New York City Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott is in charge of the country’s largest public school system. In just over a year on the job, he helped avert over 4,100 teacher layoffs in June 2011, and this year handled the controversial release of teacher evaluations in February and in April took a victory lap around his push to improve the city’s middle schools.
In April 2011, Walcott took over the position from Cathleen Black, a former magazine executive whose tenure lasted three months. In contrast to his predecessor’s corporate credentials, Walcott had plenty of experience in public service both as a former kindergarten teacher and as Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Deputy Mayor for Education and Community Development for more than eight years.
MetroFocus host Rafael Pi Roman asked the chancellor about the big issues facing the New York City school system and what the Education Department is doing to prepare for the future. Challenges include the opening of 54 new schools by fall 2012, a move that has become controversial, especially when 24 existing schools will be closed.
“We work very closely with schools that tend to be struggling. I think that gets lost among the noise of closing schools,” said Walcott. “We do have to make tough decisions.” In the current plan, 24 schools will be closed and reopened under new leadership. Up to half of the teachers from the closed schools can be rehired. Upset with this plan, teachers unions filed a lawsuit that argues that the closures violate their contracts. In the latest development up to press time, the schools will not make any hiring decisions until after an injunction hearing in the State Supreme Court on May 16.
In his interview, Walcott cited two innovative schools opening this September that are focused on providing students with career training: the Software Engineering Academy and the Union Square Academy for Health Sciences. Both schools will be located at the Washington Irving High School campus near Union Square in Manhattan.
Walcott also spoke about how the Education Department will evaluate teachers in the future. “It’s not the only thing but it’s very important,” said Walcott. He said that a more robust system needs to be in place because simply giving a teacher a “satisfactory or unsatisfactory” rating is unfair to teachers, students and parents.
Is there anything that surprised the chancellor about his job? “I am not surprised, but so pleased to see the creativity of the staff and the caring of the staff,” said Walcott. “There are a lot of innovative minds are out there.”
Watch MetroFocus for more videos and articles about education in the metropolitan region.
“MetroFocus: Education Innovation” premieres on May 15 at 10:30 p.m. on WLIW21; May 16 at 10:30 p.m. on NJTV; and May 17 at 8:30 p.m. on THIRTEEN.