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Centering Student Voices

A Conversation with Lisa Pawelak

Lisa Pawelak has more than 20 years of experience serving students and families in Minneapolis Public Schools. Today, she is the principal at Lucy Craft Laney Community School in North Minneapolis. In this episode, Lisa and Chanda talk about their love of the Northside, the lessons Lisa learned during the pandemic, and how Lisa is helping Lucy Laney be a safe, welcoming space where every student need is acknowledged.

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Souphak Kienitz  00:01 

Our next guest is the current principal of Lucy Craft Laney Community School. Lisa Pawelak. Lucy Laney is a Minneapolis Public School serving Pre-K through fifth grade students in North Minneapolis. Most recently, Lucy Laney School made the news after a fourth grade class had an idea to do a peace march after three children under the age of 10 were shot near the school in the month of May 2021, and every class at the school joined. In this episode, Lisa and Chanda talk about their love of the north side, the lessons Lisa learned during the pandemic, and how Lisa is helping Lucy Laney be a safe, welcoming space, where every student need is acknowledged. Enjoy the show. 

Lisa Pawelak  01:07 

I grew up in Illinois, and I came to Minnesota, kind of very unintentionally, and somewhat reluctantly. My dad was a school social worker, my mom was a school nurse, and I did not want to go to college. I was like, I’m good. I can go to some sort of community school. My only goal in life is to save money and buy a car and my dad was like, that’s not going to work, and so he ended up assisting me in following one of my friends up to Minnesota for college, and I stayed, and I’ve always wanted to live and work and go to church in the same community. So I went to Bethel College, very white community, not historically, super relevant or woke, but I ended up working in the schools in an internship and I was at Holland community school, and it was in Northeast Minneapolis, and I was like, alright, I need to move the Northeast, and then I moved to Jordan Park, and I was like, okay, where’s Jordan Park? I’ve never heard of that city. I didn’t know it was a name of, I thought it was, like its own city, and so, I got a job there, and I immediately fell in love with the Northside community with Northside education community and my husband and I got married when we were young. I was a baby, I was 22, and I said, okay, Steve, I’m working in this school. We need to move here, and he was like, you know, I’m from the country, right, but okay, and so, so we moved North and we and we stayed ever since, and I bounced around, from school to school, I worked as an educational support professional or a paraprofessional for a number of years before I moved into the role of school social worker. And in 2007, when Laney was fresh started, I ended up as a half time social worker, baby social worker did not know what I was doing, and my, I have two daughters. They’re 14 and 15 now, so my younger daughter who just turned 14 was like three weeks old, when I got hired at Laney and both of them attended Laney from high five through fifth grade. So I’ve been a Laney parent, and then they went to Franklin Middle School, and now my older daughter just finished her ninth grade year at North Community High School and my younger daughter’s gonna start there in the fall. Yep. You’re a North parent too, aren’t you? 

Chanda Smith Baker  03:23 

I am, I am. Yeah, so a lot of times, you know, people talk about like, this is pathway from teachers aides to teachers. But very rarely do you see, or do I hear about people that actually take that route? Like they like stay in that role, or they stay in a dean role, and they don’t often become licensed teachers? But you know, he did that, but then he became an administrator of a school. Is that an unusual sort of path? Or are you seeing that more often? 

Lisa Pawelak  03:52 

We’re seeing it more often now, I think, so I didn’t become a licensed teacher, I became a licensed social worker, and I wanted to become a licensed teacher, but I had gotten a bachelor’s degree in social work, and it was less school to get my license as a social worker than it was as a teacher, and so I went, I went that route. So I worked as a social worker for a number of years, and I didn’t have any aspirations to be, to be an administrator, but I just kept looking like, who me? You want me? And so I became an assistant principal and then principal, but we are seeing pathways open up more some, but it’s it’s still a barrier. Because when you think about the traditional way to become a licensed teacher, you’re going to school, and then you’re paying to come to work, basically to do student teaching, and that only works for the traditional going to college right out of high school and somebody is able to pay for your college, and so, for so many people who are incredible educators, they get in this predicament of not being able to stop working and stop making money to go back to school to get their teachers license, and so it’s an area that we need to do better in the in the profession, but we, we are starting to make some progress. Minneapolis Public Schools, has a residency program, we call it the Grow Your Own, where current paraprofessional so-associate educators, special education assistants become educational support professionals, and Minneapolis Public Schools are able to take a year, and they get their master’s degree along with a teaching license, and the district pays a stipend similar to the amount that they were making in the educational support professional roles, and so that’s, that’s helped, but it’s a very expensive program. 

Chanda Smith Baker  05:48 

Mm hmm. That’s really interesting. I went through a Teachers of Color Program like a gazillion years ago.  

Lisa Pawelak  05:53 

Was it the queue?  

Chanda Smith Baker  05:55 

I didn’t go through queue. I don’t know if you remember the Teachers of Color Program that was at St. Cloud State, under Les Green. There were a number of folks that are, you know, Charles Nixon Johnson, we were just talking about him before we started, but he was in that program. Tasha Buckner, who’s a French teacher, she was at Henry for a while she was in that program, but the same thing was like once I went through it, I mean, I was clear that I probably was not gifted. After I aspirationally, I thought I would be a great teacher, but I’m really, I don’t think so. I see your face, but I’m not sure I have the patience, but anyway, but it was prohibitive, in terms of the student teaching aspect of it, and that’s actually where I, sort of, couldn’t figure out where to go, and there were just constant changes in terms of the licensing requirements that just felt really overwhelming. So I’m glad to hear that there’s some pathways that are coming together in ways that are removing those barriers. 

Lisa Pawelak  06:53 

Yeah, right, but we definitely have a, have a long way to go. Minnesota has a tiered licensing system, now, that is, is something new for us as a state and to be fully transparent, I don’t understand all of it, I need to do some more, some more work around making sure I understand, but it still requires a bachelor’s degree, even to have an alternative pathway through the licensure board. We’re definitely moving in the right direction, because it’s a, it’s a fallacy that you need a piece of paper certification to be impactful. 

Chanda Smith Baker  07:27 

Say more about that? 

Lisa Pawelak  07:30 

Well, we go through this traditional schooling and I’m in the schools, but I’ve never been a great student. In the traditional school, I mean, I could get the grades. I was one of those kids that I think would irritate other people sometimes because I could do it, and then I chose not to. A lot, but we have this system and structure set up that values the written word above all else and values, getting a piece of paper and, and getting a certificate, and then thinking that if you can jump through the hoops, and if you can navigate the rules of this system, then somehow you are more worthy, and it’s important to have checks and balances and accountability and a system and a structure. But anytime we worship, the structure and the system over the people we’re getting ourselves up for some failure. 

Chanda Smith Baker  08:24 

Yeah, it’s really, you know, we had a convening this week, that the Minneapolis Foundation sponsored, and there was a conversation there of, you know, we’re often in schools and looking at academic success by evaluating teachers, but the reality is, is that there’s a whole lot of non-licensed people in schools that are working with students that are impacting their learning, and their psychological, the psychological safety, and other elements of who they are and how they’re developing as students, and as people and we’re not, I was aligning those measurements to that and are recognizing the roles that they play. I’m in there, and I know at Lucy Laney, you guys have been notable in terms of all the adults in the building being directed towards making students successful. Were you at the school when sort of that culture started to get oriented that way and what do you what would you contribute to that being the case? 

Lisa Pawelak  09:25 

So I’ve been at Laney a long time. I just finished my 14th year, and so it means I’m getting old. I like to tell people that I started when I was 14 but they don’t they don’t believe me, but yes, yes. When in the early years that I was at Lucy Laney I came in 2007 the school had recently been fresh started, and it’s very difficult when you take children from a number of different schools and throw them all together and then teachers from a number of different, different places and throw them all together because, we, we learn when we’re vulnerable, and we’re not vulnerable without feeling safe and loved and protected and to feel safe and loved and protected, you need to be in relationship, and so it’s, it was a difficult space to be in, and at one point we had what we call a Behavior Dean in every single grade level part. So we were pouring resources into managing student behavior, which was needed and necessary at the time, but over the years, we’ve been able to take those same resources and direct them into the classroom, and so our classroom teachers, we have co-teachers and our content leads and our special educators all work together, and you’re right, we see every adult in the building as an educator, and if you come into Lucy Laney, it would take you a while, I think to figure out who’s who, because every adult teaches every child regardless of role. That kind of answer.. 

Chanda Smith Baker  10:56 

It does. I mean, I ran, I ran for school board and city wide in 2010, you know. Everybody knows I didn’t get that seat, but I did make some stops along my way when I was campaigning, and Laney was one of them, and I remember doing, I think I was like a teacher for a day or something like that I was in the classroom. Man, I was there for like two hours. I’m like, uncle, it’s over with I need to go home. I just remember the kids were just all over the place, and I remember one young man got up and he was like on the table. I’m like, why are you standing on the table, like, get off the table, like I’m looking around, like who’s gonna tell this kid to get off the table, and I just remember thinking, man, okay, there’s a lot going on, now. If I walked into that building today, these are the exact same kids.  

Lisa Pawelak  11:45 

They are, they are.  

Chanda Smith Baker  11:47 

The exact same kids, with the exact same parents. 

Lisa Pawelak  11:49 

Same children, same parents, many different staff. We’ve, we’ve come to a place where we have very high staff retention, very high, and so like I say, I’ve been here for 14 years, I’m not the only one, and every year we have more and more staff that have been here for a decade, but it’s not the children, you know. We often, in our society, have this view that a deficit, a deficit based view saying something’s wrong with our children, or something’s wrong with their families, there’s nothing wrong. There’s nothing wrong at all, you just need to. It’s our responsibility, as educators. We are the ones being paid by taxpayer dollars to make sure we have the right people in the building, with the right thoughts and mindset, and then it’s our responsibility to create that familial atmosphere to create the conditions where the best in the children is what shines out. 

Chanda Smith Baker  12:42 

I know you’ve experienced this, of people coming in and talking about this community in a way that is not congruent with how we know it. Have you developed the tools to help people be exposed to what we know about the North side? 

Lisa Pawelak  13:02 

I try, I try, I find that there’s a couple of different types of people that I encounter, especially types of white people. You know, I’m mom, a white woman, not from Minneapolis, not from the North side, not even from Minnesota. I’m married to a white husband, who grew up in the country on dirt roads, and we have and we have white children. So one, one type of person that I encounter is the type of person, “Wow, you live on the north side, and you work at Lucy Laney, oh, bless you, you’re doing such wonderful things,” and my response to that is you have it all wrong. I’m the one who’s learning, and I’m the one who’s incredibly blessed to be embraced by a community who largely doesn’t look like me, but I’ve been embraced and my children have gotten a better education, in my opinion, than they would get anywhere else, anywhere else, and so, so talking through that is, is something that that I’ve learned over the years because if not me, then who? You can’t just write people off when they say things that aren’t true, and, and it’s become less and less over time. I’m also very cognizant and aware I don’t want to contribute by who I am to any type of gentrification or othering of the beautiful community that that is the North side. 

Chanda Smith Baker  14:31 

Yeah, I appreciate that. So you said that there’s two ways that people come to one way What’s the other way? 

Lisa Pawelak  14:36 

The other, the other way, and this is this is outside people who aren’t part of the community would be like, why do you do that? Like that is stupid. I would never subject my children to a place where they hear gunshots or I would never work in a school where you need to worry about cold reds and cold yellows on a regular basis. So I think it’s either like a paternalizing or a condescension from, from people from the outside, and one thing I’ve learned over the years about Minnesotans, from outer, outside the metro or outside the city is, so many people have been raised in a way that makes our community look scary. Yeah, I didn’t have that, because I grew up in Illinois, and so I came here and I thought Jordan Park was a city, and so I feel, I feel incredibly blessed for that, and I feel and I feel humbled, but I also feel like it’s my responsibility to not glamorize something but to show there are so many different sides of every community and so many different sides of every issue. None of us, myself included, yourself included, should allow ourselves to, to look at only a single story. 

Chanda Smith Baker  16:04 

Right, and, yeah, I mean, you know, I’ve said, even on this podcast before, and I, you know, I love the work that is being done around narrative, because I think as a kid growing up, you’re, you have so many people that are coming in and defining for themselves the assumptions of who people are and what this community is, and you live through those narratives as children, and I’ve even in my adult life, when people will interact with me and say, well, talk to me about how you made it out of the North side, and I’m like, you know, so I still live here, and I can almost see their face, like they don’t know what to say, and I’m like, you know, I was raised that a community is not a place that you move from, but that you invest in, and that’s a decision that I that I have personally made, but I think that as a kid, you you’re, you, you get shaped by the adult conversations that are around and, and in education, there’s so much talk about how the kids here are struggling to learn and be successful, and how their behavior problems, how their parents, you know, the neighborhood, and, you know, there, there is a responsibility to undo the damage that a lot of adults are doing to our young people and their psyche, and there’s their self esteem and self identity, and some of that is around geography. Yeah. 

Lisa Pawelak  17:28 

Experience and communities are experiencing the aftermath of practices like redlining. 

Chanda Smith Baker  17:34 

Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff, you know, so we talked about the people like how can you live here, it’s sort of dangerous. Let’s just go along that lines, because, you know, I’ve wanted to talk to you for a while and wanted to hear more of the Laney story, but I also was really impressed when recently with a surge of violence, there were three young people that have been shot to have passed away, and you engage the students at Laney to bring their voices forward in terms of how they were feeling. I remember thinking this is exactly what we need to be doing, is not pretending that the issues don’t exist, not pretending that kids are unaware. Let’s not get past their fears, their concerns, their anxiety related issues, but how can we help moving in a direction that is helpful and acknowledging, and so what how did you, can you tell us about how you what happened for the people that maybe see the news coverage on. 

Lisa Pawelak  18:38 

Absolutely. So it came out of our fourth grade team, and one classroom in particular, Mr. Alcindor Holly is one of our incredible educators, and he is a fourth grade classroom teacher and he and his colleagues, Miss Walton and Miss Plowman had been having conversations with the children kind of threw out, you know about everything about the murder of George Floyd and Derek Chauvin and about the insurrection on in January and then about what’s happening in our community and about protests. What does that mean, and why are we seeing these things? You know, it was before some of, some of these shootings happen, it was very difficult for our children to see tanks, and people with machine guns in their neighborhood, like that’s traumatizing in and of itself, even though you would say, Oh, well, they’re here to protect us. That’s not, that’s not the message that, that families and children receive. It’s not the message I feel and receive and I know in my head that that was kind of the reason and so they’ve been having these ongoing conversations and it kind of happened organically through Mr. Holly’s class. The kids are like, we want to do something, and Mr. Holly and I were talking about it. I said Let’s do it, and then we said, you know, we’re a Laney, Laney family, let’s bring it to the whole school. Let’s see, what do the children want to do? What do they want to say. and so they decided that they wanted to write some chairs and chants, and they wanted to make signs and bring them out to the front so that people could see that they have a voice and that their voice could be heard, and so they did that, and it was very much student led, and we got our little megaphone out, put new, put new batteries in it, and talk, talk to our parents about it, sent some notices home, did a robo call, so that parents could be informed because not every parent wants their child to have these conversations at school, and we want to be cognizant of that, but also at the same time, to your point not back away from reality, because hiding things doesn’t do any of us any good, but we wanted to address it and give them words in developmentally appropriate ways because we have children from age four to age 11. So each classroom teacher had conversations with their class and decided with the children, well, what do they want to do? Do they want to make signs? Do they want to do this? Do they want to do that, and then we just marched out the South doors of our school led by the fourth graders and they said, phrases like, no more shots, just love and thoughts or kids lives matter. Yes, they do things like that. We marched from the side of the building around to the front, and we weren’t, weren’t planning on this, but we ended up stopping kind of right in front of pen. There’s a raised grassy area in the front, and I would say for almost five minutes, traffic just stopped. There were cars stopped in the road cheering honking for the kids, and it was powerful to me, and I’m not a protester. I don’t go to demonstrations. I am an action oriented. So I’ll do things but not that, but it was it was very powerful, and, and healing, I think for the children, and then we had two, fourth graders, Imani and Aaron, who had pre-written speeches and practiced, and so we moved to be a little closer to the front of the building. Mr. Holly said a couple words, I greeted everybody, and then Aaron and Imani use their voices and shared their words about their, how it feels to them to be 10 years old, and not be able to play in their yards because children are being shot in their neighborhood, and then we hung up the signs went inside and got some water because it was about 90 degrees. 

Chanda Smith Baker  22:33 

It was hot. Yeah, we talked about sort of your time at Laney and just watching how things have changed, and, you know, centering youth voice and including them in what’s happening in a building is really powerful, right? Like I could feel myself like tearing up a little bit, I know, I’m just like, oh, man, I need to wipe a tear, sorry. I’m like dropping stuff, because, I’m like, you know, to think about being a young person who, you know, part of feeling value is about people hearing you. Like, you know, you’re not part of herd. You’re not part of a, you know, I mean, there’s something that’s just so powerful about that, and I think sometimes my read on it is that there are places I think it’s too disruptive. We can’t meet the needs, right? That’s how I read it that we can’t meet all the individual demands, right like that are happening in classrooms. And you know, again, you are dealing with these children who are emotionally being impacted by what’s happening. They have families that are complicated. They have families that have a lot to offer, but they’re coming to the school with some of the same challenges and so do you feel like your school is equipped to meet, are you feeling the same demands of all the other schools and like ill equipped to meet the needs of kids or in families or… 

Lisa Pawelak  23:58 

I see it a little bit differently, Chanda rhymes with Honda. I believe that as institution, school institutions, we are one of many pillars of the community. So school is one place, and space, church is another place and space. Family is another place and space, neighbors, community centers are another place and space, and I don’t believe that it is my or our responsibility to meet every need. I believe it is my and our responsibility to create a safe, warm, welcoming place where every need is acknowledged, and then to help to help connect and to, and to walk alongside and truly be a family and be part of the village that raises but I think that for a school to take on every need, in some ways is prideful, and it’s and it’s also I don’t know if paternalistic is the right word, but who am I to meet every need we already have, and you already have everything you need. It’s my job to create that place and that space so that all of us can come together and be the village. 

Chanda Smith Baker  25:13 

Just even saying that we have a responsibility to acknowledge the needs, how do you acknowledge the needs? Like what does that look like? 

Lisa Pawelak  25:21 

Something that I think, something you’ll hear often is, you know, the child who comes in, and there hasn’t been time to wash clothes, at home. We have a washer and dryer, we have some, some changes, so we can meet that need in the moment, but then we can also check in with the family like, alright, is this a need in the moment? is there, is there someone or some service we can connect you with, so that, I can be taken off your plate? You know, so we can meet some of those needs, but acknowledging those emotional and traumatic events, just, just like what we were talking about with the children coming out and doing a peace rally? Did we take care of that need? Is the violence gone on the North side? Are the children no longer experiencing trauma? No, but we acknowledged it, and we created that, that space for it to come out, in a way. 

Chanda Smith Baker  26:16 

Yeah, I get it. What about the parents because you know, parents like we can be we can be fierce. 

Lisa Pawelak  26:21 

You can, and that’s what I love about parents. Because that’s, I mean, these are your babies think about what other profession other than maybe the medical profession, do we have the honor of taking care of family’s most precious gifts, and you know, I mentioned earlier my children, my children, Sandara and Naya, were Laney babies, but I’m not the only one and counted up this year, we had 17 students whose, whose parents are Lucy Laney employees, and we have some we have some staff who are staff first and became parents like myself, and then we have some staff who were parents first and became staff, and so we, we say that we are a family. The beauty of having so many of us who are parents and staff either present or former. It forces us to do so because you can’t have a conversation about Laney parents or Laney kids, with the staff without having a Laney parent in the room, and so yes, parents are fierce, but so am I. So are we. We have the same goal, and that’s for your child to thrive, and for your child to have the best possible school they experience that they can have, and so I see, I see parents as partners, not adversaries, even when we don’t agree because our ultimate goal is the same for the children. 

Chanda Smith Baker  27:54 

Yeah. So is there a high level of parent engagement at the school?  

Lisa Pawelak  27:58 

I believe so. Yes.  

Chanda Smith Baker  28:00 

Yeah. Have you had to adjust what that looks like there? 

Lisa Pawelak  28:05 

We’ve had to rethink as a staff, and we spent a couple years thinking very deeply because, you know, traditionally in the school system, parent engagement looks like you coming in during the school day, to help with something or you as the parent coming in, in the evening, or you as the parent reaching out to me, and that’s not always the case. You know, I think about my own self as a parent, once my children were not, if my children and elementary were at Laney, I would have been at Laney, during all the times that, that parents were supposed to come to the school, and when they got to Franklin, I was not able to be there, and so we’ve, we’re very creative. We do home visits to go meet families, every August we divide up into groups and then we take a day we get our new t shirts for the for the fall, and we go visit every family on the same day and just welcome them to the new school year for conferences. We’ve challenged ourselves to, to not think of it just as this one day or this one evening, but we take the whole month and meet with families in any way that we possibly can, and we have about 80% participation, which is huge. I mean, 80% 

Chanda Smith Baker  29:17 

I would participate if someone did that.  

Lisa Pawelak  29:20 

Right? A guy can meet me any morning at 7:30, any afternoon at 3:15. I can come to your job, you can come to me, you know, it’s it’s just not reasonable. 

Chanda Smith Baker  29:31 

I think it’s so funny because you know, I’m in these conversations, you know, in Philanthropy. I’m in a lot about parents, parent engagement, all of this stuff, and I you know, always in my head. I’m thinking about like all the missed phone calls or the missed day meetings and you know, all this stuff, right? Like, I have five kids and right I’m either, you know, some kids I’ve gotten it better than others, but my job is really demanding, right, and I’m like I’m in some Northside statistic of the parents that didn’t show up, but I’m highly engaged. So like if you text me, I’m there for a text message. If you call me, good luck, right? If you set up a FaceTime meeting with me, I’m there. If you want me to come in for 15 minutes, it’s a gamble, right? Like, I’m just, you know, I’m constantly trying to figure out how do I get away from sort of that that mom guilt of, you know, not showing up, but trying to be the best in the midst of a really demanding job, and I’ve often said to people, like the role of parents and mothers, in particular, was very different than when this parents structure got designed. We have new technologies, so how should we be using it to think about how to build community with parents in it, versus leveraging parents to manage behavior, and grades. But how do you build a community in which parents are part of that community is, is a very different orientation, from my perspective? 

Lisa Pawelak  31:01 

Well, and you know, the quickest way to get a parent to not answer your call or show up next time was when they get a call, and it sounds like you’re tattling. 

Chanda Smith Baker  31:08 

My favorite one is I keep looking at their phone, and I’m just like, I mean, you know, is there some things, I’m just wondering if it’s possible that you, can you handle that inside of the school? Because, you know, it’s, it doesn’t seem like it should be elevated? Maybe you can help me over here with this bedroom situation? Maybe we can barter? 

Lisa Pawelak  31:32 

Yeah, you know, I do. I do believe though, and you can tell me if this is true or not with you, as the as a mother of five, we have the most parents coming into the building, when the children are excited to show them something. So if the children get to show their project, then they are like that squeaky wheel, Mom, you have to come, you have to come because I did this, and you get to see that, and that’s, and you know, parents were like, I had to take off work because she would not leave me alone, I just had to come see this project or I had to come, and so when the children are deeply invested, and they are excited, they bring their parents. 

Chanda Smith Baker  32:10 

By look, back on my experience, I have one child left in school. The places that I was most engaged in were the places again, that I felt most part of community. Right? When I went in, and I felt like someone knew my name, they know which children belong to me, they would tell me little stories that did not involve like, you know, assignments and behavior. Right? I didn’t have behavior, but I had one, but, you know, but you know what I’m saying? Like, it was just like, Oh, my God, I saw the sweetest little thing. Jalen was helping someone. So with such and such, and I was just like, you know, I just had to stop and watch him. Like, I love being in environments where I know someone is observing, and, and paying attention to who they are as people, and the environment just matters a lot, but I agree with you, you know, the participation on the Northside, if your kid is in a sport, if they are part of an activity, if they are in a leadership role, like the whole community will show up for those kids.  

Lisa Pawelak  33:16 

That’s true.  

Chanda Smith Baker  33:17 

And I think that there’s somehow a disconnection from how people view it outside or perhaps it’s a mis mismatch in terms of what we’re measuring, and what we’re choosing to share, because I’ve lived here a long time, and you know, I don’t remember my mom or I should say, I don’t remember my dad kind of going but man if I was in something, you know, or showing up to games and all that kind of stuff, oh, man, how community shows up? So, the pandemic so you know, on top of it all, so you’re how many years and now as a Principal III, II? How’s that transition by the way? 

Lisa Pawelak  33:57 

Well, I did it kicking and screaming a little bit. So you know, Mauri Friestleben, Mrs. Friestleben had been at Laney for 10 years. At that point, she served as the middle school assistant principal for three and then became the principal and I was a school social worker under her as the assistant or as the, when she was the assistant principal, and I didn’t want to be the assistant principal in the first place. So then when she told me she’s like, Lisa, you know, I’ve been praying. I’m going to apply for North High I said, Your what? You’re going to do what? You’re going to go where? Well, who’s going to lead Laney? She said, you are. I said, No, I’m not, but I did and I am and the transition was actually really good. I mean, it’s my first time being principal, but I couldn’t imagine a better a better transition. The way that that Mauri taught me was very much like a style of cold leadership, and she would tell me over the years, she’s like, you’re my succession plan. When I leave Laney, you’re going to be the principal. I said, you’re never going to leave Laney. We’re just gonna do this till we retire, and she would just laugh and roll her eyes at me but the staff was incredible. They’re so supportive of me. The community was incredible and so supportive of me, and, you know, I can struggle with my confidence and not fully believing in myself, but just the way that I was so fully embraced and lifted up and supported. It was, it was incredible, you know, and I was nervous, like who can follow Mauri Friestleben, you know. 

Chanda Smith Baker  35:40 

I guess a lot of people felt that way, but I think there was a lot of comfort in you coming in and it is felt very seamless from the outside, and you know, I love, I love this story of I love the intentionality of leaders who recognize other leaders are intentional around preparation.  

Lisa Pawelak  36:01 

Makes a huge difference.  

Chanda Smith Baker  36:04 

Yeah, and I’m sure you have her on speed dial or you have each other on speed dial. 

Lisa Pawelak  36:07 

Oh, yeah, and I can see her school from my house right now, and my children go to her school. So she can’t, she can’t get away from me when I need help. 

Chanda Smith Baker  36:14 

Mm hmm. That’s awesome. So, your two years and one year was been virtually more or less? 

Lisa Pawelak  36:21 

Well, February, was kind of when I first heard the name or the word Coronavirus, and then we were in school in March, and I want to say it was a Sunday. It’s Sunday, March 14, 2020, when Governor Walz made an announcement that the schools were all going to shut down and we have one more day with the children. So it was pretty much almost an entire year, because our last day of school with the kids was March 15, and then the first day that we brought back our kindergarten through second graders was February 8 2021. 

Chanda Smith Baker  36:55 

What did the pandemic teach you and the school? 

Lisa Pawelak  36:59 

My, so my boss just asked me that in my evaluation. I was like, I don’t know how to answer this. But I think so for me as a person, I’m, I really struggle with transitions. I really struggle with transitions, even every year, the end of the school year on boohooing, and then the beginning of that, you know, just transitions are hard for me, and it, the pandemic taught me as a person, me as a leader that I’m way more adaptable than I thought I was, and I have the ability to remain kind of calm and steady on the outside, even if I’m like a duck with the feet, just paddle, paddle, paddle, underwater. So that’s what, that’s what I learned about me. I learned about my staff and I already knew this, but they are second to none. You should come see these educators in action sometime where they are second to none, and they did the same thing with the pandemic. You know, we lamented, we cried a little bit. We hid and then we rolled up our sleeves and the things that they’ve been able to do has been absolutely incredible. I mean, my kindergarten team visited every single family every single week, throughout the duration. Every single kindergartener got a home visit every single week, and a package of materials, and when the weather would allow a little quick mini lesson outside with sidewalk chalk, and then what I’ve learned about our, our kids and our families is I just have so much respect. So much respect. 


Chanda Smith Baker  38:40 

Yeah, it was, it was.  Yeah. I mean, I even think about Jalen, you know, at North and the teachers. The days where I would like the doorbell would be bringing in, of course, I’m in the middle of a zoom, and I’m like, Who the heck is at the door, and I’m like, aaah, you know, like, why are they interrupting my bees and my work, you know, and then I go open up the door, and it’s a team of teachers from North, like, we just came to check on Jalen, and I’m like, oh, let me go get him, and just 15 mile energy because you are caring about him. There’s no other reason that you’re coming, but to bring him this balloon and just to see if he was okay. 

Lisa Pawelak  39:15 

There’s nothing in the contract that said you had to do that, and so it’s the humanity of it. 

Chanda Smith Baker  39:22 

Yeah, are there any sort of new ways of doing school that you will, that you hope are maintained? 

Lisa Pawelak  39:32 

I hated distance learning. I hated it. I hated it, as a parent. I hated it as an educator, but we do have tools now. We have tools that we can continue, kind of, to your point earlier about parent involvement and parent engagement. You know, if we have Google meet, or FaceTime or any of these in FaceTime, we always had, but we didn’t use it in the same way we use it now. 

Chanda Smith Baker  39:58 

Yeah, I don’t use it like a phone call now with my friends, I don’t even get call, I just FaceTime. 

Lisa Pawelak  40:04 

Yeah, and you could do a group FaceTime. So it feels really similar to a zoom, but I, there, there’s a great opportunity there for us to continue that, and to stay connected in those ways, and then some of the online tools and platforms, we’ve gotten better with like Seesaw and Google Classroom, they are wonderful ways to differentiate for the children to think, kind of, outside the box. The other thing, and I haven’t fully wrap my mind around it yet is I just, I want to think differently about scheduling. Why do we do things the same way every day? Some of it is just because you have to, right? If a teacher needs 55 minutes of prep time per day, and you have a music teacher and art teacher and a PE teacher well and the kids rotate through, but what if they could have PE for two hours or three hours on a Wednesday, and we could get on bikes and go down to the trailhead, and do all these different things? And so I don’t have the answer yet, because when you have 500 children, we’ve got to schedule some things, but that’s one of the things that we kind of have bouncing around in our heads is trying to think outside the box in that way. A little bit as a Minneapolis Public school community school. 

Chanda Smith Baker  41:23 

Yeah, with the which gives you more freedom. Is that why you said it that way? 

Lisa Pawelak  41:28 

No, I think in some ways it gives less. you know, because we’re not a Montessori. We can’t just scrap the curriculum and do things the way we want to do, where even transportation, you know, we’re part of this very large system, and there’s tears of when school start for a reason is because we don’t have enough buses to bring everybody into the building at 8:30. So some schools have to start at 7:30. Some schools start at 8:00, some start at 9:00. So that’s kind of what I mean, there’s certain parameters that are the way they are. 

Chanda Smith Baker  42:01 

You guys are 7:30 start, right?  

Lisa Pawelak  42:02 

No, so this school year, we’re an 8:40 start, and we’re moving to be an 8:05 start next year.  

Chanda Smith Baker  42:09 

Oh, that’s a different earlier.  

Lisa Pawelak  42:12 

It is. We were slated to be a 7:30 start, but we’re not going to be, thankfully. 

Chanda Smith Baker  42:22 

Man, I’ve had some mad kids in this house about an early start. 

Lisa Pawelak  42:25 

I know. It’s nice in the afternoon. It’s nice in the afternoon. But for me, I feel like one of the biggest levers to having high quality instruction is the time that teachers have to engage in professional development together and plan together, and we have a really robust after school program, and so we do all of our meetings before school. With a 7:30 start, there’s no way we could do that. 

Chanda Smith Baker  42:49 

Oh, yeah.  

Lisa Pawelak  42:50 

What principal could tell your staff, all right, we’re gonna be starting meetings at 6:15 in the morning. And so it’s gonna be an early day, the staff day, next year will be 7:00 to 3:00, but we’ll still be able to get our meetings in, before the kids start coming in for breakfast and stuff at 7:50, and then the end time will be 2:35, and then we’ll have after school right after that. 

Chanda Smith Baker  43:12 

What do you guys have a high suspension, the high number of kids getting suspended?  

Lisa Pawelak  43:17 

No, years ago, we did, but it’s something that we thought, very intentionally, about and did a lot of work around. Minneapolis Public Schools developed a new behavior, student behavior policy in December of 2013, I believe, and we started as soon as a draft is out, we started having conversations and thinking and talking, but we say we’re a family, the Lucy Laney family, in a family, if someone in your household, like misbehaves, you don’t kick them out. You don’t. You find a way to work through it, and research and studies show us that suspension is not an effective intervention, for the person being suspended, and for suspension to be effective, the child has to want to be part of the community, and if you’re not deeply invested in your school community, who cares if, if you’re suspended, because you don’t want to be there anyway, and so, so we do, we’re very proactive in trying to make sure that every child knows and believes that they are a 100% needed part of our school family, and we do reserve the right to suspend and we do suspend sometimes, because sometimes, I mean, you need to weigh the, the individual versus the group and sometimes you need a break. Yeah, we need some time, our suspensions have dropped every year, and we intentionally did away with any type of referral or removal for disruptive disorderly kind of conduct. Because that’s a little bit of a catch all phrase, and it is the area where black and brown children particularly black boys, would be grossly over. 

Chanda Smith Baker  45:09 


Lisa Pawelak  45:10 

Insubordination. Yep. disruptive, disorderly insubordination, and so we do have children who are disruptive and who don’t, don’t follow directions, but that is not why we would ever remove you from. 

Chanda Smith Baker  45:24 

Isn’t that what kids do, though? Isn’t that just like a matter of fact?  

Lisa Pawelak  45:28 

It’s like part of, it’s part of life?  

Chanda Smith Baker  45:30 

It’s part of their development.  

Lisa Pawelak  45:33 

Children by nature, like you push back. 

Chanda Smith Baker  45:37 

Man, I don’t know what made me think of that other than thinking about the pandemic and how tools are being used, and I was thinking about, like us having hybrid meetings and office contacts and thinking about kids that might be removed from classrooms, or not in school for various reasons, and whether or not they could, if they were out of class for a suspension, or at home for something, if they would be able to, like log in and see classroom and still participate, If they needed a break or something like that. I think that’s where my head was going with that question. 

Lisa Pawelak  46:09 

I think that would be a lot harder at the elementary level, because of just the group work and movement throughout the classroom and stuff, but I, I could see us trying it, and I could also see high schools in particular, but both middle and high schools able to do that. I mean, I even think about children who might need to go out of town for some, but they have that access to the internet, and they can bring a Chromebook and a hotspot with them, or if somebody’s sick, but you’re not that sick.  

Chanda Smith Baker  46:41 

Yeah. Did you have login challenges? Another was a lot of stuff, especially in philanthropy around kids not having access to Wi Fi, not having the tools, not logging in. Was that, did you face that challenge as well? 

Lisa Pawelak  46:57 

We did. We did. It was extremely challenging. It was extremely challenging. It took us a while quite a while as a district to get devices ready, you know, because our district and rightfully so, you know, in hindsight, didn’t want us to send devices home with kids kind of on that last day in March, because they needed to be updated. They needed to have software and things put on them. So it took a while to get the devices out, and then everybody in the country was experiencing the same thing. So getting hotspots to provide Internet access for those who didn’t have it took a long time because they were on backorder. 

Chanda Smith Baker  47:35 

Yeah. Are you worried about sort of student academic, you know, sort of the backslide? Are you worried that you’re going to have to come back and make up time from last year? Yes and no? 

Lisa Pawelak  47:49 

I think we will need to come back and make up time. I also think that our children are incredible, and our educators are incredible, and they’ll find a way to do it. 

Chanda Smith Baker  47:59 

Okay, before we wrap, I’m wondering in terms of where you’re visioning, where you’re gonna go next. Are there things that you want people to either know about what’s happening at Lucy Laney, a question maybe I haven’t asked you, or like a particular need of a school? Anything along those lines that you would want to share or any question I haven’t asked. 

Lisa Pawelak  48:22 

Minneapolis Public Schools is undergoing a comprehensive district design right now. I’m sure as a parent, you’ve heard about it. So CDD for short, and one of the impacts of the CDD on Lucy Laney and every Northside school and all of them is with kind of the redrawing of attendance boundaries, and a shift. So in Minneapolis Public Schools historically, I use myself as an example my house on 16th and Logan when my girls were in elementary, if I type their name into the school finder, they would have four or five community schools, Laney, Nellie stone, Johnson Hall, Buffoon that they could get transportation to or we could apply for a citywide magnet with the CDD we’re moving to a true a truer Community School model. So each child will have the option of their one community school or to apply for a city wide magnet, and so what’s happening at Laney and many other schools is we’re saying the by this summer to about half of our children and we’re welcoming in a new half, and so developing new relationships with families who might not want to leave their school, you know. We have many Laney families who they don’t want to leave, they want to stay, and then there’s families that go to that, whose fate whose children go to other schools and they’re like Miss Pavlik, thank you for calling me but I don’t want my child to go to Laney. I want him to stay, to stay over here and I and I feel that deeply as a parent. Also, no, no the vision and the direction that we are moving, as a district and kind of the ultimate goal, but this fall is going to be an opportunity for us to create a new, a new school community, and it’s not just Laney I think that’s important for the community to know. Especially for that elementary kiddos or older elementary kiddos, it’s hard. Change is hard. 

Chanda Smith Baker  50:20 

Was there any consideration of the amount of change and trauma that kids have experienced over the last year, to lay the changing of the school boundaries to another year or two, allow those that want to opt in to opt in and then to tear it into where the vision is? 

Lisa Pawelak  50:42 

I’m sure there was. I’m not part or privy to too many of those district kind of District senior leadership level conversations and decisions. I do know that in Minneapolis Public Schools, we are not adequately serving our children of color. We’re not and so our district believes that doing this is a way to bring more equity. 

Chanda Smith Baker  51:12 

One of the things that I can tell you and when I ran for school board is a big issue for people on whether or not my kids went to Minneapolis Public Schools, and there’s a couple of things that I want to offer, to this conversation related to the changes is that understanding the system. I, sort of, get the direction from a parent perspective. It was it’s very challenging. I actually did have kids in the district, they made me promise that I wouldn’t share whether I went to school when I was running, because they wanted their they wanted to be not involved in my political aspirations. 

Lisa Pawelak  51:46 

Oh, children had you not share? Okay.  

Chanda Smith Baker  51:49 

Yeah, they will like don’t tell them that we’re at, you know, they were at all at the time, and then I had one at fair, but one of the considerations I’ve always had raising the kids here is that the number of times in school boundaries have changed from the time that they are in kindergarten, to, yeah, to senior year. I have seen it and so the kids get used to the schools, the teachers, you know. We have a plan in place, for how they’re going to move from school, to school to school, and then the district changes all of that, and now it’s just disrupted, and then it disrupts all the other like, it’s like the you know, the whole cart comes apart for us, and I, you know, I have personally tried to balance that, and I understand, and, you know, my uncle was Dr. Richard green. That, that’s  my dad’s brother, right, like benchmarks, magnet schools, Summa tech, all of those things were under his leadership. This is not the first time, this is not the first rodeo of trying to figure out how to integrate schools and figure out magnets. But I but I am concerned about the emotional elements of that families, the relational loss, and I’m hoping that the schools and the district is accounting for how we counter some of those things. Because it’s not easy to be this disruptive. I understand it from a systems perspective, but there are people that we’re impacting little Banco. 

Lisa Pawelak  53:27 

Yeah, I like the community school model idea. You know, in theory, I mean, similar to my hope, and dreamed to always live and work and go to church, right in the same neighborhood. But the the change and the transition to get there is as difficult. 

Chanda Smith Baker  53:46 

Do you think I mean, you know, this is said and done now. So I’m definitely not trying to be like, pretty, but when we’re when we were working to open up North market at Pillsbury United when I was a CEO there, and we did a lot of research, right, and people don’t shop at one grocery store anymore. Like we’ve moved away from models, like even where I live, you know, on the north side here, there’s, you know, 50% of the people that live by me, don’t their kids don’t attend Minneapolis Public Schools, right. So there’s lots of options that are available. So even this idea that you can sort of control what that looks like is a little bit, that might be true within the district, but there’s so many other options and the way that parents choose and the way that community works, you know, I hope that this plan lives out, and I guess it’s up to all of us to make sure that, that its meeting that vision, because there are benefits to having a community school and having people know it, but we have to stick with it long enough for these kids to make it through 12th grade. 

Lisa Pawelak  54:46 

Right. Right, and it’s uncomfortable along the way. I mean, when you said control, I think you hit it right on the head. Just like our conversation about student behavior. When you feel like you’re, you’re being controlled, or someone’s attempting to control you as humans we become oppositional. 

Chanda Smith Baker  55:03 

Yeah. So as you’re welcoming in new students and new families into your Laney family this fall, are there things that folks in community can do to support you and your teachers in that transition? 

Lisa Pawelak  55:19 

Yeah, I mean, come see us. I think that a school should have open doors and we are public employees paid with public dollars. So come see us come see me anytime on the first day of school we like to have as many family members and community members come out to just cheer for the kids and greet them as they come in the building. So with our new start time, it’s earlier, but September 8, 7:45, be at Lucy Laney, with your smiles and bells on and help us help us welcome all the kids. 

Chanda Smith Baker  55:53 

Sounds good. Lisa, thank you for being on this conversation, in this conversation and being such a champion for our kids and our community. I have to say to you know, my nephew and Adonis, went there, when he graduated from the school and went on to Franklin, man, he had some tears because he just love the school. He just loved it, and it’s like, you know, when you have kids that are crying because they’re just gonna miss the people in the building. He was definitely one of those kids that felt the love and the support they are so thank you for what you gave to him. 

Lisa Pawelak  56:25 

Thank you on it’s mutual. I had some tears saying goodbye to Adonis also. 

Souphak Kienitz  56:31 

And that’s Lisa Pawelak, and our hosts, Chanda, rhymes like Honda Smith Baker. If you’re interested in sponsoring this podcast, or looking for ways to do more, please contact me. You can find my information on our website at Thank you to Sarah Gillund for making our artwork and copy for this episode. And thank you to Darlynn Benjamin for coordinating and making this conversation happen. This is Souphak Kienitz from the Minneapolis foundation. Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you soon 

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About Our Guest

Lisa Pawelak

Lisa Pawelak has been serving students and families in the Minneapolis Public Schools for more than twenty years. For the past fourteen, she has been a proud member of the Lucy Craft Laney Community School family, serving first as school social worker, then as assistant principal, and now principal. She works tirelessly to create a safe learning environment and a deep sense of place that many students, families, and staff call their second home. Lisa and her staff strive to continually confront and navigate many of the complex systemic issues that impact schools and communities and work to break down barriers so that all children can receive a quality education.


In the News

In this podcast episode, Lisa and Chanda talk about Lucy Laney’s peace march in June 2021. Learn more about how students let their voices be heard in this KSTP article.