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Dr. Damaris Rau
"I want my legacy to be that I believed that all children had the ability and the right to a high level of education—to go to college and be successful—and that I was able to inspire teachers, principals, and parents to support students to achieve that,” says Dr. Damaris Rau, superintendent of the School District of Lancaster.
Rau has been in education for thirty-three years. Her experience ranges from being a classroom teacher, Central Office Coordinator, and Assistant Principal in Bronx, New York, to becoming an Instructional Leader and Principal in Greenwich, Connecticut. She has taught and led students of all incomes, ethnicities, and abilities. Most recently, she was the Executive Director of Schools PreK-12 in New Haven, Connecticut, before coming to Lancaster to fill the gap Pedro Rivera left when he accepted Governor Wolf’s invitation to become the state’s secretary of education. Rivera is highly respected, having been honored by the White House for being a Champion of Change. Under his leadership, he increased funding by $5 million (Pennsylvania has the widest funding gape between wealthy and poor school districts of any state in the country.) The challenges are great in urban schools where 89% of the Lancaster district’s student body is economically disadvantaged, 18% are in special education, 17% are English Language Learners, representing 38 foreign languages, and about 900 students are homeless. Rau knows first-hand the unique challenges students face.
Rau was born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised there until age thirteen, when she voluntarily put herself into the foster care system. “It was a dysfunctional family. I ended up living with a variety of family members for a few years before I finally got into the foster care system,” she says. As a young teenager, she evaluated her options after seeing an agency in the neighborhood. “I asked ‘So what would happen if I really needed to get out of my house for this and this reason?’ and they told me… so I decided that’s what I wanted.” From a young age, she had a lot of courage and intelligence to see her situation clearly and decided to take control of her future. “I had always been a good student, an excellent student, so I brought that with me, thinking wherever I go, if I’m a good student, I’m going to be successful,” she says, acknowledging that school was the only place where she received positive feedback. “I was fortunate,” she reiterates again and again.
She was placed with the sisters of The Good Shepherd in New York City. “You lived there. You went to school. You worked in the community. We had chores. We got an allowance—just like a normal, middle class kid would have. It all seemed very normal to me, I guess because I had come from such dysfunction, this was the first time I felt like this is a real family environment.” The home was also right across the street from Fordham University and the Lincoln Center. “We girls would go to Lincoln Center and watch the very rich families or couples get out of the limos in their gowns and walk into Lincoln Center, which is a really beautiful place,” she remembers, adding that they connected the dream of going to college with being rich.
When Rau started college, she didn’t want to be a teacher; she wanted to be a district attorney because she’d gotten mugged three times. After the first college she attended wasn’t a good fit, she transferred to St. John’s University. “St. Johns requires community service, and so that’s how I got the itch for teaching because I decided to do my community service at a local, Catholic school.” Rau also worked as a nanny. She earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education, a Masters Degree in Elementary/Early Childhood Education from Hunter College, an Administrative Certificate from the College of New Rochelle, Doctorate in Organizational Leadership from Teachers College, Columbia University, and her Superintendent’s Certification from the University of Connecticut.
Today, she has a lot of ideas and proven solutions to continue to set the standard for excellence in urban education. She’s working to get more books into classroom libraries—books with more diverse and wide-ranging topics in order to get students to want to read more. She will begin working with Millersville, Thaddeus Stevens, and HACC to make certain students have the skills they need in order to be successful in post-secondary education. She’s introducing the highly regarded International Baccalaureate Program now for grades 6-10. (McCaskey High School was ranked 20th by The Washington Post as one of the most rigorous high schools in Pennsylvania—based on Advanced Placement courses and the International Baccalaureate Program.)
While Rau has been in her new position for less than a year, she’s already making it clear that post-secondary education is the standard for achievement. No matter how difficult that goal may seem, if Rau herself could work hard to make it happen, she is confident that all 11,500 students in her district can do the same.