NYC Chancellor On Turning Around City's Schools

Dennis Walcott oversees a school system with more than one million students. Graduation rates are below the national average, and studies suggest most of the city's high school graduates are not ready for college. But Chancellor Walcott tells host Michel Martin that, after one year on the job, New York City schools are on the mend.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up: The death of Trayvon Martin has sparked many conversations about race. The unarmed teen was black, and the gunman was white with Hispanic heritage. So should we call him white or Hispanic, and how would we know? We'll ask that question in just a few minutes. But first, many American students are spending this week on spring break, but there's no break for the leader of the largest public school system in the country.

Dennis Walcott is the chancellor of New York City's Department of Education. He oversees schools attended by more than one million students, and, as is true across the country, there have been some significant struggles. The chancellor before him lasted just three months on the job. The high school graduation rate overall is 65 percent, according to the city. That's below the national average of 75 percent, but that number is even lower for black and Hispanic students who make up the majority of students in the New York City public schools.

So as Chancellor Dennis Walcott marks his first anniversary on the job, we decided to check in with him and talk about the challenges facing the schools and what lessons other school systems can draw. And Dennis Walcott joins us now. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

DENNIS WALCOTT: Pleasure to talk to you.

MARTIN: Let's talk about the graduation rate. I have to assume that that's something that you feel is a high point, that you and Mayor Michael Bloomberg put out a press release on that 65 percent graduation rate last summer. The national rate is around 75 percent, according to Johns Hopkins University. So what's been pushing up the graduation rate in New York, and what do you have to do to close the gap with that national rate?

WALCOTT: Well, when the mayor first started back in 2002 and I joined him as deputy mayor back in 2002 in the beginning of the administration, graduation rates had been flat for a number of years, basically averaging 49 to 50 percent. And what we decided to do is to break up a lot of the big schools that had not been really doing the job properly for our students and break them up into smaller schools.

So we have created close to 500 new schools since the mayor's been in office. And as a result of that, a number of them have been high schools, offering more choices to parents. And we've seen those schools who've replaced those large, failing schools have done a lot better in having more students graduate. And so while we're always talking about how the graduation rate has improved since we've been in office, at the same time, we know we still have a lot more to do, especially when you take a look at the metric of college and career readiness, as well. But even with black students and Hispanic students, that rate has gone up to 61 percent and 58 percent, respectively. And again, it's improved and it's improved tremendously over the last number of years. But at the same time, we acknowledge we still have a lot more to do.

MARTIN: You've been following this approach that's gaining popularity in a lot of places, which is just looking at institutions as under-performing. Sometimes people think, you know what? The entire institution needs to be broken apart or changed, because there's something about the culture of an institution that perhaps a sense of acceptance of failure takes hold, you know, shutting down under-performing schools, replacing them with new schools.

Also supporting kind of the charter school model, which are publicly funded, but privately run, and run with perhaps some of the fewer of the restrictions and requirements that some public schools have to follow. You know, the data across the country is very mixed on charter schools. Let's just say charter schools, as a model, they seem to work well in some grades, but not others. They seem to work in some parts of the country particularly well, and not others. I'm just wondering how you build on the successes of what you know works or what you think works, and jettison that which does not.

WALCOTT: Well, we're big believers in choice, and so making sure that parents and students have choice to select from. And so that choice includes charter schools. The choice includes single sex schools. The choice includes small schools and large schools, as well, and making sure through our progress reports, we publish information about the schools - how well they're doing or how well they may not be doing, and providing support to those schools to help them do better.

There is something we did, I guess, two years ago, where we put out a high school directory of all the high schools that are in New York City, and we do this in time for recruitment of the students into the high school. So we have parent fairs around the city. We started publishing the graduation rates of the high schools. Parents had now taken a look at that, and they're voting with their feet where they have their children apply. And those types of pieces of information are, I think, go a long way in the transparency of making sure choice is available for parents, and they know exactly what they're choosing from.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with Dennis Walcott. He's the chancellor of New York City's Department of Education. It's the largest public school system in the country. Chancellor Walcott is marking his first full year on the job this week. Are you going to have a cake?

WALCOTT: No, I don't eat cake. Those who know me up here know I'm a very healthy eater, and practice what I preach.

MARTIN: Carrot cake.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WALCOTT: Don't even eat carrot cake. I mean, I may have a banana. But...

MARTIN: You'll have a celebratory banana?

WALCOTT: I'll have a celebratory banana. They'll find something unique for me at the school.

MARTIN: A smoothie?

WALCOTT: Depends. I mean, I'm - it's so funny, because one of the things we try to do, as well, when we talk about choice and options, even with our food, is to offer choice. We've been really, really pushing hard on having salad bars in all of our schools. And what we've found is that when the salad bars are there, the students really do select from that. So whether it's in healthy eating or in exercise, we push very hard on the importance of health for our students.

MARTIN: Why don't we talk a little bit about race and ethnicity, though? And the black and Hispanic students, as a group - and obviously, we're not talking about individuals. Obviously, there's some stellar, stand-out, tremendous students of all ethnic groups and races, you know, doing, you know, brilliant work. But there is still, in the aggregate, this racial, you know, achievement gap, if I can call it that. Why do you think that is?

WALCOTT: Well, I think there are a variety of factors. Part of it goes to some of the schools that are not doing well, and we have a responsibility to address those schools, because I'm a no-excuse kind of guy. So I don't believe that poverty should be an excuse for people on why people are not doing well, because people came here poor. People came without degrees and had a desire to succeed and succeed through education. And so we can't accept excuses along that line. But then when there are schools that, for whatever reason, may not be producing well, we have a responsibility to provide the support - if the support doesn't work, then to phase them out.

So I think part of that is for me, as chancellor, to take a look at the information and make those tough decisions. I think the other part is that we have to really instill a desire and importance for education for all of our students. And a lot of times, they don't get that message on a regular basis. They are competing with a variety of messages that are just coming at them from all different angles. And I'm very serious about the role that I play as a black man as chancellor of the New York City school system and sending out those right signals to all students.

I mean, and we have a great time with all of our students, but I think even more so for people to see me and being able to say, wow, I went to New York City public schools. I was able to graduate high school here in New York City and then go on to college and eventually become chancellor, thanks to Mayor Bloomberg. And providing that type of opportunity, that visual opportunity for students to see I think goes a long way, as well.

And then also working and engaging parents in what role they play in making sure they set an atmosphere both in the home, as well as with their child inside and outside of the home, as far as the importance of education and providing them support and information to know what's going on, so they have that accessibility to that type of information.

MARTIN: Yeah, but there is this ongoing debate, and it's been going on as long as I've been covering this stuff - which is a long time - between, you know, is the critical factor what happens during the school day, or is the critical factor what happens at home?

WALCOTT: I don't think you can separate it out. I mean, I think what goes on in the school is very important: the quality of the teacher, the effectiveness of the teacher, the school leadership having opportunities available for that student within the school building. But it's also reinforced at home, as well. And the home can be the immediate child's home - a children's home - or the home of the community itself.

And I think all of them play a very key role as far as supporting that particular student or students in setting both the right tone and expectation and demands for those students to succeed. I shared a story, which is a true story. This past Sunday, I was in the supermarket, and there was a young man there who was doing bagging. And so the supermarket, you know, allows the kids to come in to do the bagging. And so this young man looked up to me and said, hi, chancellor. How are you?

So, I was like shocked. How are you? And he said: You came to my middle school a couple of months ago. And I said, oh, how are you? It's a pleasure. And he started talking about himself. And I said, well, do you enjoy your school? He said, I really enjoy my school. And I said, why do you enjoy your school? He said because we have great teachers who care about their students and that we have a number of programs that the school put in place, plus we just started a middle school basketball team. And he's in the eighth grade.

And so then I emailed his principal. I said, oh, I ran into one of your students at the supermarket that was bagging groceries. And so she started to tell me about this particular student and how well he's doing. And I have a firm belief that all our students can achieve to that level, and you don't have to be an A student, but to have the determination to succeed, and I just have a belief that if we do this job properly, those students will be able to reach that particular goal of graduating college and career-ready.

And I agree. We have a long way to go and we have to put a number of programs in place, but we also have to make tough decisions on how we accomplish that, and as I tell people on a regular basis, that I'm not here to win a popularity contest. I'm not running for political office. And so making those tough decisions, while sometimes not popular, really goes to the hopeful benefit of that student and making sure that student succeeds.

MARTIN: The state put out some numbers last year that showed that fewer than a quarter of students who do graduate are, in fact, ready for college or careers and that doesn't count special needs students. Graduation is one thing, but does graduation mean what it's supposed to mean?

WALCOTT: Even with that low number - and if you break it down even further with black and Hispanic students, that number goes, you know, to a number that - especially when you talk about males - that is unacceptably low. It has improved here in New York City over the years, but it's still way, way farther where it should be.

And so we have a responsibility to constantly place demands on our schools and on our parents and on our students, as far as achieving at a high level and making sure that we don't accept excuses, but we also put supports in place to help them reach that particular goal.

MARTIN: Can you envision a time when we won't be talking about an ethnic achievement gap? We won't be talking about college readiness? We'll be talking about, you know, something else like - I don't know - which graduates from your schools are going to be in the - you know, winning science awards and...

WALCOTT: Sure.

MARTIN: I mean, can you envision that? That these...

WALCOTT: I do.

MARTIN: ...issues won't be on the table?

WALCOTT: In my lifetime, by all means.

MARTIN: You think so?

WALCOTT: Oh, without question. I mean, I think if people continue to tackle the very difficult decisions of those schools that have not performed well and we have honest conversations within various communities as far as the role that parents have to play and communities have to play, I do see that gap evaporating.

I mean, if you take a look at our students who are out there and students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, you see a different type of student than you and I were when we were in school. I mean there's stuff that we don't have a clue of what they're talking about. When you talk about technology and all of the things that students are up to speed and dealing with today's society, and whether they're educated in a way where they're showing the grades or they just have the street knowledge of the new technology, what it means and incorporating it into an educational model, that's our challenge as adults.

And I think we have that ability to solve the gap issue at all costs and I think we are going to do that. There's just so many choices, and if we can continue that type of excitement and choices that really our students can relate to, then it increases the opportunity of our students doing well, especially as a workforce and as educators we do our job properly.

So I definitely see that gap being eliminated in my lifetime.

MARTIN: Dennis Walcott is the chancellor of New York City's Department of Education. He is marking his first year on the job this week and he was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York.

Dennis Walcott, thanks so much for speaking with us.

WALCOTT: And thank you for having me. Have a great day.

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