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In 1st interview, New Orleans’ next superintendent shares plans to lead all-charter district

Avis_Williams.jpg
NOLA Public Schools
Avis Williams, superintendent of public schools in Selma, Alabama, at George Washington Carver High School on March 29, 2022.

Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. is set to leave New Orleans Public Schools when his contract expires at the end of June. His replacement, Avis Williams, is the first woman elected to permanently lead the district in its more than 180-year history.

In her first interview as superintendent-elect, Williams told education reporter Aubri Juhasz about her accomplishments as the current head of public schools in Selma, Alabama, what attracted her to New Orleans and how she plans to lead the country’s only all-charter public school system.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Aubri Juhasz: What attracted you to this job and to New Orleans as a place to live and work? 

Avis Williams: First of all, I love New Orleans and it doesn't hurt that I'm a huge New Orleans Saints fan. I love the culture, the music. I’ve actually attended a few of the festivals, but really just loved being there even during non-festival times where you just really get to see authentic New Orleans.

But what really attracted me to the job is some of what makes it complicated and challenging, honestly. I am really built for doing work around families in need. I grew up in poverty myself, and I am a firm believer that education saved my life. So my life's journey has been serving populations of students who look like me and really engaging with communities to pour into not just the educational aspect of it, but even just the overall wellness of a community.

That's what I've enjoyed most about being in Selma and I really see a lot of the work as being very similar.

AJ: One of the other challenges is just how different this system is from any other public school system in the country. How familiar were you with the mechanics of the system when you were applying for this job, and was that something that was attractive or was it something that was kind of like, ‘Well here's this added challenge that I'm going to have to kind of get ready for?’

AW: Yeah, I think it was both and yes the challenge, but also some intrigue in terms of the fact that we do have the only 100% charter school district in the nation. I love challenges. I am an adrenaline junkie. What really gets me is when I am grappling with some complexities. I love strategic planning, and I'm a visionary.

I certainly understand that there are some challenges involved with the unique structure of our school district. But I come with five years experience as a superintendent who has grappled with some complicated issues and challenges. One of the first things that I will do upon starting will be a listening tour where I can listen and learn about not only the structure of our current district, but also any other additional challenges or needs that need to be prioritized.

AJ: What experience do you have working with charter schools in the past? 

AW: Honestly, it's been somewhat limited. Charters are fairly new in Alabama. They've been around since 2015. I have had numerous conversations with my board about becoming an authorizer, [but] we're not right now.

It's interesting that you asked [me this question] because I was actually listening to a program where [someone was] saying that I'm from KIPP [charter schools].

I've done some work with KIPP. They have a leadership development fellowship [that I did], which was amazing. But there's some misconceptions about me being “from KIPP” and I don't even know what that means, because I've never worked for KIPP.

My interaction with charter schools is actually fairly limited. I come to you as an instructional leader. I know instruction. I know curriculum. I know leadership.

AJ: Let's talk a little bit about your initial plans, big priorities. I know you walked us through these during all of your school board interviews. But for folks who didn't follow that process, can you tell us what some of your most important initiatives were in Selma, with the expectation that you may want to bring some of these practices to New Orleans?

AW: I would say first and foremost community engagement. That's one of the things that I feel real strong about that we mastered.

When I came to Selma, we were under state intervention, and the only news you typically saw was negative. One of the first things I did was created a position for community engagement and just really worked on engaging the community and making sure that we told our own story.

The other piece is mental health. Here in Selma, all of our guidance counselors have mental health first aid training, and we also have a full-time behavior interventionist who is a trainer for mental health first aid. We've had a great deal of trauma within our community, and it involves our scholars and families at times. So certainly prioritizing trauma informed practices and looking at what social and emotional learning looks like, not only for our scholars, but also wellness and self care for our adults.

When I think about that in the context of what's needed for Orleans Parish, I certainly see there's been trauma, whether you're looking pre or post-Katrina. You add the pandemic, Hurricane Ida last year and there's certainly been a lot of violence. I look forward to being able to work hand in hand with our community to be able to determine what some of our needs are around trauma-informed practices, mental health and overall wellness.

The final piece would be looking at excellence. Selma City Schools is the only district in the state of Alabama that has achieved the Tier I and Tier II awards for the Alabama Performance Excellence Program. I certainly look forward to looking at what we can do to ensure that our work is indeed excellent as we move forward.

AJ: New Orleans is about 15 times bigger than Selma. I know you were in Tuscaloosa, which is a larger district with about 11,000 students, but it’s still quite a jump. Plus you’re dealing with a system that is far more decentralized, where you're going to have to get a lot of folks on board to share your vision. 

What is the strategy going forward to take what you've done in Selma and apply those best practices to a district that's going to be a different landscape to navigate?

AW: The main thing is the teamwork and the collaboration piece. As I visit back and forth over the coming weeks, I'll have some very strategic opportunities to meet with a variety of folks that will help inform my entry plan and what the priority should look like, especially during my 100 days on the job.

We talk a lot about size in terms of the difference, but you also have to look at the difference in staffing. I wear 12 different hats as superintendent here because we're small, as do most of my team members, and we get a lot done. But one of the great things about being in a larger system is that you do have more people to actually engage with the work.

AJ: Something else that the members of the community brought up during the superintendent search was their desire to have someone who was either born and raised in New Orleans or is rooted to the community in some other way. I think that comes from a place of just wanting someone who's going to be committed, is going to either have understanding coming into it or be willing to really build out their understanding of all of the factors at play.

How do you plan to show the community that you are committed to this position, that you're committed to New Orleans and that you're not just going to come in for a couple years, check off some of your goals, but not all of them and then move on to the next thing?

AW: First of all, let me just say that is a legitimate concern and a very good question to ask. I really appreciate the community for being passionate about that issue and it matters. It really does. I own the fact that I have to gain their trust, and I look forward to having those meetings, those conversations and just showing them who I am. I'm a very transparent person.

I live by my core values, which are excellence, equity and joy. The work that I do will speak for itself, but I also plan to engage and to have those conversations and to make sure that people who need a seat at the table want a seat at the table, have a space where their voices are heard and where we've got some true high-quality, two-way communication happening.

AJ: Avis Williams is in her fifth year as superintendent of public schools in Selma, Alabama. She'll start as the head of New Orleans public schools on July 11. Thank you so much for speaking with me.

AW: Thank you.

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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