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At One-Year Mark, Walcott Sees Improvement in Education Debate's Tone

Thursday, April 05, 2012 - 05:01 PM

Reflecting on his first year as chancellor of the city's schools, one marked by protests over school closings and the public release of teacher rankings, Dennis M. Walcott said that, in some ways, the tone of the citywide education debate has improved under his leadership.

In an interview Wednesday, Mr. Walcott said that he has tried to make himself accessible and visible to principals, teachers, parents and students by opening public meetings to more audience questions and frequently visiting public schools. But in a year when the Occupy Wall Street movement joined forces with critics of the Bloomberg administration's education policies, public meetings have been just as raucous as in the past.

"I think people view tone solely as the PEP meetings," he said, referring to the Panel for Educational Policy, which has oversight over some schools issues. "But I think it goes beyond the PEP meetings. And I think the tone has changed. And tone is that, for me, I will respect you."

At the beginning of this school year, Mr. Walcott laid out his objectives in an interview with The New York Times, citing few policy initiatives and saying he intended to be "the cheerleader of our education system."

His public calendar has been full of school visits, as has his private one, and he has viewed the constant work of talking to staff and students as his way of improving the public's perception of the chancellor.

As for policy, he has adhered to the agenda of closing low-performing schools and opening new small ones that was established by former Chancellor Joel I. Klein.

Since he became chancellor last April, Mr. Walcott has seen his popularity with New Yorkers improve. A recent poll by Quinnipiac University found growing support for him, with 43 percent of voters approving and 31 percent disapproving of his job performance.

Asked if parents have become more involved in their children's schooling in the last year -- Mr. Walcott's stated No. 1 priority -- he said that he has talked to more principals about engaging parents this year, but provided no evidence of this strengthening parents' connections to schools.

In September, the city plans to open a parent academy, modeled on the parent university created by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district in North Carolina, which offers parents workshops on how to help their children academically.

Plans to begin measuring schools on how well they involve parents have not begun yet, he said.

Here is more of the interview, edited for brevity:

Q.

If you were to rate yourself, give yourself a grade for your first year as chancellor, whether it’s an A through F or a 1 to 10, what would you give yourself and why?

A.

And my response, and this is my honest response, is I don't give myself a grade. I don't really focus on that. To me it's the satisfaction of what I see when I go to schools and when I interact with students. You know me, you guys have been trailing me for a while. I just love being in the schools, I love being with the students, hearing what they have to say, meeting them, watching them learn, watching them answer questions, and my quote unquote grade is derived by the type of interaction I have with them and they have with me.

Q.

Recently, you decided not to close seven schools that you had previously marked for closure. What made you change your mind?

A.

Over the several years they were on the P.L.A. (persistently low achieving) list these schools particularly made progress, and I'm on record saying even with Maxwell (W.H. Maxwell Career and Technical Education High School), the A school, that even though there's progress there we still have to take a look under the hood because we still want more progress. And so staff went out, meaning deputy chancellors went out, or Veronica (Conforme), our chief operating officer, to meet, listen and talk to students in the schools. And teachers and others. And as a result of that, we felt and I felt we should just take them off the list.

Q.

One of the schools that was taken off the closure list a while ago is Boys and Girls High School, which has performed poorly for years. Why did you decide to keep that school open?

A.

I have a lot of faith in Bernard Gassaway (the school's principal). I think Bernard Gassaway has made tremendous progress in trying to turn around the issues that have been contributing to Boys and Girls being an F-rated school. So I have a lot of stock in Bernard. And Bernard and I meet and I'm giving him that stock to turn it around. We haven’t set a timeline but we're working closely.

I think Bernard has made some significant changes to the school and so I'm looking for improvement and we've talked about a number of challenges the school faces, and how we change the image of the school around to make sure that they are attracting a board cross-section of students as well.

Q.

Looking back at the release of the teacher data reports, at the time you said that it is what the courts told you to do, so you had to do it. But was it a good idea? A bad idea? Was there anything good that came out of it?

A.

Yes, to answer your question, I think a lot of good came out of it. Just a discussion around teacher quality, teacher effectiveness, and the ability of the teacher to do well. What didn't come out was what are the other variables that contribute to a teacher being a good or a great teacher as well. And I think that got lost in the discussion and that was what I was trying to convey beforehand, is that one shouldn't view the T.D.R.s as the be-all-to-end-all. It was one sliver of information.

Q.

In September, you said that your first priority was increasing parents' involvement in their children's schooling. Have you seen that improve?

A.

I think there are various levels of involvement of a parent and how you define involvement of a parent. And so to me, involvement of parents is at schools. And so we put a lot of emphasis in talking to our principals around the engagement of parents at their schools and providing supports.

I think Jesse has done a lot coming on board, Jesse Mojica, as far as his role in dealing with parent and community engagement. We’re looking at how we define the role of parent coordinators. As you know back in June, we had a session on the Common Core for parent coordinators, C.E.C. (community education council) members, and P.A. (parents association) members. And we had another one in August.

We’ve done a lot of macro things to engage parents around the implementation of common core and also taking a look at having suggested items on what to ask during parent teacher conferences. We provide, I think, a variety of vehicles and forums for parents both at a macro level, a district level, or a school level, to get more involved in their children's school.

Q.

You also said you were going to measure schools on how well they are able to get parents involved. How far along is that initiative?

A.

We talked about it more. I don’t know if we've developed a measurement tool. And it’s funny, I was just going over some of the accountability measures for other metrics that we’re looking at and I’m not sure, I don’t have an answer for you on that.

Q.

SchoolBook: What are some of the other metrics you’re looking at? New metrics you will be incorporating?

A.

When we're ready...that one is a to-do. I still have two steps to do before I release that. But yeah, we’re looking at new metrics as far as school accountability, school performance, and how we track what they’re doing.

Q.

One of the things you wanted to do was make the public debate over education more civil, less heated. Have you changed the tone in your first year?

A.

I know I've changed the way we interact at town hall forums, and so I think in that regard the tone has changed. It's a more interactive session, definitely more Q. & A., and it's different than other town halls we've done before.

I think tone can be defined as I define it, as accessibility as well. In that I think accessibility to me and the staff, that's definitely there, so whether it's staff or parents or community groups, I'm there. They may not be happy with everything, but the accessibility is there. At the panel meetings, it depends on the calendar itself. I mean there have been some panel meetings that actually are very calm. And there are those that are not.

I think people view tone solely as the PEP meetings, but I think it goes beyond the PEP meetings. And I think the tone has changed. And tone is that, for me, I will respect you.

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