Avis Williams begins tenure as NOLA-PS superintendent, shares plan for first 100 days
Monday marked a monumental change for New Orleans’ public schools, as Avis Williams took the district’s reins, becoming the first woman to permanently lead the city’s 181-year old system.
“It’s about time,” Williams said with a laugh during an interview at the district’s central office in Algiers. “One of the things that I’m most excited about is just continuing to be a role model for little girls, especially little girls who look like me, for them to know that you can do or be whoever you want.”
Williams has made several visits to New Orleans in recent months as part of the transition process and said during her time in town, her predecessor Henderson Lewis Jr. introduced her to stakeholders and gave her a “bird’s eye view” of the district’s “celebrations and challenges.”
“I just plan on taking it one day at a time in terms of the learning and the understanding of each specific school, each network and each school’s leader,” Williams said, adding that she’s met roughly three quarters of district school leaders already face-to-face.
She said while her initial priorities for the district haven’t changed — which include establishing high academic standards across all schools and improving mental health resources for staff and students — she also plans to take a close look at the district’s charter school accountability framework, as a result of Lewis’ encouragement.
Among the questions she plans to ask are: What does “school quality” really mean? How do you assess schools using a letter grade based primarily on test scores? And, what does it look like to include culture and climate when it comes to accountability?
Williams said she plans to spend her first 100 days, through mid-October, conducting an extensive listening tour – under the banner ABC or Dr. Avis’ Beignets and Conversation – and reviewing the district’s core values and the board’s priorities.
The listening tour will include at least 20 sessions, Williams said, adding that she expects a full schedule to be released within the next two weeks. Sessions will be open to all members of the school community – leaders, teachers, staff, parents and students – as well as elected officials, faith-based leaders, civic engagement groups and other members of the community that wish to participate.
After the tour wraps, Williams said she’ll invite the community to sign up to participate in “solutions circles” related to the concerns and challenges raised. She hopes to hold at least 10 solution circles during her first 100 days.
"I just want to encourage the community to come out when it is time for our ABC tour, I need you and it's not going to work if we don't have a collaborative approach,” Williams said. “It's really dependent upon the engagement of the community.”
Separate from the tour, Williams said she also plans to create a student advisory council that she’ll meet with regularly throughout the year to help her “problem solve and identify challenges they may have, but also celebrations. We’ve got a lot to be proud about, and I know our scholars can tell that story way better than I could.”
As head of NOLA-PS, Williams will oversee the district’s 72 charter schools serving roughly 44,000 students.
Williams most recently served as the superintendent of Selma City Schools in Selma, Alabama for five years, and before that as deputy superintendent of schools in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. She started her education career as a classroom teacher in the late 1990s after serving in the military, co-owning a gym and working as a fitness instructor.
In an interview with New Orleans Public Radio in May, Williams described her experience working with charter schools as “fairly limited,” but said she believes her expertise as an instructional leader and experience bringing together stakeholders to make educational decisions have prepared her to lead the country’s only all-charter district.
The district's board selected Williams in late March, and she signed a four-year contract with a starting salary of $300,000 a year the following month.