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School Chancellor Challenges Principals During Fordham Visit


Dennis Walcott, GSS ’80, challenged principals to make a personal impact in the lives of their students. Photo by Ryan Brenizer

New York City Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott, GSS ’80, told roughly 200 principals and assistant principals on July 14 that he understands teaching is in their DNA, and even on their “off” days, they willingly interact with students, parents and teachers.

Walcott spoke at the Lincoln Center campus during the second week of the Council of School Administrators Education Leaders Institute, sponsored by the Graduate School of Education at Fordham.

The chancellor told attendees to challenge him if they feel that he is not dedicating all of his energy to the 1.1 million students in the New York City school system.

“I never really plan out my next job, but I’ve always wanted to be a principal. I’ve always wanted to be a principal in one of the toughest schools where students are not engaged, where student learning may not be what we would like it to be,” he said.

“That’s where the rubber meets the road, in everything you guys do on a day-to-day basis. It’s what life is about. It’s how you set the tone for what happens in your building and your community.”

Walcott noted that, like most people, he remembers the teachers he had as a child, but not the principals.

“I remember my third grade teacher, Mrs. Long, because she worked with me to make sure I was reading at grade level. But when I reflect, I can’t remember the name of my principal in elementary school,” he said.

“Take that charge, and say, ‘I want these students to remember my name. I want them to remember that I was a very dynamic principal who was in their lives and was committed to making sure they were college- and career-ready, and ready for the next grade.’”

Noting that he likely has two and half years to make an impression—“What, you think there’s going to be a fourth term?” he cracked, prompting laughter—Walcott promised that he was going to push the envelope on innovation.

As they face a $5 billion deficit the next fiscal year, and he said there would be real challenges that they would have to face together.

“It’s going to be a very challenging two and half years, because I’m not some sort of Polyannaish person who is saying you guys have an easier job. Your budgets are small across the board—an average 2.3 percent less,” he said.

“I understand there are challenges, and we’re going to work through those challenges.”

He vowed to continue to visit schools throughout the system, a practice he began nine years ago as deputy mayor that has resulted in 400 to 500 visits.

“I’m going to listen to what you say, and I’m going to try to respond, and I know there are going to be times when we agree; there are times when we’re going to disagree; there are times when we are going to vehemently disagree. But you will always have a person who will listen to what you say and try to factor it in one way or another to make the system better.”

He recalled his days at Fordham, from which he received a master’s degree in social work in 1980.

“I vividly remember taking a night class, and then going home to Queens at 10:30, and standing on the No. 7 line at Queensborough Plaza in December, with the wind cutting through my body, and asking, ‘Is this all worth it?’” he recalled.

“What you’re doing is all worth it. The struggles that you face are all worth it. They’re worth it because we’re committed to the cause of making sure our children are educated and are able to contribute to society.”


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