Revisiting his public school roots, newly approved schools chancellor, Dennis Walcott walked the halls of his old high school – Francis Lewis – recently witnessing first-hand many of the issues he will face.
Without the superintendent’s certificate required by law to be named chancellor, a waiver had to be granted by the State Commissioner of Education, David M. Steiner
After being recommended on Wednesday night by a nine-member advisory council in Albany, Walcott received the waiver from the commissioner approving his appointment as chancellor.
Walcott has prior experience working in education. He has been a member of the city’s Board of Education, a kindergarten teacher, and an adjunct professor of social work at CUNY’s York College. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said this experience will help Walcott “improve our classrooms for the generations to come.”
Meeting with the Francis Lewis teachers, students, parents and administration on Thursday April 14 Walcott, a native of Cambria Heights, began what he declared will be a “very open type of discussion.”
And on his first day as the newly approved chancellor, Walcott was quickly confronted with the concerns of parents and teachers that has dominated the recent discussion of educational policy, overcrowding and budget concerns.
Walcott sat down for a brief meeting to listen to these issues from the school’s PTA president and UFT chapter leader.
“We have a responsibility as a city to balance our budget and we want to make sure that we are fair to our schools,” the chancellor said before leading the school in the Pledge of Allegiance. “I want to be clear though, that I and we will face very tough challenges moving forward, but we also need to be responsive to the need of our schools.”
Francis Lewis’ UFT chapter leader and ESL teacher Arthur Goldstein called it an “egregious error” eliminating teachers, explaining that there are close to 200 classes at the school that are at the maximum and maintaining that smaller classes are vital.
“Class size is important, but class size is not the – be all, end all – effective teachers are equally as important. We are in a layoff situation. We want the best teacher in front of the classroom and not have it just about seniority only. I want the best teacher teaching, as in my case now, my grandchild,” Walcott responded.
The ability to sit down in what could be a contentious meeting and understand both sides of an issue is one of the reasons Assemblymember Rory Lancman believes Walcott will succeed.
“[His] willingness to engage the stakeholders, students, parents, teachers and community elective officials in a dialogue about the issues and different viewpoints that go into making the school system work” is one if the most important aspects of the job, Lancman said, adding that there is no substitute for an intimate knowledge of the educational system and “we learned it cannot be learned on the job.”
Entering Francis Lewis under a banner welcoming the chancellor, Walcott was met by his former history teacher, Stan Gordon.
Calling Walcott a wonderful student, he even remembered his seat, “first row, last seat.”
Walcott, who proclaimed that although he wasn’t a straight-A student, with great teachers like Gordon, “you can be an average student and go to a great school and do well and go onto college.”
A graduate of the Lewis’ class of 1969, Walcott walked the halls of his alma mater greeting teachers and students who sit in the same seat he once sat.
“It is inspiring for our students to see the same person who walked the halls, who sat in the same seats to be the Chancellor of New York City Department of Education that is something we all take a lot of pride in,” said Principal Ali Shama. “This is the type of thing that helps you motivate students.”
As a former trombone player in the senior band and senior orchestra as well as a performer in Finian’s Rainbow and Damn Yankees, Walcott spoke excitedly and proudly about his time at the school, even being greeted with pictures from his old yearbook.
Shama, Francis Lewis’ principal, understands the chancellor “is going to have his hands full.”
Shama estimates that 40 percent of student use a false address to get in to the zone high school.
Both Shama and Walcott spoke about the goal of getting enrollment under 4,000 and lowering the amount of school sessions from four to three, through being more vigilant on “proper verifications for those who may say they live in the zone.”
Walcott understand the job that awaits him.
“I’m just going to be honest with folks, I’m not going to hand people any stuff that’s not true and right now we’re in a very precarious situation as far as the budget is concerned and it would be wrong for me to paint a rosy picture,” Walcott said. “I realize what I’m stepping into. It’s going to be a very interesting challenge, but a challenge I’m looking forward to.”