Monday, June 13, 2011

Profile: John White, New Head of Recovery School District

News from Around the Neighborhoods

Profile: John White, New Head of Recovery School District

By Zoé Belden of Crosstown Conversations

On the June 9 episode, "Crosstown Conversations" featured newly installed superintendent of the Recovery School District John White. Replacing four year veteran Paul Vallas, at a mere 35 years old, White has already built a substantial résumé. Coming to New Orleans form New York where he served for five years as deputy chancellor of the city's school system, White spent five years before that as Chicago-area director of Teach for America, but began his career as a teacher in the post-industrial town of Jersey City, where he was placed in a high school of 3,000 students.

His passion for education began when he himself was a student; it was while writing a college English paper at the University of Virginia, where White spent his undergraduate years, (he is originally from Washington, D.C.), that his vocation became clear. While doing research for the paper, he came across a quote of William Faulkner's which, White says, has always stuck with him.

"There are three kinds of people in the world: there are people who don't know their problems at all, there are people who know their problem and choose not to do anything about it, and there are people who know their problem and say 'I'm going to do something about it...I'm going to change it.'" White's problem has become the focus of his career: the under-producing and often under-whelming education system in our nation's urban centers.

White says New Orleans education difficulties are a mere symptom of a greater decades-long illness nationwide, wherein education reforms are consistently lead by bureaucrats in the states' and nation's capitols.

A government employee himself, White insists he is a bureaucrat only in title. The general perceptions and stigmas attached to those in legislative positions White says don't apply to him. When asked by Crosstown Conversations host Jeanne Nathan whether he is aware of the waves of education reform over the past century, White says he acknowledges these historical precedents but says that his time spent in education taught him that true "reform must involve parents and educators and members of the community."

"Having schools that are run by communities run by educators and run by parents, that's where you get the reforms, that's where you get the innovation, that's where you get the people who know the kids best and what they need."

Repeatedly stressing the importance of community involvement in a child's education rather than strict guidance at the state or federal level (though he does make the point that state funding has been severely cut-$350 per child), how does White respond to the very vocal objections many in the community put forth? When queried by Nathan on how to deal with local resistance to his policies, White answers, indirectly, that he doesn't like to make the difference between charter and district, but rather "great schools and not great schools, and how do we do everything we can to make sure the not great schools become great schools?"

Consistently referring to pupils in the New Orleans schools as "our" children, White's over-arching message is that the success of a child's growth depends largely on the adults in their immediate environment, and not on those in office many miles away. It is White's conviction that children must be surrounded by grown-ups who nurture them scholastically and care for their overall well-being. This should be the primary concern when discussing education reforms, but "too often," says White, "adults let adult issues get in the way of being the safety net around that child."

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