When Chancellor Dennis Walcott peeked into an English as a Second Language class at the High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies, he caught a crowd of Chinese-speaking students parsing “Death of a Salesman,” a classic of American literature.
In other classrooms on the fifth floor of the Lower East Side’s Seward Park Campus, he saw students reading aloud from “Romeo and Juliet,” designing school emblems in the style of Chinese art, and preparing to discuss the Earth’s capacity to sustain its human population.
It was the second school visit of the day for Walcott, who is touring schools that landed on U.S. News & World Report’s annual list of America’s “best high schools.” The list measures schools according to how well their students perform compared to other schools with similar demographics. Seven of the 10 highest-ranking New York State high schools are in the city, topped by Queens’ Baccalaureate School for Global Education.
This morning, Walcott started his day at Queens High School for the Science at York College, also on the list. After a lunch break to accept an award from an architecture mentoring program, he’ll finish the school day at a third top-ranked school, the High School of American Studies at Lehman College.
“I saw a lot of learning taking place, great students, great teachers, and a really outstanding principal,” Walcott said of his visit to the Queens school. “Here, even more so. Coming off the stairwell — I didn’t take the elevator — I saw a young student who was getting ready for his A.P. exam. He said the students and teachers here are all committed to excellence in education.”
Walcott’s habit of stopping by schools is well known. In the first semester of the school year, he visited schools on 72 different occasions, often to attend evening meetings for parents and the public, but also during the day for spelling bees, holiday concerts, and a “Harvest Feast.” In contrast, ex-Chancellor Joel Klein crossed the thresholds of city public schools 84 times in 445 days — well over a year — in 2009 and 2010.
Walcott often sets his own agenda, and he seems to enjoy seeing top-performing schools. When he appeared at a press conference with leaders of dozens of new small schools last month, he warned the principals that he could show up at their offices at any time. In September, he visited Staten Island Technical High School, a specialized school, after it landed on a different U.S. News list of top math and science schools. In October, he stopped by during parent-teacher conferences at American Studies.
He has less frequently visited schools that are struggling. Between September and the end of January, he visited just five of the more than 60 schools that were under consideration for closure or federally prescribed overhauls. One of those visits, to Grace Dodge Career and Technical Education High School, took place amid revelations that the principal had falsified student records. Another time, he visited the Bronx High School of Business, now set to undergo turnaround, because it was hosting a city school board meeting. (Other top department officials visited the other schools up for “turnaround” during the school day this spring.)
Teachers at schools on the chopping block this year said over and over that Walcott would change his mind about their schools’ future if he could only see staff and students hard at work.
But even critics of the city’s school closure policies say they appreciate Walcott’s presence inside schools. “He is constantly in the schools [with] nobody, no entourage,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said at a union conference on Saturday, even as he criticized Department of Education policies. “Good news, bad news, Dennis is there speaking with the children, speaking with the parents and speaking with the teachers.”