The interviews are the last step in a months-long search process to find a successor to Lewis, who has been in the $250,000 per year position since 2015 and plans to resign at the end of this school year. The three finalists — Avis Williams, Marshall Tuck and André Wright — were selected from an initial group of 15 applicants forwarded to the board by its contracted search firm.
Board members could make a final selection on the hire as soon as Wednesday afternoon.
The three finalists were each given an 80-minute interview where board members asked 14 questions ranging from their top priorities as superintendent to how they would ensure the district’s diverse student population is properly served by charter schools across the 44,000-student system.
The board opened the meeting with a closed-door executive session and held additional executive sessions after each candidate’s public interview. The 8 a.m. meeting adjourned shortly before 3:30 p.m.
Last week, the board moved the three candidates forward from a field of seven semifinalists. Board member Carlos Zervigon voted against the narrowed field, citing a lack of local candidates.
Several members of public spoke out against the slate of candidates, and the general state of schools in the all-charter district, at last week’s meeting, which included a long list of accolades for Lewis.
Each candidate will participate in a “meet and greet” with the public Tuesday evening at Carver High School which begins at 6:30 p.m.
The board interviewed Avis Williams first. She has been the superintendent of Selma City Schools in Alabama since 2017. She was an assistant superintendent in the Tuscaloosa City School district and high school curriculum and instruction director at Guilford County Schools in North Carolina. Prior to that she was a principal.
Williams described herself as a “bookworm” and noted she had a less traditional path to educational leadership, following her older siblings and joining the Army after high school before becoming a teacher and later principal.
“No guidance counselor ever spoke to me about going to college,” she said, noting she thinks all students should be academically prepared to attend college and understand the process when they graduate.
“We often say parents are the first teachers and we need to honor that as educators,” she said, pointing to a program she runs in Selma that provides books and other resources to children ages 0 to 3 who are yet enrolled in public schools to help develop their early literacy skills.
Williams said she has an “adaptive” leadership style which she described as a “military concept” that “empowers people to be able to lead in various circumstances.”
She spoke about NOLA Public School’s ongoing “right-sizing” initiative in the face of declining enrollment and said she had to lead Selma City Schools through a similar school closure process.
“Ten years before I came in, a feasibility study recommended closing four to six schools,” Williams explained. “But nothing had been done.”
After an updated study, Williams said she ultimately closed or consolidated three schools in the city. She said it was not an easy decision, but her staff ensured “we were being very transparent about the ‘why’.”
Williams also said she’d ensure mental health and trauma resources were a focus of her tenure as well as addressing teacher shortages. She has created a leadership pipeline in Selma that is on its third cohort of participants.
She said to increase community engagement Williams holds an annual ‘state of the schools’ and runs a weekly update column in two local newspapers.
Williams is also a finalist in the Montgomery Public Schools superintendent search. Her interview there is slated for April 7.
Marshall Tuck works for Great Public Schools Now, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit. He was the CEO of Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a nonprofit that took over low-performing Los Angeles Unified School District schools, and the COO of Green Dot Public Schools charter network in Los Angeles. He ran twice, unsuccessfully, for state superintendent of public instruction for the state of California.
In the 2018 campaign, Tuck had a well-financed campaign and was backed by supporters of charter school expansion. Bill Evers, a former US assistant secretary of education under George W. Bush who later served on the Trump presidential transition team — also supported him. His opponent in the race, Tony Thurmond, who was backed by many of the state’s teachers unions, used Evers’ support in a misleading campaign ad that sought to link Tuck to Trump’s controversial Secretary of Education Betsy Devos, though Tuck was openly critical of Trump and Devos.
Tuck said he would like to ensure charter groups across the city are sharing best practices with each other. He said he has a “collaborative” leadership style and would work to bring in nonprofit and other community partners to help with mental health and other support in schools.
Tuck said that in March 2020, his nonprofit partnered with schools and philanthropists and was able to raise enough money to ensure every child living in poverty in L.A. could participate in a free summer camp if they chose to.
“We have to use what we have and we’ll have to find more,” he said regarding resource management and bringing in donors and partnering nonprofits to hypothetically work with the district. “I think there is a real appetite for us to raise dollars.”
Tuck said with declining enrollment challenging the district it will have to rethink what goes into the annual decision on whether or not to renew a charter school’s operating contract.
Asked about teaching and learning, Tuck said the district needs teachers, counselors and principals who “believe in our kids and understand where they’re starting.” He also suggested adding bonuses to increase interest and boost performance.
“We don’t run schools,” Tuck said of the all-charter NOLA Public Schools district. “I think that’s an important distinction.”
Tuck said policy was one way to make a difference in a decentralized district, noting in one district where he worked, the average percent of students found to be gifted and/or talented was 10 percent. But at a school where he worked with a higher percentage of economically disadvantaged students only two percent of students were found to be gifted.
Tuck said the policy called for testing students for giftedness only if a parent or teacher asked for it.
“That doesn’t make sense,” he said. “We’re going to change that policy right away.”
After universal testing in second grade was introduced, about 10 percent of the students at his school were found to be gifted.
Tuck suggested the district could help smaller charter groups that may want to centralize smaller offices such as human resources or their finances within the district. He also suggested forming a working group to address transportation that, if schools were willing to work together, he thought could result in improved contracts.
He said he would also ensure a focus on students who dropout or struggle with truancy, and work with schools to ensure if a student returns to school after those issues that they have proper supports. “It’s got to make sense for (the students) when they come back.”
André Wright was the chief academic officer for the Aurora Public Schools in Colorado for five years prior to moving to Florida-based consulting firm MGT Consulting late last year.
He was brought in to the company to help manage a struggling school district in Colorado after the state stripped public officials of most of their managerial duties and forced it to choose a private management firm to take over, according to reporting by Chalkbeat. That arrangement ended in February.
Wright also worked as an Area Executive Director for the Fulton County Schools in Georgia where he served as a principal.
Wright described himself as a collaborative leader and leading by example. He said his experience in the classroom as a teacher and paraprofessional before entering leadership gives him a full picture of the academic experience and people he manages.
Wright said he would begin his tenure shadowing board members and other school leaders to learn who was important to their communities. “If I did it any other way I would be guessing and I don’t guess.”
He said he would work to bring charter groups, or “mini districts” as he called them, together in his first months to ensure they are all working for a common student-based goal. “When you talk about a NOLA Public School graduate that should bring a smile to your face.”
“I still argue we’re in a state of emergency as it relates to proficiency. That’s not over,” he said, adding that he thought common vision among charter groups would help move the city forward.
He also said he would immediately address D- and F-rated schools.
“D’s and F’s don’t stand for ‘doing fine’ — we’ve got some work to do,” he said.
Wright touted his work in Fulton County, Georgia and in Aurora, Colorado schools, noting they had diverse student populations.
Aurora “is the example of what a global society looks like,’ he said, noting he knows NOLA Public Schools has seen a steady rise in Spanish-speaking students, and his work as chief academic officer there required him to address a range of students’ instructional needs.
Wright also said he had to work closely with teachers and administrators as they navigated how and whether to return to in-person learning during COVID-19 in what he described as being “in the middle of tug of war.” He said he had to help renegotiate their hybrid learning after seeing dropping student attendance on Fridays to ensure teachers had time to prepare for remote learning and it didn’t impact student instruction.
The board will meet Wednesday at 1 p.m. to select the next superintendent of the district.
Learn more about the superintendent candidates:
The board will also meet Thursday to select and appoint an interim District 1 board member after John Brown Sr. resigned earlier this month when his daughter advanced as a superintendent candidate. (She was not a finalist)
The applicants are: Shawon Bernard, Leila Eames, Lois Jones, Debra Morton and Patrice Sentino.