Full Transcript: WNYC Interview With Dennis Walcott

EDDINGS: This is WNYC, I’m Amy Eddings. New York City has a new chancellor--again, three months after former media executive Cathie Black took the job. She was replaced yesterday by Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott. The 59-year-old Walcott is a product of the city’s public schools, a former kindergarten teacher, and he has a master’s in education. He’s joining the department at a tough time when it is facing budget cuts and the likely loss of 6,000 teachers. Dennis Walcott joins us now to talk about the challenges ahead, welcome to WNYC, Deputy Mayor.


WALCOTT: Hi, how are you?


EDDINGS: Fine, thanks. First, congratulations on your appointment to the chancellor position.


WALCOTT: Thank you very much, I appreciate that.


EDDINGS: At the announcement at City Hall, you seemed genuinely excited.


WALCOTT: Oh, I’m very excited. I’m still excited, I think it’s a great chance to work with great people at the Department of Education, work with the mayor obviously, but more importantly to get out to the communities and the parents and talk about some of the successes out there and some of the challenges that await us, and make sure that people are full partners in understanding what we’ll be doing.


EDDINGS: Given some of your credentials—I mentioned some of them—kindergarten teacher, foster care caseworker, head of the New York chapter of the National Urban League, nine years as Deputy Mayor. Some people are wondering why you didn’t become chancellor back in January instead of Cathie Black.


WALCOTT: As the mayor indicated, we don’t deal with what happened in the past, we’re looking forward. But to be quite frank with you, I have a great job as Deputy Mayor. And so the mayor knows how happy I am and happy I was in being a Deputy Mayor. But beyond that we got a lot of work in front of us and that’s where my focus is about.


EDDINGS: I know that the emphasis now is moving forward, but I feel it’s incumbent upon me to at least look back for just one more question.




EDDINGS: Mayor Bloomberg really seemed to believe that Black’s managerial experience would trump her lack of education background, but yesterday he said she was becoming the story, not the kids. You worked closely with her in the last 3 months, what do you think of how she did?


WALCOTT: I think Cathie is an outstanding person, and she brought an intelligence to the discussion and quite frankly, I think she is a very classy individual. And I had a great relationship and have a great relationship with Cathie and Cathie has been a trailblazer for years and I was very proud to work with her.


EDDINGS: Did you think she needed to be replaced so soon? Do you think she needed to be given more of a chance?


WALCOTT: That was a decision between the mayor and Cathie, so it’s not really important my opinion at all.


EDDINGS: So let’s look forward to what you’re going to be dealing with. You said during your comments yesterday you want to continue to invest in our parents and to make sure they are truly partners in our efforts together. Now many critics would say that hasn’t been so under the mayor. The controversy over the way the city has closed schools, the mayor-controlled education policy panel, the community education councils, which are having a hard time getting parents to participate—this was all under your watch as Deputy Mayor of Education. So what are you going to do differently as chancellor to change this perception that parents are to be seen but not heard?


WALCOTT: Well several things. One, I think we have done a lot over the last nine years to increase parental involvement and make sure parents are full participants in what’s going on in the lives of their children, from the creation of ParentCorp to what we call ParentLink, having the information available, parents can call up and find specific things out, to dealing with the surveys we put out to parents, students and teachers and getting feedback from there. So we’ve launched a number of initiatives to fully engage parents. But I’ll be going out to the communities in a totally different capacity. As the chancellor, I’m directly now responsible for the Department of Education, it’s important to see and hear, and I know Cathie and Joel did that. But I’ll be doing it probably even a little more and listening and if there are some things that need to be adjusting we’ll take a look at what those may be. But again I think overall parents just need to be respected, and I plan to be a big respect person when it comes to the parents.


EDDINGS: And what will that mean exactly? How will you translate that into action?


WALCOTT: I’ll be going out to the C-E-C meetings, I’ll be popping into P-T-A meetings talking to parents that I see on the streets, going to the schools, making sure parents are a part of that. Another way of taking a look at the level of activity of our school leadership teams, making sure that they’re operational, and that they’re doing the job they’re supposed to be doing. Those parents play a key role in that as well. And so, it’s just really monitoring what we’re doing, and then making sure we’re in compliance of some of the things I think we should be doing. And if there’s new things to do, we’ll be taking a look at that as far as how we increase both the involvement of parents but also making sure parents feel respected.


EDDINGS: I want to press you just a little bit more on parent involvement. I understand that the C-E-C, the Community Education Council, is having a hard time attracting parents. Why do you think that is?


WALCOTT: I think part of it is over the years, they feel maybe there is not a major role for them, and I think there is a major role for them. And so hopefully defining that, that’s why we extended the deadline. But again, we had that problem last time, we extended it, we got a full complement in, and I’m confident that’ll happen again. C-E-C especially, as we take a look at lines and what that means as far as where schools are zoned for, C-E-C’s play a key role in that area. So it’s just defining the message out to the public at large and I’ll we’ll be able to do that.


EDDINGS: Yesterday you also said you were a big believer in tests. Many parents and education experts, including former U.S. assistant secretary of education Diane Ravitch, hate this focus on tests. What will you need to do to build some consensus on this issue.


WALCOTT: I think with the chief academic officer, he is the pro in that, in defining that it’s not taking a test and that’s it, it’s how you put more rigor in there, and as Shael has talked about and others have talked about, is how we have parents understand that what we’re putting in place from the new standards in Common Core directly translate into how they’re analyzed through the tests, and making sure that students are achieving at a higher level. So again it’s making parents and helping parents understand that tests just for tests’ sake is not good, but making sure it’s tied into the new curriculum that we’re putting in place as a result of Common Core and the outcomes that we’ll be measuring through different types of tests that are there. I think that to me will translate well to parents.


EDDINGS: You mentioned Shael, that’s Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky. Now his position was created at the behest of the state, because Cathie Black lacked experience in the field of education. You don’t lack that experience. Do you need a Chief Academic Officer?


WALCOTT: Sure. I mean, and I’m not a pedagogical expert. I’m a person who knows it, but Shael brings a talent to the table that I truly admire. And the team that Shael has in place as well as the other staff at DOE, they all have areas of expertise that we complement each other and balance out our needs. So the position that was created is equally important now than it was before. And I mean, in all fairness, while it may be called something like a Chief Academic Officer, prior chancellors had people who had specific areas of expertise and especially around pedagogical issues. So it’s a different title, but it’s always existed, and we can go down the list of chancellors who have their person who was in charge of the academics of the school system and that’s the way it should be.


EDDINGS: You’re coming to the department at a tough time when you are facing the loss of 6,000 teachers, some 4,600 of them through layoffs. How are you going to be able to improve the schools, keep morale up during such a time?


WALCOTT: Well I mean, we face a big challenge, you are correct. And part of the job is making sure we keep our focus on our students,  and while we a lot of time gets sidetracked with the animus that goes along with some of these discussions, my goal is to lower that so people keep the attention around education outcomes. I mean, we’re gonna have new demands placed on us by the state, so we have a responsibility to meet those demands, and I’m confident that teachers will be able to, and the principals and the staff will be able to sort through all the discussion that takes place down at City Hall or with the U-F-T, or with the C-S-A, and focus their attention on the children. And that to me will be a constant reminder. The accountability systems we have in place also keep the level focused on for the staff what needs to be done for the children and that each individual child. And my goal will be to remind people about our students and that’s why we’re in this business.


EDDINGS: I know that departments were asked by the mayor to plan for further cuts because of the loss in state aid for the Department of Education that was a 2 percent cut. I know those plans have already been submitted, do you know what the details are?


WALCOTT: We submitted something to O-M-B, it hasn’t been approved yet, and so it’s a little premature to talk about that. But I mean, we met the responsibility that the mayor put out for us to hit that 2 percent target and that’s part of a discussion with O-M-B.


EDDINGS: Further layoffs?


WALCOTT: Like I said, part of a discussion that we’ll have with O-M-B.


EDDINGS: I hear you make a mean waffle and plan to cook some for public school students in Park Slope next week.


WALCOTT: Ah, that agreement was struck long way before this job even came to my attention. It’s something I’ll be doing a week from Friday. The pressure of now a whole city, if not a whole country, knowing about me making waffles I think is even more pressure than being responsible for 1.1 million students. So I gotta be on my game and on my A game.


EDDINGS: Well thank you very much, you’ve been very generous with your time, I understand you’re staff is a little distressed. Thank them deeply for us. We really appreciate you coming onto WNYC, it means a lot to us.


WALCOTT: Thank you, have a good weekend.


EDDING: You too.