IF LAURADA BYERS ever gets one of those inspirational "Pass It On" billboards like Oprah Winfrey ("Encouragement") and Michael J. Fox ("Optimism"), we'd have to suggest "Mettle" for hers. After her husband, Russell Byers, a well-known Daily News columnist, was stabbed in the heart and died during a 1999 robbery attempt outside a Chestnut Hill Wawa, Byers and her children founded Russell Byers Charter School in his name.
The K-8 charter school, on Arch Street near 19th, is one of many Philly institutions that benefit from her indefatigable civic engagement - especially when it comes to women's issues and charter school education.
Byers has held several leadership roles at Women's Way and serves as vice chair of Philadelphia Charters for Excellence. She's also a board member for the Alliance of Charter Schools and a past board chair for the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation.
On Monday, the Institute for Women's Health and Leadership at Drexel University College of Medicine will honor Byers for "her dedication to our city and her many accomplishments." Daily News staff writer Regina Medina spoke with her about the school, some of her ideas for Philly's future and her late husband.
Q You call Russell Byers Charter School an
"expeditionary learning school." What do you mean by that?
We're very much about the experiences that the students have. "Expeditionary" means going to the source and thinking about consequential topics. Our mission is fresh ideas and powerful communicators.
So many times it's a challenge because an expedition isn't necessarily going to give you the training to be a good test taker. Ultimately, it will.
Q It feels like there's a steady stream of stories about charter schools in trouble with the city or the state. How does a Philadelphia charter school deal with that?
It's very hard. Unless you're in that world, it's hard to explain to somebody that these are individual organizations. Just because one is bad doesn't necessarily mean that another is bad.
I wish we could fix it because all of us are tarnished by it. We spend an inordinate amount of time and money making sure that we are above and beyond reproach.
Q What do you like about your work?
I looove the students. I love the families. And I like the fact that I feel very blessed because I have a purpose.
Particularly as we get older, the concept of being able to make a difference and to have a purpose and a reason to get up every morning is very important. This work can be cerebral, but it's [also] hugs and kisses. It's real.
Q You have been very active in civic life. If you were mayor of Philadelphia, what would you do?
Well, I would certainly try and get City Council on the same page, and I would seriously take a look at what are the things that make a city vibrant, and exciting, and alive and economically sustainable.
Education would obviously be at the top of the list. Tax reform would probably be No. 2.
I would say, look, we're not going to accomplish everything in the whole wide world, but we've got these five things and for the next eight years this is what we're going to focus on.
And let's be serious about getting this work done. People's self interest has got to take a back seat for awhile.
Q What was your first date like with Russell?
I'll tell you, actually, the story of when I first saw him, which is the more interesting story.
One day I had a blind date, and I went to a restaurant. I happened to be sitting in front of a fire [and] I saw this man across the crowded room and I was thinking to myself - cause I wasn't interested in my date, particularly - "Why don't I ever get to meet anyone really cool like that?"
I went to go to the bathroom, and this woman came in the bathroom who had been sitting at the table where Russell was. The woman was just kind of standing there. I said "Well, yes, can I help you?"
She said, "Well yes, this man wants me to find out who you are." And she described Russell.
I went, "Really? Oh my gosh.
Well I certainly don't give people
my contact information, but by
the way . . ."