The BusinessMakers Radio Show

Episode #466: Lori Lambropoulos

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Russ: Welcome back to The BusinessMakers Show, brought to you by Comcast Business, built for business. Coming to you today from the Houston Independent School District's Energy Institute High School and my guest is the principal, Lori Lambropoulos; Lori, welcome to The BusinessMakers Show.

Lori: Russ, great to be here.

Russ: Tell us about the Energy Institute High School.

Lori: I am so excited to tell you about our school. First of all I think one of the most exciting things about Energy is that it's the first one of it's kind in the nation; it's the first school with an energy theme that is completely devoted to kind of aligning ourselves with the energy corporations of not only Houston, but nationally and even international. Our school is very unique; when I was first given the charge for this school by the superintendent he said Lori, I really want to see something different. I want to see a school that is just outside of the box, you know? Something that aligns well to more contemporary kinds of jobs are career markets out there. So it was a huge charge but very exciting for me to take part in.

Russ: Do you think the superintendent thinks that you're accomplishing that out-of-the-box teaching?

Lori: Oh, I think he thinks I'm accomplishing it. If you were to walk the halls of our building you could see some really, um, just structural things that we've decided to do differently. You know, we have like these huge, open windows that you can look into the classrooms and see what the kids are doing, we're on the one to one initiative, which is called Power Up here in HISD, one laptop to every one student and so you can see that they're kind of integrating technology and, yeah, it looks really unique and adventurous.

Russ: Okay. And I kind of recognize a little bit of passion from you and your job - do you like you job?

Lori: I do, I do like my job. They definitely got the right person for this; I'm creative by nature and I've been in education for years and years and years and so, you know, I've often reflected about some of the things that happen in education that seem a little outdated, so to be given the charge to be able to update a school and to think about things that would really be beneficial to kids that maybe we haven't been able to do before was super exciting.

Russ: Okay, I want to go down that path, but before I do elaborate a little bit on your background.

Lori: Okay. Well, I actually went to the University of Texas in Austin, um, and graduated with a degree in Theatre, which, you know, enthusiasm; right. And, uh, and I, uh, I had a great deal of fun in theatre and theatre was my thing, you know? And I actually went out in the world and - and went to Chicago and did a lot of Off Broadway things in Chicago; came back and really, uh - uh, decided to come back to Texas and - and be with my family. It was very cold in Chicago; I wasn't used to weather. So came back and had a couple of friends that were teaching school.

And so I got involved in a lot of volunteer work with the school and just fell in love with the interactive nature of the profession; it just seemed to align very well with someone who was in theatre and working with people so started getting involved, got my teaching certificate and, um, worked in several different kinds of curriculums. Um, worked with reading at first then went into, um, I did Algebra for a little bit actually, then did, uh, IPC for like 7 years which is Integrated Physics and Chemistry so it gave me kind this sciencey background, which is different.

And then I decided to get into leadership and that was just kind of a decision where I was like I really loved working with kids and I wanted to kind of make a difference at a bigger level. Went through a program at the school that I was at the time and started working my first year in leadership at Westside High School which was a big, 5A comprehensive high school, but it was a little bit nontraditional so it kind of gave me the bug to look at the way some schools were starting to do some things differently. I also worked under a principal by the name of Paul Castro who, uh, just was an amazing mentor to me.

Russ: But is this your first principal's job, is that what you're going to tell me?

Lori: Oh yes, this is. This is my first principal's job, first year as a principal, yes. I, um, eventually got to be Dean of Instruction over at Westside, so it did give me a lot of instructional leadership experiences and those have definitely been helpful in this process. I also kind of - I think the reason that my name got in the hat for this gig is because I set up the Westside Engineering and Geosciences Academy, otherwise known as WEGA, at Westside. And that was like born out of an idea between a conversation between a parent and a teacher, a parent who was an Engineer - and they said wouldn't it be great, you know, if we had an academy of kids who were interested in math and science and we could kind of lead them into more knowledge about what it is - the engineering field is all about.

Russ: Which is definitely needed these days in the U.S., so cool.

Lori: Absolutely, yeah, yeah.

Russ: So along the way this opportunity came, you dove in head first obviously, but this is still - this is the first year, right?

Lori: Right. This is the first year. So I got my charge back in I guess it was, um, March of last year and they said oh yeah, we're going to start a school by August. And at first I was like where are the kids? And they were like you're going to have to find them and then they were like yeah, and we're going to get a building for you and then you're going to hire teachers and we're just going to start the school from scratch. So yeah, it was a daunting task, but I knew that I could do it, you know? I knew about my corporate partnership that I had with IPAA at Westside, so it was, um, I felt like I had a lot of resources and support and I was challenged to do it, you know, just

Russ: Okay, and IPAA plays a big role for this as well right, yeah?

Lori: IPAA is our major corporate partners, they have been tremendous in helping us to get up and running.

Russ: All right, and so you're starting with just 9th graders right now, right?

Lori: Right. We're starting with just 9th graders, so next year we'll bring on another set of 9th graders. Um, we had 200 coming on board this year, next year we're adding 200 more, the year after 200, etcetera, etcetera until we get to about 800.

Russ: Okay. Describe - let's get into the curriculum, you've done some things here that are quite extraordinary; describe that.

Lori: Okay, so I spoke earlier about the superintendent telling me that he gave me the charge to think outside of the box and do different things. So my Chief School Officer, his name is Dr. Drew Hoolihan, and, um, he said I want you to create a mission and a vision for the school. So we started doing our homework and just started looking at what was going on in the world; we looked at energy corporations, we went to the Offshore Technology Conference, I went on field trips to schools that were doing innovative and out-of-the-box type stuff to see what I could grab and - and steal from. You know, I looked at what was happening with technology and all the rest and then I made some decisions.

So when it came to the mission and vision of the school there were 3 things that I decided to latch onto; I wanted to have a technologically updated school. I wanted technology to be a part of their lives in this school; cell phones, iPads, laptops, teachers teaching with laptops, communicating with laptops. You know, these projectors, which are smart TVs, we have all of these in the classroom, they were given to us before they were even released to the public - which, by the way, is kind of our MO, we like to do everything first. And so it was technology, this thing called project based learning, which I'll get into, and then this just amazing relationship that I want to form with energy corporations. We're actually kind of partnering with them to provide kids with experiences that they've never had before and expose them to jobs that are literally being created yesterday. And so, you know, those would be the 3 things that we're kind of

Russ: Okay, project learning, I know that you're passionate about that for sure.

Lori: Yes because that's the way I think our school will look and feel different to the average visitor that comes in. You know, um, traditionally in a traditional classroom, the way you and I grew up in school, it's very much like the teacher stands in front of the room and she front loads information. She might teach a concept like Slope in math and then she'll have an interactive lecture where she talks back and forth and asks questions to the kids. The kids will take notes and then later the kids will take a quiz, she'll assess what they know, she'll go back and reteach a little bit, give them a test and then move on to the next concept. That's been traditional learning for us.

What we know now is that it's not so much about front loading information, kids can Google something and get information at the touch of a button, you know? We need to be thinking about what it - what the demands are for their lives and their careers that they're going to be inheriting. So I went and visited this school, I took a field trip over to a school called New Tech High School in Manor, Texas and they were doing some really out-of-the-box stuff; they decided to fully implement project based learning. Now if you Google project based learning you'd come up with a million different answers. They have a very tight, formulaic approach to what they call project based learning and that's what I latched on to. And the reason that I liked it so much is that it aligned well to what corporations are doing with their teams of people that work on projects.

Russ: Okay, so it's like the real world, eh?

Lori: Yes it is, yes it is. It's kind of like a paradigm shift in schools; instead of the teacher being the one to kind of like give all of the information to students, students actually are put together in a team and they're given a driving question to a problem. Kind of like a hook; something that they have to solve that really pro-provokes and promotes some kind of curiosity to solve the problem. Then they - just like they would in a corporation - create like a know and needs to know list; what do we know already? What do we need to know to solve this problem? And then they have to task themselves to as a team to decide who's going to do what so that they can successfully solve the problem, and then every project ends with a presentation. So not only are they having to own the learning themselves, they're also having to present the information, almost like they're teaching it, which creates kind of another level of understanding form them.

What I noticed from that school, like if you were to visit New Tech High School, that I really wanted to reproduce and then take to my own level here, is that the culture was so different. You would walk in and you would see kids all over the place - it was a little chaotic - but when you saw what they were up to, they were managing their time. They were having to work on different projects, sometimes all at once; they were having to communicate and really take initiative and decide who was going to do what. They were having to decide amongst themselves if everyone was kind of pulling their weight. They even had a process for firing a person on your team if they're not doing what you're supposed to be doing and then, you know, that particular student would have to do something in a different way. You know, but it was really, um, exciting and fascinating and I saw kids kind of, um, with skills that you don't see in the 9th through 12th grade. You know, they were articulate, they were able to communicate, they were outgoing, they were curious, they were thinking and excited about learning.

Russ: All right, so give us your report card; how are you doing on technology, how are you doing on project learning and how are you doing on integrating with the corporate America?

Lori: So, technology; one of the cool things is that starting a school from scratch, every person I hired at this school was kind of like told from the beginning this is our mission and vision, if you're coming on board we're doing it, you know, you've got to be ready for the adventure, you know? In a traditional school sometime the principals have to kind of convince their teachers to get on board. So everybody I here, they were on board and we knew that we were going to be a part of the Power Up Initiative, so it is - the kids were going to have laptops, the teachers were given training at the very beginning. We knew that we wanted the kids integrating technology from the get-go. It's been very exploratory, a big learning curve, but if you were to look down our hallways there's never a class, not even math, where they're not at some point during that class period using their technology.

Russ: Well I know, I looked up and down the hall and that's true, it was interesting.

Lori: And it's been a learning curve. Just like when you start anything new, you know, you kind of figure out what the bumps are a long the way and then you start problem solving and adding something else that you can, you know, implement for the next year that's even better, you know, um, I

Russ: So are you giving yourself an A for technology?

Lori: Yes, I give a - oh yeah, okay, grade A, yeah. I think check plus we wanted to go even further, yeah.

Russ: All right, cool. So what about project learning?

Lori: Project based learning; we trained all of our teachers - New Tech actually offered training so we sent them to Manor because we wanted them to see the school so that they could kind of see the culture that we were trying to build. So everybody here, including the leaders, the teachers, everyone except for the secretaries, which I wish we could've sent them too, went to New Tech to kind of really, um, survey the land and look at what our mission and vision was and get trained in that formulaic approach to project based learning. So we started having the teachers dabble in it and at first we said, you know, we just want to do - we want you to kind of explore, do one or two projects, um, by the spring semester so the kids can get used to this formulaic approach. The teachers loved it so much that they were like oh, we can go beyond exploring, we want to just start doing it, you know? And so that's kind of - you'll see more than what we initially thought would have to be kind of like transitioned in. Next year every single course will - every single curriculum will be full implementation of project; so every pro - every assignment will be in the form of a project except for math where we know math requires a little more process - uh, practice and process and so, you know, we've kind of learned that math is kind of it's own little animal. But other than that, um, we're also going to combine English and Social Studies where they will not be a stand alone class anymore and all of their projects will be interdisciplinary and intertwined.

Russ: Okay, and you include energy discussions in English and Social Studies? Yeah? Right.

Lori: Oh yeah, yeah. So energy concepts - so what we do - what we did this year is we provided teachers with an extra time during the day - all core teachers - to meet with the Engineering teacher to hear what they were up to and what concepts they were teaching. And then we gave them the charge of trying to incorporate some of those - those kind of skills and things that they were learning in Engineering into that core curriculum. So, you know, if they were say, um, doing something in Drafting, like they were learning Auto Cad in their Engineering class, in English when they were studying something about the Roman Empire, they got to actually kind of, um, draft a column - a Roman column - to kind of, you know, go along with that whole theme.

Russ: And have you been able to integrate companies into the, uh, whole process here?

Lori: So like I mentioned before, IPAA is our, um, major corporate partner and the experiences that we've been able to give the kids this year have been, um, petty awesome. So, we've had 12 guest speakers; one of them has been Sara Ortwein who is the President of the upstream Exxon Mobile company. And we've had, you know, just a tremendous, cool experience to give to kids of people that are making changes in the industry and are forceful leaders that are really kind of like motivating them and encouraging them and explaining to them different careers that they can be connected to.

Russ: Okay, I'm hearing straight A's I think across the board, it sounds good.

Lori: Yeah, I know - well, we've done a lot of cool stuff, yeah. And field trips, we've done a lot of really cool field trips. Okay, so we've gone to the Offshore Rig Museum in Galveston. And we're also going to go to the Offshore Technology Conference, all in all we've had 6 fabulous field trips that have been afforded by IPAA to give our kids exposure to this industry.

Russ: Really cool. Before I let you go, tell me, uh, and I've noticed lots of females here, what's the mix now at

Lori: So, part of my mission and vision is to get more females into our doors and I want to do that. Right now I think we have 37 girls out of our 200 so, um, we definitely want more girls getting on board. It's been a really exciting journey for them, we've actually had them participate in some of our recruiting events and we've kind of created some activities to really kind of latch them on to the professions and have some female guest speakers come and talk to them about industry. And I'm also planning with IPAA some events for next year to specifically recruit for female students, so I'm pretty excited about that.

You know, when I look to the future, you know, my hope is that energy corporations want to really, really deeply partner with us. I want to see opportunities for kids at the - at the high school graduate level, where we can provide them with certifications for job opportunities that meet their needs right out of high school. I want to see internships, externships where the kids that we're producing here can really help other corporations build that pool of experts that they're trying to connect to even as they go into college, so.

Russ: Really cool. Lori, I really appreciate you for sharing your story with us.

Lori: Thank you so much Russ, it's been such a pleasure, thank you.

Russ: You bet, you bet. And that wraps up my discussion with Lori Lambropoulos, the Principal of the Houston Independent School District's Energy Institute High School. And that wraps up this episode of The BusinessMakers Show, heard on the radio and seen right here at