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Superintendent exit interview: Henderson Lewis Jr. on the future of NOLA's all-charter system

Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr., left, talks to members of the press on the first day of classes at Edna Karr High School on Aug. 2, 2021.
Chris Taylor
Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr., left, talks to members of the press on the first day of classes at Edna Karr High School on Aug. 2, 2021.

Henderson Lewis Jr. is set to retire on July 10 after 7 years as superintendent of New Orleans Public Schools and more than 25 years as a teacher, school leader, superintendent and board member in Louisiana public schools.

Avis Williams, former superintendent of Selma City Schools in Alabama, will start as Lewis’ replacement on July 11.

Lewis, a St. Bernard Parish native, recently sat down with WWNO education reporter Aubri Juhasz to discuss his experience leading the country’s only all-charter school system.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

AJ: What was your vision for NOLA Public Schools when you started 7 years ago, and did it shift over time? 

HL: As a long-term educator who had previously worked in New Orleans, I realized the tension that existed after Hurricane Katrina, and so my big push, no matter all the details in the various areas of the work that I had to do, was about relationships. So my strategy coming in was really to understand where everyone was, and then where most people wanted the district to go was to have schools back under local control.

The big picture of my vision was really building relationships to be able to actually have schools come together and do the work that they do day in and day out on behalf of our students and families, and be able to take the red tape away so that they can do that work effectively.

AJ: Because of the level of autonomy granted to charter schools, the district is rarely able to do things unilaterally. Instead, as superintendent, it’s your job to get individual operators on the same page if you want something to happen, right?

HL: Most things get carried out that way. When COVID happened, we knew it was going to be disastrous for our entire system if nearly 40 organizations were making individual decisions in the middle of a crisis. So as an organization, we brought schools in, in the very beginning to say, ‘We believe that this is about to happen, and if this is going to happen, this is what we need to do as a system,’ and school leaders agreed. I believe as a system, we probably had one of the strongest responses to COVID-19 in the country.

A student rolls up her sleeve to receive the COVID-19 vaccine at Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School on Jan. 27, 2022.
Aubri Juhasz
A student rolls up her sleeve to receive the COVID-19 vaccine at Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School on Jan. 27, 2022. NOLA Public Schools was the first district in the country to require the COVID-19 vaccine for students in all grades, though state policy allows families to opt out easily.

AJ: Obviously in the moment you were very concerned about responding to a pandemic, but did it kind of feel like a test for the district in terms of its structure? 

HL: I think that's always the question when something unknown comes up. But what it showed people is that in a completely decentralized school district, you have all these various networks. And so when we were able to come together using this as an example and say, ‘If we have to close schools in the next week or so, who is able to start providing food on day one?’ And you had several organizations, a handful that said ‘on day one we can staff up.’ Other organizations said ‘by week two, we'll be good to go.’ So then as the convener and coordinator as a school district, we were able to say publicly ‘we have these schools that will be able to have food for our families on day one in all parts of the city.’

We were able to tap into a lot of talent through our various networks versus in a traditional system where you have the central office, and you have the schools. So we benefited from actually having this structure because it allowed us to have more individuals to troubleshoot and support the greater good of the system.

AJ: You reunited the city’s schools under the local school board in 2018, but that wasn’t the end. Since then the district has continued to evolve. Through the charter-renewal process, schools have closed, opened and changed hands. And while school operators still have autonomy over daily operations, they have become subject to a higher degree of regulation in terms of enrollment, expulsion and transportation. 

Given all of this, how stable is the district today? Are things working the way they should, and should we expect things to stay the same? 

HL: … Change is constant, and any school system — whether you're talking about a completely decentralized school district, or a school system that is considered to be a traditional district — if you're going to meet the needs of students and families, you are going to have to continue to change. You have to be able to understand what's working, what's not working. Then when something is not working, for example, it may have to come to the district level to convene the leaders as we've done on multiple occasions to say ‘You still have the autonomy around this.’ But this has to become a district-wide conversation so that as school leaders you all can all row in the same direction, because it's not about your individual school — it's supporting the family structure, the needs of our students and families.

As Dr. Williams is preparing to come on board, I’m excited. This is the first time since we started the new system that we have someone who has not previously worked in the system. It’s the perfect time to be able to pressure test a lot of things. I think as I pass the baton to Dr. Williams, that's definitely something that will be in my mind, used to her advantage as our new superintendent.

A portrait of Avis Williams is taken on the front porch of her home in Selma, Alabama, May 9, 2022.
Aubri Juhasz
A portrait of incoming superintendent Avis Williams on the front porch of her home in Selma, Alabama on May 9, 2022.

AJ: As superintendent, did you feel like you had enough power in your position? Was there anything you wanted to do, but you couldn’t?

HL: There's nothing I can think of that as superintendent I wanted to do but couldn’t, because everything is laid out in state law and policy.

However, I will tell you a concern that I have as an educator is I respect autonomy and that our schools have charter contracts, but a struggle that I have professionally is when I recognize that a school is struggling … [and I can’t intervene more quickly] … unfortunately because my levers in that moment become [charter] revocation or wait [until a school’s contract is up to renew].

That has been a struggle for me because I'm not the type of guy that sits back and waits for something to happen, but I had to respect the laws that we had in place.

I will say that when I had to make those tough decisions, whether it was a school closure or reassigning our kids to a new school — and many times there was a lot of tension — I always was thankful for when I would run into our parents in public that had that experience, and they would pretty much say, ‘Thank you. I didn't understand then, but now, because of the school that my child's attending, he's so happy, or she's so happy. and now I understand why you were making that decision on behalf of my child.’

AJ: That kind of gets into the next thing I wanted to ask you about, which is there are parents and elected officials who have said they don't feel like the all-charter system is working. Some people will use the language ‘failed experiment.’ They say they want the district to run at least some schools directly. How do you respond to that argument?

HL: First of all, we are an urban school district, and if you take the four urban school districts in Louisiana — Orleans, Jefferson, East Baton Rouge and Caddo Parish in Shreveport — you will see a combination of a, B, C, D, and F schools.

When people say a ‘failed experiment,’ please explain to me when you say that, what do you mean? Any urban city has major problems. We've seen how our student achievement has increased over two decades.

… When I was first teaching before Katrina as an educator in St. Bernard Parish, a high school student was taking a graduate exit exam to get out of high school. It was a seventh grade, middle school test. That is not what our students are taking to get out of high school today. So we can't compare apples with oranges.

We have to be honest about where we are, and no, the system is not finished growing. It’s not where it needs to be, everything needs to continue to improve, but we are improving just like Jefferson, just like Caddo, just like East Baton Rouge.

As the superintendent, it was always my job to make sure that I hear the people, hear the things that are being said, but then also understand what our schools are doing to address the concerns that are preventing our students from being their very best and making sure that they're given the supports that they need to ultimately become successful.

Every single year, we celebrate thousands of students graduating from our high schools and being able to leave not just with a high school diploma, but many of our students are leaving with industry-based credentials. That's an opportunity for our kids to leave high school and eventually be able to get their first good job, and that's what any school system should be working toward.

AJ: All of these accomplishments that you’re listing are well documented. They’re backed up by data, but despite that, there is this disconnect, this lingering sense of skepticism and mistrust among some people. Some of it stems from this sense that they feel like the community has been shut out of its schools.

What have you done to try to build back that trust? And what advice do you have for Dr. Williams as she moves forward with trying to restore this trust that has been broken somewhere along the way?

HL: What I think about often when I hear that is really steps that we have taken led by our school board. Like we heard, we were bussing kids across the city of New Orleans, right? And so the board changed its policy to say, ‘if you live within a half-mile radius of a school, these seats are going to be reserved for you if you want.’ And then through our data and looking at the enrollment, that's not what families are choosing.

What it boils down to for me is that we have about two handfuls of schools that families want their kids to go to, and these schools fill up quickly. What this says is that student achievement has to continue to increase, and all of our schools have to continue to get better.

But it’s also an opportunity for our families to understand that, yes, this school may not be an A- or B-rated school, it's a C-rated school, but it has A for growth. And be able to understand there are great things happening in that school, and that school is in your neighborhood. During our enrollment process, I feel that some families will make a different decision once we figure out how to do that well.

AJ: Recently, board member Ethan Ashley said the hardest part about being a board member are the too many moments of silence the board has taken to acknowledge students killed by gun violence. 

What role can schools play in trying to alleviate gun violence, and is there anything the district can do?

HL: As a principal, I can recall a situation where a neighbor around the school came into the building and said, ‘One of your students just put a gun underneath my house.’

She was able to describe the student to me. I was able to find out who that student was, bring them to the office, have the critical conversation, get the police involved, but this is what this young person said to me: ‘Dr. Lewis, I would never bring a gun in this school because you would not allow it, but when I leave school to the time I get home, I got to protect myself.’

That was in the early 2000s … and that was a wake-up call for me as the principal at that time, because this child was coming to school, doing his work every single day, but he feared his safety outside of the schoolhouse.

We know that as a school system, we can do the education piece. We can have programming in place to talk about gun violence and how you deal with conflict, but at the end of the day, we need some work to happen [with gun control] at the very top [levels of government] if we are really going to address this problem in America.

AJ: Henderson Lewis Jr. will retire from the district on July 10. His next job will be as an assistant professor at LSU’s School of Education. 

Superintendent, thank you so much for speaking with me.

HL: Thank you.

Aubri Juhasz covers K-12 education, focusing on charter schools, education funding, and other statewide issues. She also helps edit the station’s audio stories.

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