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Q&A: School board leaders on the search for New Orleans’ next superintendent

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Aubri Juhasz
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WWNO
A meeting of the Orleans Parish School Board on Aug. 19, 2021.

New Orleans Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. is stepping down when his contract expires at the end of June, and it’s the job of the Orleans Parish School Board to hire his replacement.

The board’s search firm Greenwood/Asher & Associates is holding its second round of online community sessions this week after a series of eight meetings in January had low attendance.

Board president Olin Parker is calling on all New Orleanians to attend.

“We all have a lot of opinions on who the next head coach of the Saints should be,” Parker said. “I would argue that the superintendent role is more important to the lives of everyday New Orleanians.”

Greenwood/Asher & Associates is actively recruiting superintendent candidates and the board hopes to hire Lewis’s replacement by early April.

Education reporter Aubri Juhasz spoke with Parker and vice president J.C. Wagner Romero about where the process stands and the need for community engagement.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Aubri Juhasz: Right now you're in the recruitment stage, and there's a series of community engagement sessions scheduled for this week and next. What is the purpose of these sessions and who should attend them? 

Olin Parker: This is a board that really values community engagement. We've been in office for a year now, and we've been heavily focused on community engagement in everything that we do. So we want to make sure that as we make this decision on the next superintendent, which is frankly the most important decision that we will make as a board, we want to make sure that we are keeping in mind the diverse perspectives of our community and make sure that we get the best leader possible for this diverse and really innovative city and school system that we have.

AJ: How are you ensuring that people know about these sessions and know how to access them, especially given that this second round of sessions was added because attendance was not high during the initial round?

OP: So we've done a lot of work to engage with the community. You mentioned the first round of sessions didn't go as we had hoped; they were scheduled for the first time omicron spike, and so we had to pivot to virtual pretty quickly. And obviously, it was a busy time in everyone's lives.

For this round of sessions, we've been really intentional about the groups that we’re reaching out to. We've emailed every single neighborhood association president in the city. We've emailed over 100 pastors. We have engaged with school leaders, charter management organization leaders, educators, charter board members, charter board presidents. We've engaged with close to 400 people at this point, so we're excited to keep that engagement going.

We are going to have some specific engagement opportunities for students as well. But we're really trying to reach every aspect of this city that might be interested in the search to make sure that they have the opportunity to engage if they so choose.

J.C. Wagner Romero: I want to reiterate that we are really wanting as many community members as possible to engage in this process. You know, both Olin and I are constantly repeating how this is truly a board that values community, that wants to hear the voices of every single stakeholder. It's a promise that many of us made when we ran for this office, right? And we want to make sure that we're staying true to those promises and following through with them.

AJ: Thinking about potential candidates and maybe the preferences of community members, is there a clear consensus one way or the other in terms of wanting a nontraditional candidate or a traditional candidate? Someone who is New Orleans grown or going beyond that?

JCR: One of the things that has been super important for us has been ensuring that the candidates are humans that are going to put our kids first. We're looking at a diverse pool of candidates, whether they have been traditional superintendents in traditional public school systems or not, because we want to make sure that whoever the superintendent is is able to dive right into the dynamics of NOLA Public Schools and our uniqueness. We are looking at everyone and anyone that is going to be a truly transformational leader for our district and our kiddos because they deserve one.

AJ: Will the community be included in later stages of the hiring process? Are people going to be able to weigh in when there's a short list and say, ‘I really like this candidate’ or ‘I have a lot of questions about that candidate’?

OP: Definitely. That will absolutely be happening and we have been told by the search firm that we have hired and, you know, as an aside, we received a very gracious grant from the Greater New Orleans Foundation to pay for the entirety of this search process, so this really comprehensive search process is being done at no cost to taxpayers.

We have been told by our search firm to expect engagement in the process from people within the community to intensify as we move on, as we have final candidates. We're having additional in-person community engagement sessions on the 15 and 16 of February and then, we will have public interviews of the finalists in late March and there will be additional opportunities for engagement throughout that process.

We also have a survey that is going to be active throughout the entirety of the search as well.

JCR: We want the community to engage throughout this entire process. We want people to feel at the end of the day like this is their superintendent, right? And so that's really important and more specifically, has been very important in conversations with school leaders.

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Greenwood/Asher & Associates
Board president Olin Parker said the board is on track to hire the district's next superintendent by early April.

AJ: Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. has had an incredibly eventful tenure: He oversaw the unification of the system into the one of a kind all-charter system that it is today, there were hurricanes and the pandemic and he's also taken steps to improve access and equity district-wide.

Are there any particular challenges that we can expect this new superintendent to have to take on? Other than leading us out of the pandemic and beyond?

OP: You can expect, as the school superintendent, you're always going to have both unexpected and unexpected challenges. We are hopefully exiting this pandemic and we need to make sure that our students are engaged and able to catch up on the learning that they have lost over the last two years.

For those listeners who are thinking, you know, maybe I don't have kids in public school anymore or maybe I don't have kids at all, why should I be engaged? I would say that obviously our school system touches every aspect of life in the city. It touches crime, mental health, hunger for kids who are victims of poverty. When you think about living in New Orleans, essentially everything is impacted in some way by schools.

We all have a lot of opinions on who the next head coach of the Saints should be. I'm never going to be in the NFL. That ship has sailed for me, but I have thoughts on it. I would argue that the superintendent role is more important to the lives of everyday New Orleanians, and I would encourage everybody to go to nolasuperintendentsearch.com and engage in that survey or engage in one of our many feedback sessions.

JCR: Everything that we do in the world of education bleeds into some facet of something. So we want to make sure that we are picking the right leader that's going to help us not just tackle education, but bring about other systemic changes that need to happen in our city to ensure that our communities are safe and sustainable.

This conversation first aired on Louisiana Considered and was produced by Alana Schreiber.

Aubri Juhasz is the education reporter for New Orleans Public Radio. Before coming to New Orleans, she was a producer for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She helped lead the show's technology and book coverage and reported her own feature stories, including the surge in cycling deaths in New York City and the decision by some states to offer competitive video gaming to high school students as an extracurricular activity.

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