As New York gears up for a new chancellor, Walcott looks back

After eight years of Joel Klein and 96 days of Cathie Black, New York City schools got Dennis Walcott as chancellor in April 2011. Previously a deputy mayor whose portfolio included education, Walcott was charged with executing Mayor Bloomberg’s education agenda in the waning years of his administration.

Under his leadership, the Department of Education closed dozens of schools and tried unsuccessfully to shutter others, launched an initiative to boost the performance of black and Latino male students, and began implementing new academic standards and teacher evaluation rules. But Walcott also gained a reputation for his athletic pursuits and frequent visits to city schools — both of which made him different from his predecessors.

We sat down with Walcott earlier this week to get his take on the job he’s leaving behind Dec. 31. He told us that while the city is still not a place where he would be comfortable enrolling his grandchildren in any school, he has no regrets about his time in office.

GothamSchools: Let’s zoom ahead to 12 years from now.

Walcott: Twelve years from now? Now you’ve got my full attention.

We have a new history [now] of what was going on 12 years ago. What do you hope that people will be saying about your administration 12 years from now?

DW: That’s interesting. That we laid a solid foundation for the future success of our children. That we shook up the system to improve outcomes for our students. And that they were not afraid to tackle very difficult and thorny issues and not worry about polls.

[That] they were not hesitant as far as the belief in trying to provide quality choices for our students. And looking back and having a very whimsical smile on their face on the meetings that lasted until four o’clock in the morning but at the same time, it was worth it. Because looking from 12 years back, if shows that they were truly committed to withstanding a variety of different types of pressures to really focus on children.

You mentioned a couple of times the pressures and the controversy. Joel Klein last week was talking about “the noise,” as he does, and said that wasn’t something that really bothered him. We saw in your administration that you really did put a value on having a civil conversation and to some extent fostered that.

A little bit. The noise never bothered me either.

So what advice would you give the next administration? About how to move the needle, while also [promoting civility]?

I’ve been reluctant about giving advice. I’m not going to be presumptuous enough to give advice. They’re going to come in and set their own tone and set their own priorities. I think for me, the focus is always about our students and how do we try to move it away from what’s in the best interest of the adults and really talking about students.

So the noise part, I always like to tell the story … It was one of our noisier panel meetings. And the student was testifying at the microphone and had difficulty reading the testimony. And I came off the stage and went up to the microphone, and people were shocked. And helped the student hold her testimony while she lambasted me. And to me it’s about the respect of the students.

Just keep the focus on the students, and be clear that there will always be decisions that are unpopular. The chancellor position, along with the police commissioner and the mayor, basically are the three positions that are polled. So it’s something that really is very grounding and humanizing. And at the same time you can’t allow polls to dictate your policies. Just like you can’t allow the issue of money, like in the evaluation deal, to dictate bad policy either.

One of the other things that Joel Klein said is that he regretted not spending time and emphasis thinking about curriculum. What you wish you could have spent more time on, or focused more on?

I think for me it’s how you have a broader discussion around that all schools are there to serve our students. And students who attend charter schools are not students from Mars, they’re students from New York City. And having that kind of public discourse to not have it solely focused through the panel meetings as the lens for the discussion.

Having discussions take place about charters as bad, when in reality charters are just as good as district schools. But we have created more district schools than charter schools. The deepening of the role of parents, and I think we tackled that in a number of ways, with the parent coordinators and our webinars, and trying to make sure accountability reports are more understandable to parents.

I don’t reflect back. I mean, one of the things I’m most proud of kind of goes back to your 12 years question. We weren’t afraid to tackle difficult topics and really get into the trenches as far as change. One difficult topic was obviously the bus contracts. That was a major issue that had not been tackled for 39 years. And over a period of time that will have a benefit through the system overall. So, those are the things that I, not necessarily regret or wish I had tackled, but there were just so many things going on that we tried to do well.

The corollary is looking forward: If you had four more years, what would be on your agenda?

I think raising the standards, as far as making sure that all of our schools are hitting the standards and benchmarks … to the point where my child or grandchildren will be able to attend any school in New York City. We’re not there yet.

The issue [of] how we deal with the equity issue of black and Latinos, and making sure that with we continue changing that dynamic and having honest conversations about it with the public as well — I think that’s really important.

And, I think, how to use the overall bully pulpit of talking about the role of parents in an increasingly complex society and making sure their children are not just learning what it means to be college and career ready in school but also having it reinforced in homes as well. And having that type of discussion I think is extremely important.

I think taking a look at the contract, and how one can change the contract for the better to deal with not just the evaluation system but overall the opportunities that are available. You have pieces on the union side as well as on the management side. Tackling ATRs, what it means to deal with the ATR pool

That would be a contract issue you’d hope gets tackled?

Oh, no question. If we had a couple more years, really getting into how we deal with reform of a variety of issues within the contract. The centers, the districts that are hard to staff. Subject areas, obviously, that are hard to staff as well. What that means around developing some form of merit or incentives to attract teachers. The issue that we had laid on the table in one of the mayor’s State of the Cities around attracting the best and the brightest in the schools and having the ability to have loan forgiveness for those students.

Can you describe a moment when you’d seen things [in a school] where you said, this needs to change.

For me, if I saw barriers for parents having access to schools — how can we make it more open for parents having access schools, making [them] more open.

Knowing there is unlimited potential … I get frustrated when I hear excuses. I really don’t tolerate excuses well. And how I see schools working with difficult populations, and how that needs to be imported to other schools where they don’t have an image of what’s correct. They don’t have an image as far as the students’ capacity of doing something — like that the students are able to do something. There’s real potential there, and how do we import that knowledge to others?

Those are the types of things that when you go into an environment and you can sense that an environment is a healthy educational environment, and sometimes it’s not. And being able to pick up on that, becoming more sensitive to that, as I became better at discussing these situations, [is important].

What was your most challenging moment, or, the moment you wouldn’t go back to?

I don’t have any regrets. I’m not giving you lip service. I really don’t have any regrets, because everything was about trying to do the right thing and learning from something if it wasn’t done correctly. With this job, when you wake up in the morning until you go to bed at night. there is always going to be some challenge out there.

You’ve got to accept the fact that unfortunately something is going to happen. Whether at school or at home, I get reports about the students if something happens to them. So anything that happens to any of our students bothers me. That’s the personal side.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.