Written by Joe Rizza Tuesday, 23 June 2009 11:36
On the second floor of the Willis Avenue School in Mineola, the superintendent’s office is looking sparse. Dr. Larry Licopoli, who has spent the last eight years of his life as Superintendent of Schools for the Mineola School District, is getting ready to move on to the next phase of his life. Next week, the office will no longer be his, but belong to his successor Dr. Michael Nagler. While it’s hard to simply sum up eight years as the leader of a school district that educates 2,700 students, a pin Dr. Licopoli wears seems to do a pretty good job; it reads, “Kids First.”
A school superintendent must always keep his focus on the students. If it is a successful school district, all the other members of the school community will follow. It is what Dr. Licopoli has tried to do in the last eight years and many would say he has accomplished that goal.
“I certainly leave with a sense of accomplishment. The educational landscape has dramatically improved and that includes our instructional and curriculum efforts. That’s evidenced by the achievement of our kids and their performance not only on state tests but on assessments that we use in our school system,” said Dr. Licopoli. “We’re pretty much where we ought to be. When we started this, we thought it would take 10 years to make the kind of shift that the board of education and what many members of the community were asking us to do. We’re in our eighth or ninth year now and for all intents and purposes, we’re ahead of schedule.”
It takes a whole community to make a school system successful, from the students to the parents to the teachers and administrators. But for the last eight years, Dr. Licopoli has clearly been the leader of the system. It has not always been smooth sailing but it is a testament to a leader to face adversity and keep the team focused on its goal.
During the last eight years as superintendent, Dr. Licopoli has had to endure the state shutting down capital work because the school buildings weren’t ADA compliant, the indictment for misconduct of an assistant superintendent and a lawsuit that alleged he created a hostile work atmosphere. Not to mention that he reduced staff, which couldn’t have always made him the most popular guy around. Yet, through it all, learning continued to take place in the school buildings, student achievement continued to improve and many students left Mineola High School with acceptance letters to colleges.
With the teachers of the school district and the administrative team as well as support from parents and community members, the Mineola School District has made strides in the educational program it delivers. “At the end of the day, we delivered our vision for school excellence and school success. You can see the results in everything from the quality of student work, the writing of our students to the students portfolios that we put into effect, student demonstration projects to state test scores and graduation rates, Regents Diploma rates and college selection and rates. They all dramatically changed” Dr. Licopoli said. “Our school system and the people who are in it truly make a difference in the lives of our kids and the choices they are able to make.”
In his time at Mineola, Dr. Licopoli helped to assemble a team capable of changing to the landscape of the school district as well as the mindset that Mineola should demand excellence from its students and the effort to reach the potential of every student. “My game plan has always been to ensure that each of our schools were pointed in the same direction in terms of our mission and vision, that they aligned together in terms of our instructional, curricular and school improvement expectations,” he said.
Changing the landscape of the Mineola School District has not been easy. When you hold people accountable, you may be met with resistance. But the district has been successful, under Dr. Licopoli and the staff, in getting all four of the elementary schools moving in the same direction as a team. The results of Dr. Licopoli’s and the staff’s efforts are paying off at the middle school and high school levels. It is evident in the learning standard test scores, in student projects and in the skills they leave the district with.
“Dr. Licopoli not only cares about the day-to-day operations of the whole school system, he has the kids’ best interests at heart,” Mineola High School principal Ed Escobar said. “He really cares about the kids. You always know that he’s the leader of the school system. He’s helped me grow as a professional and in my job as principal. I consider him a mentor and a friend.”
The district has certainly seen a good amount of change during Dr. Licopoli’s tenure as superintendent from the academic improvements to the improvements in the district’s facilities, accounting procedures and staff organization as well as making the school budget more transparent and reducing expenses while seeking additional revenue streams.
“I think his biggest accomplishment is that he put a plan in place on so many levels. We had a blueprint on how to move forward and I think that was really crucial. It’s what has taken us to where we are now and it’s a great springboard for us to jump off of and continue making progress,” said Chris Napolitano, who has had two daughters graduate from Mineola and a third daughter attending the high school. “His legacy is the blueprint he left us.”
At the time Dr. Licopoli was hired, the school board believed the status quo was not going to be good enough anymore, “We knew at the time that any change to the status quo would result in an outcry from the very institutions we were changing. Change is always difficult no matter who we are. We needed to make the change,” said school board president Steve Siwinski, who was on the board when Dr. Licopoli was hired. “Nine years ago, the schools all had different approaches to learning and the graduating classes from those buildings were thrown into the middle school to basically figure it out. We are finally seeing the results of this change in our much-improved elementary and middle schools.”
Dr. Licopoli will be leaving the district on June 30 and his remaining days at Mineola are bittersweet. While he leaves with a sense of accomplishment, he also feels sadness about the way he is leaving.
In February 2008, his former secretary filed a lawsuit against him, alleging that he was creating a hostile work environment. Dr. Licopoli believes the truth will be on his side and his name will eventually be cleared. “In my heart, I know the truth will prevail,” he said.
The months following the allegation may have been difficult for Dr. Licopoli personally. A motion made by a board of education member to extend his contract a year failed to gather the three votes it needed from the five-member board.
But rather than reflect on controversy, Dr. Licopoli prefers to reflect upon the work that was done over the years in the area of continuous improvement for the district and the relationships that were built with community members, parents and staff members. “At the end of the day,” he said, “I’m really going to miss this place. I’m really going to miss Mineola.”
In a career in education that spans over three decades, the last eight were perhaps the most challenging and while Dr. Licopoli will no longer be seen around the Mineola School District, his efforts will continue to benefit the students for years to come.
“He brought in the notion of continuous improvement and creating quality indicators for the school district that we want to follow. From his mission statement to the core values of the district to following what’s important to us as a community and making sure we’re paying attention to detail, that’s going to be his legacy,” said Dr. Nagler, who will take over as superintendent on July 1.