Superintendent candidates share vision for New Orleans public schools in final interviews
Three finalists vying to lead New Orleans’ all-charter public school system sat for lengthy interviews Tuesday, sharing their vision for the district with the school board, and for the first time, the public.
Avis Williams, Marshall Tuck and André Wright responded differently to the board's questions, but many of their answers shared a common thread: Close collaboration between schools is the only way to ensure student needs are met.
Getting at the divisions between schools, the problems it creates, and rectifying them was a goal identified by all three candidates during their 80-minute interviews.
The district’s three finalists, all of whom are from out-of-state, have a range of backgrounds and experiences. Each candidate displayed an understanding of the city’s all-charter system, the legacy of Hurricane Katrina and the range of problems the district is actively facing.
Williams, a North Carolina native, is in her fifth year as superintendent of schools in Selma, Alabama. Before that she served as deputy superintendent of schools in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
When she started as superintendent in Selma, the city's schools were under state intervention. Now, the district is independent and has been recognized nationally for its achievement.
Williams grew up in poverty and no one talked to her about what she wanted to do after high school, she said. Even though she received multiple college scholarships, she followed her older siblings and joined the military.
It wasn’t until she moved to Alabama and became a personal trainer that she decided to move forward with teaching, something she always wanted to do. 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 worked as a teacher, principal and administrator.
Williams said as superintendent, she would work to increase transparency, build accountability and connect with and listen to the community.
“I’m here to work with them and for them and not do things to them,” she said.
Williams said she plans to prioritize mental health, trauma-informed learning, restorative practices and working with the community to help them address lingering trauma from Hurricane Katrina.
While Williams doesn’t have much experience working with charter schools, she explained how her skills align with the district’s needs. She relied on a data-driven approach to right-size Selma’s schools and launched a preschool program focused on closing gaps in early literacy.
Across many of her answers, Williams highlighted the importance of giving students voice and agency. She wants students to understand they all have the same options, including college.
"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."
If selected, Williams would not only be the first Black woman to lead the district in its 181-year history, but the first woman period. There have been three female interim superintendents, but no permanent hires.
Williams is also in the running to lead the public school system in Montgomery, Alabama. She is one of five finalists and the only finalist from Alabama.
Tuck is the head of education recovery at Great Public Schools Now, a nonprofit focused on improving public schools in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and son.
He started his education career in 2002 when he became the president and chief operating officer of Green Dot Public Schools, a charter management organization based in Los Angeles. Tuck later co-founded an organization managing some of the lowest-performing public schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Of the three candidates, Tuck has the most experience managing charter schools and has spent the least amount of time working in classrooms. He taught English abroad, but doesn’t have experience teaching in a U.S. classroom.
Tuck, who is white and from a middle class family, said he recognizes his privilege and has spent the majority of his career learning how best to serve Black and Brown children at impoverished schools.
He said multiple times over the course of the interview that he’s guided by the belief that a “quality public education” is a right for every child.
Tuck said there is no school system in the country that currently meets this benchmark, but he thinks it is something New Orleans can accomplish because of its all-charter system.
“I really believe there is a change for your schools and the collective school community in NOLA-PS to be the first system in the country that actually serves every child,” Tuck said in a student-led interview last week.
But that doesn’t mean charter schools shouldn’t work together, he said, pointing to problems that could be better addressed collectively, including transportation, facilities and special education services.
Tuck said he wants to establish summer programming like he did in Los Angeles, help schools fundraise, and centralize more school operations at the district to increase cost effectiveness, ultimately freeing up more money that can be spent directly on students.
He said in order for a superintendent to have a lasting impact, they have to commit to a long tenure, and spoke about his goals using a 10-year plan.
Wright, the son of two public school teachers, is originally from Decatur, Georgia, where he grew up in a shotgun house.
“I didn’t even know I was poor,” he said. “My parents were there for us, and they never let up on us.”
Wright is senior vice president of educational transformation at MGT Consulting and recently served as chief academic officer for public schools in Aurora, Colorado. The district serves 40,000 students from all different backgrounds, he said.
When asked about his vision for the district, Wright said it needed to be “crosschecked with the vision of the folks who appointed you all,” adding, “once I know what the community’s vision is for their children, then I can understand my vision.”
One thing Wright said has stood out to him on his visits to schools this week is the pride New Orleanians have in the schools they attended, particularly their high schools. He said he wants to keep that legacy alive by ensuring schools are places graduates are excited to send their children.
More so than the other two candidates, Wright talked about teacher training and engagement, drawing on his experience as a chief academic officer. He said he can learn a lot by looking at a school’s calendar and seeing what kind of planning and training teachers receive.
All of the candidates were asked what they would do to ensure anti-racist practices and dismantle racism in schools. Wright, who is Black, gave the most comprehensive answer.
He said racism can manifest in many ways, whether it's the quality of educational facilities in certain parts of the city or the scales different schools use to grade students.
“When it manifests, it can’t be a slow response; it has to be an immediate response from all of us,” he said. “It can’t be the elephant in the room any longer. We have to be willing to address it.”
The board plans to select its first choice candidate at a special meeting Wednesday at 1 p.m. After that, they will enter into contract negotiations.