During my 32-year career as an educator, I was approached on several occasions by people who wanted to know if I had considered applying for the Superintendency in the New Orleans Public Schools. This was more prevalent after I received my Ph.D. in 1998. From my perspective, there were several reasons why I would never be a superintendent. None of them had anything to do with the requisite skills needed to do the job well. It was always my feeling that the most important thing a superintendent had to do was to build a strong leadership team of moral, transformational people who had a real focus on academic achievement and were committed to actions that were in the district’s best interest. I could do that.
My main reservation about that type of high profile position was the constant public scrutiny it created for the “poster boy” or “poster girl” who became the face and voice of the district. I did not have the right attitude. A superintendent has to be ready and on call 24/7/365. I never wanted to be recognized by strangers and approached about school issues while shopping for underwear in J.C. Penney or during the sign of peace in Mass on Sunday. I didn’t want to have my private time with my family infringed upon by calls from employees when the heating system failed on frigid winter mornings or air conditioners died in New Orleans’ sweltering August temperatures. I didn’t want to worry about transportation breaking down, late food service deliveries, building repairs, and theft of new televisions still in the boxes, operating budgets, grant writing, health and welfare benefits, job actions, or any of the myriad problems that plague the leader of a school district. No amount of money could ever tempt me to pursue the position that would put me at the top of this persistent heap of challenges. I saw myself as a worker bee, never the queen of the hive.
And yet, I seem to have stumbled (or been thrust) to the top of the swell in my role as President of a charter school board. Writing a blog about “how we are coping with the challenges and overcoming the obstacles” of starting over in the new landscape of education in New Orleans shines a light on our situation and I am caught in that limelight that gets brighter all the time. It’s a small price to pay, if I can help the rest of the nation to understand what’s happening to our schools post-Katrina. How hard can it be for a retired principal and Area Superintendent?
Last week, on January 2, I decided not to return a phone call to a reporter. It was not personal. I just wanted to celebrate my New Year’s holiday week in anonymity. At holiday parties and gatherings, I have been assailed with questions about our school as a result of being the subject of the top news story on December 17, 2007. I did television interviews for every local news station and the daily paper. I’m sorry if you are a new reader and don’t know to what news story I am referring. It will hence forth be referred to as “That which shall not be named,” TWSNBN. I want to go back to being incognito, at least until I lose about 25 pounds. It’s true what they say about the two-dimensional images of television making you look fatter (at least I hope so). Anyway, the article on the FRONT page of today’s newspaper won’t help. Not talking to reporters doesn’t matter, if you’ve written a blog that can be quoted about their topic. [You win, Sarah.] But, for me, reflecting and writing about problems is cathartic; talking about them and answering questions in an interview is taxing. I’d like a minute to move out of the public eye, to hide in plain sight. Here is the link to the news story. Please indulge me and finish reading my story first.
Years ago, in 1995, I received a huge honor when I was selected Elementary Principal of the Year by the State of Louisiana. Winners from each state received a free trip to Washington D.C. where we were feted in a formal dinner and awards ceremony. We received lots of prizes including a $1,000 personal cash award and computer programs for our schools. This was one of the highlights of my career. One of my most prized possession is an engraved school bell from NAESP. Luckily, it did not get damaged in the Katrina flood waters that ravaged most of my school treasures at home because it was proudly on display in the third floor corner office where I worked.
When I returned home to New Orleans, after the National Distinguished Principals award ceremony, it was nearing the end of the school year. I had made a “bet” with the students that they could not read 2,500 books in the last weeks of the semester. Since I shared that I kept a book next to my bed to read myself to sleep every night, the students picked that visual as the price I would pay, if I lost the bet. I knew that I had “lost” when I saw the school’s librarian rolling carts of books onto the playground during recess. Throughout the final week of school at recess time, all around the hot asphalt yard, groups of students could be seen engaged in reading library books and swapping stories instead of throwing footballs and jumping double-dutch.
On the day that I appeared for morning assembly in blue satin lounging pajamas, fuzzy slippers, and bright yellow hair rollers (partially hidden under a scarf), the children celebrated a day that went down in the school’s history of special memories. The yard was packed with parents and other spectators who came, specifically, to see me pay up my debt. Mixed in the crowd were the news cameras of the station that had the cable access agreement. They had arrived on that day, of all days, to film an interview with the Principal of the Year. My image in PJs, hair curlers, and fuzzy rabbit slippers was replayed every 30 minutes on the news for at least 12 hours. Even with my hair combed and in business attire, people recognized my face in stores and public places all over the city for years after that debut. It was a little embarrassing, but lots of fun. I did it for the students and I’d do it again.
In my new role with the charter school, I keep asking myself “Are we having fun yet?”
The opinions expressed in Starting Over: A Post-Katrina Education are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.