When Jennifer O’Malley took over as executive director at the Lafayette School, she inherited a program that had its collective back against the wall. A teacher by trade, her first order of business was to stave off closing, find creative situations to keep the school afloat, and push through for the sake of the children and teachers.
Just as she was clearing those obstacles, the coronavirus pandemic struck and she ran into the same unknown territory that the entire nation now faces. She helped guide the school out of the financial woods and to a point where it had a waiting list of admission just in time for the coronavirus to push the economy toward its breaking point.
The whole sequence, which began with Jennifer’s promotion to executive director in September, was like if the captain of the Titanic pulled off a miracle to float past one iceberg, only to find a more menacing one ahead.
“When this started, nobody knew how day schools were going to get paid,” Jen’s husband Toby said. “She has been in that building way too long. She’s there how many hours a day, every day. At home, she’s always looking at it, working it. It’s like a 25-hour-a-day job. She’s working on keeping the school going not knowing if she’ll get her next paycheck.”
This mission isn’t about Jennifer’s own paycheck or grandstanding to flex her management muscles. She has tunnel vision in the face of a crisis and is determined to take care of her teachers and give kids the instruction and structure the Lafayette School has always provided. It’s her second trial by fire in her short time as executive director and a terrific example of understated heroism.
A pandemic has been a test of true leadership that few saw coming as the situation began developed in January and escalated in recent weeks. A mother of three kids Malcolm (18), Kai (5) and Soleigha (3), Jennifer has always had a sixth sense for trouble and knowing how to minimize the damage. This situation called for the same skill set.
As the crisis spread, Jennifer started small instead of grabbing for lifelines at the state level or above. She began working the problem and exploring the idea of pivoting to a new source of learning, whether online or door-to-door for students who needed it, that would keep the kids engaged, the teachers employed and the lights on.
Jennifer soon finds out if that mission was a success and whether Lafayette School can stay afloat for another month. It’s a mission Jennifer doesn’t take lightly.
“This is her first time having people’s livelihood in her hands,” Toby said. “That part of it weighs on her a lot. She’s super compassionate, almost to a fault. She’s there for the kids. She said, ‘Hey, these kids need a service.’ She’s able to provide them that. Even if it’s online, they know that the school is right there for them.”
So, Jennifer’s mission goes on. Whatever happens over the coming days and weeks, she’ll have been through an experience where she fought for kids in their time of need. She learned, adapted and reinvented. She innovated her curriculum to try and preserve the school’s funding, and she kept her focus on the people who needed her most.
Jennifer’s effort and instincts as a first-time leader have been nothing short of extraordinary.
The hope is to save the day, of course, and apply these valuable lessons to take a once-struggling enterprise into a brighter future. For now, Jennifer will settle for being there for kids who need her while rising to the occasion in countless ways and earning the respect of a community.
“I said, ‘Look, you’ve got a perfect situation. You can create a whole new world,’” Toby said. “You get to shape it however you want. If you get to go back into a building, you can do things differently. She’s talked to everyone from top to bottom about ways to get funding for their schools. Higher-ups are talking about schools more than ever.”