In May, John White, 35, deputy chancellor of New York City Public Schools, became superintendent of the Recovery School District. The evening before the first day of school, he spent some time with us explaining what drew him to New Orleans.
NBF: You’ve said you don’t want to let “perfect get in the way of doing good.” Can you explain that?
JW: In terms of decision making. Too often in education and in politics we don’t do the right thing for multitudes because it’s not the perfect thing for everybody and we have oftentimes hard decisions to make for kids with limited resources. But if we work together we can come to the right answer and while it might not be what everybody perceives to be exactly what they wanted, in the end we can get to a better answer than if we didn’t work together.
NBF: What excites you most about the educational landscape of New Orleans?
JW: Well, I think two things. One, working with children, many of whom would not have been served as well as they needed to be were it not for the efforts of real change agents in our schools—it’s thrilling. But I would also say that New Orleans’ particular approach to change—which is rather than giving the power to bureaucrats to determine the educational programming, has given that power to parents and teachers—is the best approach, it’s the most novel approach and it’s the one that’s most likely to succeed of any place across the country. And so the combination of working with students who have been historically disadvantaged by the system and at the same time knowing that the change that is in our schools today is one that empowers parents and teachers provides a tremendously excitingly place to do this work.
NBF: This summer, you established a 100-day task force for parents. What role do you hope parents will play in their children’s schools?
JW: I hope that we can give parents information by which they can choose their children’s schools. I believe parents have a right to choose schools for their children that they think are the best. Parents with means have historically been able to make that choice. Parents with fewer means should be able to make that choice as well. But I also think that we should want community involvement in schools too. We should want parents to pick their children up at schools. We should want them to be able to come to parent night. And got to establish the right measure of City-wide school choice while still allowing for neighborhood and community a factor in parents choosing schools and children being admitted to schools. We’re striving for an enrollment system in New Orleans that will achieve both of those objectives.
Too often untold in New Orleans is that the community investment in public education here is by far greater than anywhere in the country because you have dozens of independent schools, and organizations that support those schools, each one of which has parents who chose that school, and boards made up of parents and community members, and there’s a groundswell of support for public education in New Orleans that is second to none.
NBF: Which is more challenging for you, turning around a handful of schools over which you have direct control, or overseeing the 60+ charters that operate independently?
JW: They each have unique challenges. The challenge of our direct run schools is one of setting expectation and doing basic things to improve where too often people’s expectation for our direct-run schools have not been high enough so this is about leading people in a change effort. The challenge of our charters is how do you accept that the autonomy of the charters have is a precondition for their success while still being able to say, we can be better? Finding the leverage to get better when the schools are autonomous and have relative levels of autonomy. So they are unique challenges but equally challenging.
NBF: Last year, a report was made public showing that in the ’07-’08 academic year, the RSD’s expulsion rate was 10 times the national average and its suspension rate was four times. Does this concern you? Have the numbers dropped at all?
JW: The numbers have dropped. But I’m concerned about not just the expulsion or suspension, but overall retention, and we need to start talking about great schools and not just schools that make gains with their kids but that teach to serve hard to serve kids and keep those kids. And that starts with transparency. We’ve got to start reporting on student retention numbers. And then we’ve got to give schools the resources and the incentives and accountability to serve kids in ways that keep them there. Sometimes you have to go above and beyond what the traditional school is going to do in order to keep kids. We have a lot of kids with mental and emotional health issues. We have a lot of kids who need social services support beyond what the traditional school can provide and we’ve got to find a way to give a school both the incentive and the resources to drive that retention number up whether it’s drop-outs whether it’s suspensions or whether it’s expulsions we’ve got to have more kids staying in schools.
JW: Well, there’s nowhere on earth hotter than a New York City subway platform at four in the afternoon in August. The good thing about New Orleans is not just that it’s warm, but that people are prepared to live in the warmth, so it’s been a welcoming transition, weather-wise.
NBF: What is your favorite restaurant here?
JW: Now, if I told you, I feel like I would never be allowed in anywhere else.
NBF: Will 2012 be your first Mardi Gras?
JW: No, I’ve had other Mardi Gras’, as well as other great weeks, in New Orleans. Some while in school, some out.