Downtown Royal Oak gets a lot of attention, but new schools superintendent Shawn Lewis-Lakin believes “the strength of Royal Oak is really the residential neighborhoods.”
Lewis-Lakin and his wife, Barbara, moved into Royal Oak in mid-July from Chelsea, MI.
He has spent much of the summer listening and learning from the school district’s stakeholders. He’s been talking with civic leaders, parents, teachers, students and staff members in all categories, saying you can “do more when everyone works together.”
Lewis-Lakin said he's thrilled to be part of the Royal Oak community and believes strong neighborhoods are intertwined with public education.
“You need both to be vital and viable,” he said. “I’ve always believed education is the backbone of strong communities.”
Lewis-Lakin said he is always looking to the community for ways to improve student learning in the classroom, which is where he began his career.
After he graduated from Michigan State University in 1982, he taught chemistry in the Midland Public School District. “I was in my 20s, and at the time, Midland (home to Dow Chemical Co.) had the highest number of Ph.D. chemists per capita,” he said. Lewis-Lakin joked that he felt pressure to make sure he graded homework properly.
After teaching for three years, he decided to go back to school, getting a Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School in New Haven, CT. As an ordained minister, Lewis-Lakin honed his listening skills while serving as a pastor for United Methodist Church congregations for nine years.
“I have three kids — Peter, Abby and Kate,” he said. “When I was a pastor (in the late '80s and '90s), I was always busy in the evenings, on weekends and holidays – the times when my kids were home.”
He wanted to spend more time with his children, so he went back into education. In 2000, he earned a degree from Wayne State University as an educational specialist.
“I felt my work as a pastor taught me leadership qualities, and I wanted to move into a leadership role in education,” he said. “But before I did that, I wanted to reimmerse myself in the classroom.”
Lewis-Lakin took a teaching position in Trenton, where he taught middle school science for three years (1997-2000). From Trenton, he moved to assistant principal roles in Monroe (2000-01) and Chelsea (2001-03). In Chelsea, he moved up to the position of executive director for student performance, where he led administrators, teachers and support staff in reviewing curriculum, measuring student academic performance and expanding advanced-placement offerings.
In 2007, Lewis-Lakin became the superintendent of schools in Washtenaw County's Manchester Community School District. He credits that community for helping him to “be a better leader.” Manchester has a student population of 1,200. There are 5,200 students in Royal Oak schools.
“Royal Oak is a great place,” Lewis-Lakin said. He said is impressed with test results coming out of the schools, noting the district has some of the strongest student performance results in southern Oakland County. He’s also impressed with the staff, many of whom are in new leadership roles, including new principals at the middle school and four of the elementary schools.
“The transition is going smoothly,” he said, adding that many staff who have left the district are providing positive support. “Continuity is important, but new people bring a fresh perspective."
Budget concerns will continue to be an issue. He noted the district has faced challenges directly in the past and made difficult choices, but there are still many tough decisions to be made.
“The community needs to appreciate that decisions made in Lansing have a real and significant impact on what happens in Royal Oak,” he said. “There needs to be a commitment at the state level to value and invest in education.”
The new superintendent said that with every decision he makes, he asks himself, “Is this the best investment for student learning?”
Expect to see Lewis-Lakin and his wife, who works with families and couples at Samaritan Counseling Center in Farmington Hills, present in the community. The superintendent loves sports and plans to be visible at athletic events. The former track and swimming coach also plans to participate in the Detroit Free Press half marathon in October.
Lewis-Lakin said he also has a great appreciation for the performing arts. All three of his children played instruments in high school. Daughter Abby, 20, is studying music education at the University of Michigan.
His son, Peter, 28, is an attorney working for the Oakland County Prosecutor's Office, and his youngest daughter, Kate, 18, is studying politics and government at Ohio Wesleyan University.
Look for the new superintendent to be out and about at the Woodward Avenue Dream Cruise, too. The Lewis-Lakins purchased a home near Woodward Avenue and plan to check out the annual parade of classic cars on Aug. 20.
“I used to have a 1994 Mazda Miata, but I sold it,” Lewis-Lakin said. His current vehicle is more than 10 years old, so look for him as a spectator — not behind the wheel, he said.