Beth Fertig is WNYC’s Contributing Editor for Education. She previously covered politics, which included City Hall during the Giuliani administration, and the U.S. Senate campaigns of Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton. She also covered transportation and infrastructure.
So Who is Dennis Walcott?
Friday, April 08, 2011
Dennis M. Walcott, 59, a Queens native, was appointed Chancellor of New York City Public Schools by Mayor Bloomberg on Thursday morning, immediately following Cathie Black's resignation.
1. Just a guy From Queens (with a lot of experience)
Politicians and education advocates who have been critical of Bloomberg's education reforms seem happy Black is gone. But while some believe Walcott has potential because of his long ties to the city's schools and its children, others worry the Deputy Mayor is too closely tied to Bloomberg and won't be independent enough.
“I’m just a guy from Queens whose parents were raised in Harlem, my grandparents immigrated from the Carribbean and I currently live in Queens, I’m just a city guy,” Walcott told the crowd at the press conference for the Mayor's announcement.
Unlike Black, a Chicago area native who attended parochial schools, Walcott and his children went to New York City public schools and he is a lifelong resident of southeast Queens. He has a good deal of experience in the public sector - he has served as Deputy Mayor for Education and Community Development since the beginning of the Bloomberg Administration in 2002--and according to the Mayor's office has been Bloomberg's City Hall point person on all education and youth policy. Most of his career has been spent in youth and education work. He was a member of the old Board of Education and he used to head the New York Urban League (an organization that coordinates dropout prevention programs; sponsors community forums on education issues; and works to get under-served city youth into higher education with scholarships) before joining city government.
Walcott's experience working with low-income, under served populations will serve him well as chancellor of 1.1 million city students, say his supporters including Alva Rice, the the current President and CEO of the New York Urban League, Arva Rice. She is convinced Walcott will have a positive impact on the school system and the students who need the most help. "As a graduate of New York City public schools, long-time advocate, and former member of the school board, his leadership at this critical time will create opportunities for multiple voices - including parents - to be engaged in the school process," said Rice in a statement.
Walcott was a member of the city's former Board of Education, was an adjunct professor of social work at CUNY and even has classroom experience--he began his career as a kindergarten teacher. Before he joined the Urban League he was the Executive Director of the Harlem Dowling Westside Center, a welfare agency, and founded a mentoring program for boys. Do these community ties and experience in the public sector mean he'll be successful in a famously difficult job? Reverend Floyd Flake, a former U.S. Congressman from Queens and a long-time friend of Walcott is confident he will.
“It’s almost an appropriate place for him to be in because he knows the lay of the land, he’s been around to many of the schools already, he is know throughout the district and the district superintendents know him, I think it’s a good fit,” said Flake.
2. He's also a Bloomberg insider, for better or worse
But State Senator Bill Perkins, who represents Harlem, and also identifies Walcott as a friend, is wary because Walcott is such an insider. He's not sure Walcott will bring the change in education policy he desires.
“I think we’ll have a better rapport, but again we’re talking about policy and I’m not sure if we’ll have that rapport if the policies that the mayor has been championing, if they don’t change then that relationship becomes secondary,” Perkins told WNYC, adding that he wanted to take a closer look at Walcott's credentials for the job.
Black's critics decried her lack of education and government experience--and though Walcott has those things, his skeptics criticize him for being to close to the Bloomberg administration education policies.
“I don’t believe that Mr. Deputy Mayor Walcott has all that it takes to get this public school operating and back to addressing the serious challenges that face us and our children,” said Hazel Dukes, President of the New York NAACP.
Dukes said Walcott doesn't have enough management experience. (It's also notable that Walcott, as Deputy Mayor, criticized the NAACP for supporting a lawsuit against the city that successfully tried to block the closure of 19 failing schools in 2010.)
But many of those who have worked with Walcott in the past say they have been impressed by his caliber.
“His grasp of the issues and also his capacity to make really quick good decisions, he understands how things work, really good at sizing up the situation, coming to a conclusion and making things move forward. So I’ve been very impressed not only with his knowledge but with his management skills,” said Jim Liebman, the former Chief Accountability Officer for the Department of Education. For Liebman, the fact that Walcott has worked with Bloomberg is far from a liability. “This is not somebody who is coming in new and having to rethink everything. He’s been a partner in a lot of the reform aspects that have taken place so far. So what he will be able to do is to hit the ground absolutely running.”
3. He can restart the conversation with teacher unions
The United Federation of Teacher's relentlessly criticized Black, for not being an educator. Will they soften their blows on Walcott?
"I look forward to working with him but it doesn’t matter who the chancellor is-- the important thing is to focus on what we can do for schools and teachers so children can be successful," said UFT President Michael Mulgrew, who said the city now has an opportunity to rethink its "failed education strategy." Ten years ago, the former president of the UFT, Randi Weingarten, told the New York Times that "Dennis is known for listening and being able to navigate very choppy waters'' and had real knowledge of the education system.
4. Like Black, he was appointed quickly
Yet there were grumblings today that the Mayor, once again, had not deigned to ask the opinion of others when making his decision. The 59 year-old Walcott, who is a product of the City's public schools, will need to get a waiver from Albany as did his controversial predecessor Cathleen Black.
“I’m sure that Mr. Walcott has ideas but at this crucial moment where we are with the Mayor being totally responsible for the school system I would think that he would have waited and went through a process to find the best person in this country to come and be at the helm,” said Dukes.
The Department of Education has lost a lot of deputies lately (Deputy Chancellor John White recently resigned on Wednesday in order to take a job heading the struggling Louisiana Recovery District which includes New Orleans. And Deputy Chancellor Santiago Taveras resigned Monday, he had been in charge of community engagement). There are questions about whether Walcott will be able to get steady a shaky department and improve a public school system that Mayor Bloomberg professes to be a third-term priority.
5. Unlike Black, he faces little skepticism
To some education advocates, Walcott is the anti-Black, and that makes him the right choice. But he'll have to prove himself to others. “It’s unfortunate that he steps up at a moment of dismal failure. Not by virtue so much of his credentials, of his abilities, because if that was the case then he should have been there first, not after her dismal failure,” said Perkins.
Walcott himself said he was ready, willing and able to take the job on.
"The passion of my soul is committed to the children of New York City. I have a track record in doing that. So I am not worried about people who are going to be the negative naybobbers out there - the naysayers. That doesn't bother me. That goes with the territory," Walcott said firmly.