Dr. William Lawrence, influencing young lives for 40 years

By Jessica Vaughn / jessica@gulfcoastmedia.com
Posted 6/1/18

FOLEY – Foley Elementary School Principal Dr. William Lawrence is retiring along with the 2017-2018 school year, after over 20 years at the school and 40 years in education. Lawrence began in …

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Dr. William Lawrence, influencing young lives for 40 years

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FOLEY – Foley Elementary School Principal Dr. William Lawrence is retiring along with the 2017-2018 school year, after over 20 years at the school and 40 years in education. Lawrence began in education before he even finished college, when he was pulled out of student teaching to become a 2nd grade teacher. He then became a 6th grade teacher while working on his doctrine at Southern Miss. He served as the vice principal and then principal in Mobile County for ten years, before getting the chance to move to Foley Elementary School in 1997.

“I’ve been an elementary principal for 31 years, and that’s half my life,” said Lawrence. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted to be.”

Lawrence was given his first opportunity as assistant principal by J. Larry Newton, who years later was the one who brought him to Baldwin County.

“People started talking about the freedom that administrators were given by Mr. Newton, so several principals from Mobile moved over here in the time between ’95 and ’98,” said Lawrence. “As principal of Foley Elementary, I wanted to move into the Foley community. I think it’s important that if you’re going to be a leader in a school, you need to live in the community in which you’re leading, get to know the families. There’s strength in being able to know the people that are in your school and be able to have that relationship.”

Lawrence cherishes being able to see the students not only inside the school, but outside as well.

“It’s neat to be in Walmart or a restaurant or a store and kids come running up to you to give you hugs,” said Lawrence. “Or parents seeing you and wanting to talk to you. This makes for stronger relationships, and then as a result, for a stronger school.”

With this kind of parent/teacher and student/teacher relationship, Lawrence states it gives the opportunity to contact parents if there’s a problem with the student and work through the problems in the best way for the child. It also leads to community-based trust and the desire to come together.

“Anytime we’ve ever had a need, people in Foley have stepped up to help,” Lawrence said. “Whether we’re finding clothing for children in need, or food, or helping to find a place for people to stay, or backpacks, whatever, folks just get the word out there, and that’s the way it’s been all these years.”

During his time at Foley Elementary, Lawrence cites growth and diversity in the school as the biggest changes. When he began, he states the Hispanic population in the school was extremely low, but now he’s retiring with 350 Hispanic students enrolled.

“Three weeks ago, we had the scholarship program at Foley High School,” said Lawrence. “There were three children that we gave scholarships to who are going to universities, who when they came here in kindergarten didn’t speak one word of English, and yet have went through school, learned English, and thrived and began taking AP classes. I think we as Foley Elementary, Intermediate, Middle, and High Schools have done a good job, not just with the Hispanic population, but with all the children. If students are willing to learn, then we’re willing to teach. We’re going to give them a good start so they can have that good finish.”

Lawrence firmly believes in giving each student the best start possible and cites both his education and his faith background as inspirations behind his teaching philosophy. Originally going to college to become a minister of music, he realized that his true calling was in education.

“The reality is I have been able to minister more being the principal of a school than I ever could working at a church,” said Lawrence. “In school you see immediate need, and you have access to immediate solutions to those needs.”

For the past 21 years and backed by the faculty, Foley Elementary has helped with feeding the children in the community and finding them clothes, going so far as to help families who were not able to pay their utility bill get reconnected. They have even helped those who come to town with nowhere to live find permanent residency, working with social services to make sure every child and their family is taken care of. The school has created many programs to reach that end, from the Turkey Take-Out Program, the Christmas Take-Out Program, and the secret meals program that the school helped to start with a local Alabama Credit Union, which provides meals for less-than-fortunate children on the weekends and during summer.

“My philosophy in education is you can’t teach them unless you love them,” Lawrence said. “You really can’t, you can’t teach a child who’s hungry, or who hasn’t slept, there’s no way. You have to take care of those basic needs first, and one of those basic needs is love … When you walk down the hallways here on any given day, somebody’s going to come out of line and hug you, and so we developed the culture here that that’s cool, that’s good. I can’t be responsible for what happens whenever they leave, but I know for the years that they’re here, our children do love one another. We don’t see race and we don’t see differences in economics or anything, and I think we truly are living the dream that Dr. King had … While here, we’re playing and learning and loving each other. While they’re here, this is a really neat place to be.”

As hard as it is to leave, Lawrence feels it is time to retire for multiple reasons, the first being family. His daughter will have her first child this year and lives in North Alabama, where she is doing graduate school. Lawrence stated he wants to be there to help her out during her maternity leave while his son-in-law is at work. The second reason for his retirement is the feeling that it’s just time.

“I’ve been doing the same thing for 31 years, and this last year was really hard physically, emotionally, and spiritually,” Lawrence said. “There’s been a lot of changes, and you just know when it’s time for someone else to take it over. I’ve taken it this far, now someone needs to take it on in.”

The third reason is because Lawrence is ready to do something different, no matter what that may be.

“I don’t want to make work, I don’t want to be finding something to do each day, I need to find a purpose for each day, and that’s what I’m going to be looking for,” Lawrence said.

Teaching until the end, Lawrence made one last impression on the lives of the students before the school year ended, speaking with them all in turns about three traits he finds important in life: courage, truth, and the value or hard work.

“If you do those things- if you’re always truthful, if you have courage to step out, and you work hard- there’s very little that you can’t accomplish,” said Lawrence. “Our children have been and will continue to be successful by finding something that they want to do in life because they love it, because they’re passionate about it, and then doing the very best that they can while doing that. Whether they love being a plumber or an electrician or a carpenter or working at a store or being a doctor or a lawyer: find something you love and do it. Not for the money, not for the fame, but because you love it, and you’ll have a good life. We give the kids a good beginning, and now they need to finish it.”