthia was the path she took to where she is today,” says school board member Patricia Mariano. “She is someone the kids can look to as a role model and say, ‘If she can do it, I can excel, too.’ We wanted someone who would take the successes we have had and move us forward.” 

Paris mirrors the student population in several ways. Like many of them, she regularly moved between the U.S. mainland and Puerto Rico as a child, with English as her second language. So when a group of middle-school students asked about her background, it was an opportunity to find common ground. “They were curious and wanted to identify themselves with me,” she says. “I’m a Puerto Rico island girl and a Latina, just like them.” 

After graduating from the MGH Institute in 1996, Paris spent 13 years as a speech-language pathologist in the Boston Public Schools. There she applied her IHP education, and recalls today how her written and language-disorders practicum made a huge impact. “It was a game-changer because it showed me how educators need to closely observe students’ individual struggles rather than rushing to label them as ‘special ed kids,’” she says, noting that roughly 20 percent of Lawrence’s students have a learning disability. “It’s especially critical for students who are learning a second language because learning difficulties could be a difference in language rather than an actual disorder.” 

Paris embarked on a districtwide listening tour during her first 100 days on the job, hearing from teachers, administrators, and parents about what works in the district and what doesn’t. One issue that jumped out was student absenteeism. She’s now asking local health care providers to encourage students to return to class after doctor’s appointments, and has made indoor recess an option for asthmatic students, whose breathing is affected by cold weather so their parents don’t keep them out of school. These may seem like small steps, but she inherited a district that until recently had a 52 percent graduation rate and ranked in the bottom one percent in math and English proficiency. 

 “I believe it’s possible to turn things around, I really do,” she says. “An education is the right of every child, and it’s our responsibility to create the proper learning conditions for the kids whose families trust us.”