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From Brooklyn to Abu Dhabi

Sometimes, on the way to a successful career, it’s necessary to adapt, change course, or pivot — to use a vogue word. That’s what this WilmU alumna did.

Dr. Lorrain Mott-Baptiste

Dr. Lorrain Mott-Baptiste

Dr. Lorrain Mott-Baptiste has made two significant course corrections on her way to success — pivots that have brought her to the unlikeliest of places — Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, where for two years she has been a leader in the start-up of a charter school system.

She began her journey as Lorrain Mott, born in Carriacou, a Caribbean island, to bi-racial parents who moved to Brooklyn in 1972, seeking a better life. Her Grenadian mother, Louise, was a registered nurse, and her English father, William, was a machinist. They quickly found jobs, Louise working long hours in a nearby hospital while William held a factory job and later became a security guard at the World Trade Center. They soon afforded a townhouse in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn, and Lorrain and her older brother attended public school there.

At Meyer Levin Junior High, she got involved in the performing arts and successfully auditioned for The High School of Performing Arts on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. There, alongside Chastity Bono, Jennifer Aniston, Reno Wilson, and other celebrities and celebrities’ children, she caught the acting bug. And no wonder. Known today as Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, the school spawned the Broadway, film, and TV musical “Fame.”

“I was into drama — mostly method acting,” she says. And she would have pursued that dream, but family considerations intervened.

“My mother was never comfortable with my traveling to Manhattan to attend school,” says Dr. Mott-Baptiste. “As an immigrant and culturally my mom was afraid of something happening to me, becoming a statistic and not being successful. The idea was that if I failed, she failed. All the effort that it took to come to America would have been in vain.”

No problem. She quickly pivoted, enrolling in Brooklyn College in 1986. “It gave my mother comfort knowing I was close to home,” she says.

With jobs at a hospital and as a substitute teacher at a nearby high school, she worked her way through college, earning a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s, both in Political Science. At that point she was considering law school. But then marriage and eventually, twin daughters, intervened. “That was pretty much the end of law school,” she says. So she became basically a stay-at-home mom while her husband moved up the ranks of hospital administration in Teaneck, New Jersey, and Durham, North Carolina.

It was in New Jersey that Dr. Mott-Baptiste made her second and final pivot — into education. She had enjoyed her time as a substitute teacher while attending college, and teaching would free up her summers — a perk for a young mother — so it seemed like a logical next step.

She began a peripatetic and often challenging journey into her new profession by teaching history at Princeton Country Day School, which did not require certification. But when the family moved to North Carolina, she discovered that she would need certification if she wanted to teach. To get the credentials, Dr. Mott-Baptiste returned to familiar surroundings — her alma mater. So every week for three semesters, she took a 4 a.m. flight from Raleigh-Durham Airport to Brooklyn (“Jet Blue, $100 round trip, plus points”) and stayed in an aunt’s basement while attending classes. Once she earned the certificate, she taught social studies at a middle school in Durham’s Research Triangle.

In 2011, her husband was named COO of St. Francis Healthcare in Wilmington, the family moved to Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and Dr. Mott-Baptiste was hired by Universal Audenried Charter High School in Philadelphia to teach social studies, geography, and African-American history and culture.

That also was the year she enrolled in the Ed.D. program at WilmU. She says it was curiosity and a thirst for learning, not a desire to increase her salary, that prompted her to pursue a doctorate. Still relatively new to teaching, she says she felt “as if something was happening that I didn’t know about, so I was curious to see what they were doing and teaching in the doctoral program. Thank goodness they took me in.”

Thus began a demanding five years leading to her degree. She gives much credit to Dr. Linda Frazer, a full professor now retired from the College of Education. Dr. Mott-Baptiste calls Dr. Frazer “a tough lady” who helped her through her dissertation and mock defense.

“Dr. Mott-Baptiste was a delightful student,” says Dr. Frazer.  “Cheerful in the face of difficulty and persistent in getting things done. She was eager and enthusiastic about learning about new people and new cultures.”

After WilmU, Dr. Baptiste earned a post-doctoral certificate in Improving Schools, the Art of Leadership, from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her experience in Cambridge compared favorably to her time in Wilmington. “It was thought-provoking at Harvard,” she says, “but very similar to what I learned at WilmU, where I got a fantastic education on a working woman’s budget.”

During those years, she dealt with other trials — a divorce in 2014, a diagnosis of breast cancer (now in remission), and demanding new positions in Pennsylvania’s Chester Upland School District. After serving as a middle school social studies teacher in the district, she was promoted in 2016 and assigned to coach and train 150 teachers in effective methodologies and curriculum design. Her leadership led to a significant reduction in student disruption and cut security staff visits to classrooms by 85% while increasing student achievement.

The following year she was named assistant principal and tasked with turning around an understaffed middle school with 260 special needs students. The threat of closure hung over the school, but she developed student activities and oversaw school audits, resulting in a dramatic reduction in fighting and bullying while suspensions dropped by 50%.

By April of 2019, her daughters had graduated from college and were starting on their own professional careers, and Dr. Mott-Baptiste was looking to move up the administrative ladder in education. That’s when she spotted what amounted to an ad on LinkedIn, posted by an old friend, about the need for leaders of the first charter school system in Abu Dhabi. She contacted her friend, then sent in her résumé, and almost immediately received an interview date. She drove two hours from her home in Middletown, Delaware, to Manhattan, where several representatives of the nascent charter school system conducted the interview in a hotel conference room.

She says they asked many questions, “but with my WilmU education, my background of teach-ing in a tough public school, and the Harvard piece, it all clicked, and I was able to answer all their questions. We had a great conversation. I was impressed with them.”

Her prospective employers felt likewise. “I got a call by the time I reached the Lincoln Tunnel, in bumper-to-bumper traffic,” she says.

Two months later, she was in Abu Dhabi.

Located on an island in the Persian Gulf, the city of Abu Dhabi has an estimated population of 1.48 million, and an area of 972 square kilometers, making it the second largest city of the United Arab Emirates (after Dubai).

Dr. Mott-Baptiste is chief of Evaluation for the Department of Education and Knowledge and a key member of a leadership team developing a $2 billion charter school program for the country’s school system, with the goal of delivering measurable improvements to student performance nationwide.

There are 15 charter schools in the program, with the potential for seven more. Dr. Mott-Baptiste directs the evaluation, strategy, and planning for the schools, including methodologies, policies, processes, performance metrics, and reporting protocols. She also has led evaluations and training workshops for CEOs, operators, and principals.

Like almost everyone else in the world, she has seen her job change due to COVID-19. “It shifted from evaluation of traditional brick-and-mortar learning, then to distance learning, and now to a hybrid of the two,” she said late last year.

Introducing charter schools in Abu Dhabi proved to be a wakeup call for many parents, she says. “Standardized tests showed parents who thought their kids were doing well that they really weren’t doing well, and that helped us get buy-in from them. Much of the country is affluent, and many children attend private schools, but they are ridiculously expensive, starting at about $48,000 a year. Our pitch was that with a charter school you’re getting a private school education for free.”

Despite all her responsibilities, “I love Abu Dhabi,” she says, adding that she has learned to adjust to the slower pace of life there. “With the load I was carrying at WilmU, my time management skills even impressed me. There wasn’t a moment that wasn’t taken up with something imperative, and that was day-after-day, year-after-year. And once I finished the doctorate, I was still on that treadmill and sometimes it was necessary and sometimes it wasn’t. But I’ve learned to slow down, smell the roses, tap into my creativity again.”

“I like to crochet,” she adds. “I’ve made two sweaters; I call them my COVID sweaters.” Speaking of creativity, she says she has not completely lost the acting bug. “It’s sort of on my bucket list. After Abu Dhabi, who knows?” Which would indicate that perhaps there’s yet another pivot in Dr. Lorrain Mott-Baptiste’s future.

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