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Lois M. Hobbs. Channeling Creativity Into the Classroom

by JAY P. GOLDMAN

At whatever level she has worked during 38 years in the profession, Lois Hobbs has managed to apply a creative touch to the way children are educated.

As a primary-grades teacher just a couple of years removed from her undergraduate studies, Hobbs piloted a reading series for the school system that brought language experiences to reading and wound up serving as a demonstration teacher for the 1st grade. As a middle school principal in Prince George’s County, Md., she helped to launch a unique middle school with an interdisciplinary approach to academic and arts instruction.

And now eight years into the superintendency of the Indian River School District, the largest geographically in Delaware, Hobbs continues to leave a distinctive mark on students and staff. Because she usually deflects the spotlight or readily shares it with others, Hobbs works mostly beyond the radar screen. Yet in the past two years that’s begun to change as she and the district have attracted wider notice for a unique pre-school program and recognition for Delaware’s first No Child Left Behind Blue Ribbon School, the U.S. Department of Education’s annual designation for school excellence.

Among the recent honors: Hobbs accepted the first Civic Star Award from AASA and Sodexho School Services earlier this year for creating and expanding Project Village, a program for economically disadvantaged 3- and 4-year-olds. Hobbs is using the $10,000 prize to place more materials in the hands of the early childhood educators and to begin a scholarship fund for the first high school graduates to emerge from Project Village in another eight years or so.

Hobbs, a native of Baltimore who spent most summers as a youth on the nearby Chesapeake Bay, does not mask the fact that her district carries a mixed bag of performers. While several elementary schools in the district learned this summer that they scored among the state’s best on the statewide testing program, two schools remain under the state’s academic watch and two others are listed as needing improvement.

The socioeconomic disparities across Indian River are dramatic. The 7,600-student school district covers 365 square miles in southern-most Delaware, ranging from $4 million beachfront homes on the Atlantic coast to farms, trailer courts and subsidized apartments further inland that house recent immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala, many of whom work in the poultry industry or as migrant farm laborers. In some Indian River schools, the poverty rate approaches 70 percent. In others, it amounts to less than 10 percent. Districtwide, 42 percent qualify for the federal lunch program.

The extended range of needs also means the 10 members of Indian River’s school board—who are elected by voting zones—bring clashing perspective to the table. In fact, when Hobbs assumed the job in 1996, “she was asked up and down the state, ‘How are you going to get along with that board?’” recalls Greg Hastings, a board member in his 11th year.

Divisiveness among board members was blamed partly for the initial defeat of a $67 million bond referendum to build two high schools simultaneously and renovate virtually every other aging property belonging to the school system. The referendum succeeded among district voters on the second try four months later.

Hobbs’ ability to build trust between her and board members has enabled the school district to make major strides in pupil performance and public perception, Hastings adds.

Says Hobbs: “If I get my 6 votes, or better yet 9 or 10, for my idea, I feel very good. If not, I don’t hold grudges. I just move forward, and I may try again.”

The superintendent works consciously to channel her creativity in ways that will directly benefit children. For that reason, she is a weekly mentor at the Indian River elementary with the highest percentage of impoverished students, spending the first half-hour of her day there. She also served as a personal tutor through elementary and middle school for a student who’s now in high school. “I’m happiest when I’m in my schools,” she says.

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: jgoldman@aasa.org