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1st female superintendent selected to lead New Orleans schools; contract negotiations pending

IMG_4878.JPG
Aubri Juhasz
/
WWNO
Avis Williams, superintendent of public schools in Selma, Alabama, answers community questions at George Washington Carver High School on March 29, 2022.

The head of public schools in Selma, Alabama has been selected to lead New Orleans’ all-charter public school district, following a unanimous board vote Wednesday.

Avis Williams is the first woman to be elected superintendent in the district’s 181-year history.

There have been three female interim or acting superintendents, starting with Barbara Ferguson in 1992, but no permanent hires.

"I think we have landed on someone who is an absolute star," board president Olin Parker said. "I have every belief she will be the best superintendent this district has ever seen."

The announcement of the new superintendent choice comes as current district superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr., who has served for 7-years, is scheduled to depart at the end of June.

Williams’ life experience, professional qualifications, emphasis on mental health and willingness to engage with the community made her the most compelling candidate, according to Parker.

At a meet-and-greet Tuesday night, Williams said if selected, she would attend church and join the local Rotary club to ensure she is a part of the New Orleans community.

"The people that I serve have to know that I'm here to work with them and for them and not to do things to them," she said.

The board is expected to enter into contract negotiations with Williams with the hope of hiring her at their April meeting.

“I am honored, humbled and thrilled by this new opportunity,” Williams said in a statement, adding that she is excited to listen to the entire community and translate what she learns into “meaningful actions.”

Williams was also a finalist in Montgomery, Alabama’s search for a new superintendent of public schools, with an interview scheduled for April 7. But she withdrew her application Thursday, according to Montgomery Public Schools senior communications officer Jade Jones.

“We wish her all the best in New Orleans,” Jones said.

Williams, a North Carolina native, is in her fifth year as superintendent of Selma City Schools. During her tenure, the district has moved from state intervention to being recognized for performance excellence.

Before that, she served as deputy superintendent of schools in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and head of curriculum and instruction in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Williams said she grew up in poverty, and even though she was a strong student, no one talked to her about attending college, so she joined the military instead.

She served for four years and later moved to Alabama where she worked as a personal trainer and owned her own gym.

Williams said being a teacher was something she always wanted to do, so she enrolled in community college, moved on to a four-year school and got certified to teach English and physical education.

Since then she’s earned multiple degrees, including a doctorate of education in administration and instructional leadership from the University of Alabama, and has worked as a teacher, coach, principal and curriculum head.

Williams said Tuesday one of her guiding principles is making sure all students have a voice, agency and options.

"What I know for sure is every scholar needs a career, and college is just one way to get there,” she said. “But scholars need to make that decision for themselves."

This story was updated at 11:00 a.m., April 1, 2022 to include news that Avis Williams is no longer in the running for superintendent of Montgomery Public Schools.

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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