By Lesli A. Maxwell and Catherine Gewertz
Harold O. Levy, who was the first non-educator to lead the nation’s largest school district, died Tuesday in New York. He was 65.
Levy, a Wall Street lawyer, served as the New York City schools chief between 2000 and 2002 after being appointed by the city’s board of education. He was the last schools chancellor to be selected by the local board to lead the 1 million-student system. Since 2002, every schools chancellor has been appointed by the mayor.
More recently, Levy had served as the executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, a scholarship-granting organization that supports educational opportunities for high-achieving, low-income students. (The foundation also supports coverage of this group of students in Education Week.)
Levy’s wife said the cause of death was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, according to the New York Times.
In his short time at the helm of New York’s schools, Levy made a mark by pushing for higher salaries for teachers and creating the New York City Teaching Fellows, a program that helped recruit more than 1,000 people from other professions and pay for their education and training to become certified teachers.
Five months after taking the chancellor’s job, Education Week‘s Catherine Gewertz profiled Levy, who likened his role at the top of the giant school system to that of a conductor:
Vast, struggling and chaotic, the New York City school system can be compared to many things—a Fortune 500 company; an old, lumbering train; a squabbling family—but only a man like Harold O. Levy would compare it to an artistic gathering capable of unspeakable beauty.
“My job is to be orchestra leader of this great, monstrous enterprise and make sure it sings,” said the newly chosen chancellor of the nation’s biggest school district. How is it sounding so far? “We are not yet at the preamble,” he says with a chuckle.
As the executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, Levy was a forceful advocate for schools to pay more attention to the needs of students who are black, Latino, or poor and also gifted. In a Commentary for EdWeek last year, he wrote:
The path forward for our schools should be clear: Test every single child and then make appropriate placements. When we leave it up to teachers, parents, or even students themselves to determine who should be tested for high-ability classes, programs, and opportunities, many outstanding students—especially those who are black, Hispanic, or low-income—get left out. We must stop underestimating students’ abilities and denying them the advanced instruction they deserve.
A Forceful Advocate for Bright Low-Income Students
Giuseppe Basili, the current executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, knew Levy for 17 years, working with him during the last three as chief operating officer of the foundation when Levy was its executive director. The foundation identifies academically talented low-income students and supports them from middle school into college.
Levy “brought an urgency” to the foundation’s work that came in part from his assertive New York style, and in part from his own life story as the child of parents who fled the Nazi regime during World War II, Basili said.
“That story was imprinted on him. When he met our scholars, he picked up a resonance, he knew that opportunities are often closed for reasons you can’t control,” Basili said.
Levy wasn’t shy about picking up the phone and calling college presidents to pitch the foundation’s scholars as terrific additions to their campuses, Basili said.
“He was really aggressive about helping them get into the best possible schools... [and] getting colleges to realize there are thousands of students that come with financial need who should have a place at their campuses,” Basili said.
He pressured the foundation’s staff to brainstorm new strategies every week for advancing their cause, Basili said. Out of that pressure came a partnership with Teachers College that created an online certification program for counselors, to help meet a great need in secondary schools. And the foundation now has a record number of its scholars not just in college, but in graduate school, Basili said, in part because Levy kept reminding the teenagers that foundation support could extend past a four-year degree.
Previous leaders of the foundation have been deeply committed to its mission, Basili said, but Harold “made it a personal mission.”
Visiting Levy only a week before he died, Basili told him that nearly 40 percent of the foundation’s scholars now attend highly selective universities such as Yale, Stanford and MIT, and “a tear rolled down his cheek.”
Photo: Harold Levy, a former chancellor of New York City’s public schools, talks on the phone in his office in downtown Brooklyn, N.Y., in 2000. (Suzanne Plunkett/AP-File)
More Reading on Harold O. Levy:
A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.