Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. is expected to leave New Orleans Public Schools when his contract expires at the end of June. His replacement, Reviews Williamsis the first woman elected as the permanent head of the district in its more than 180-year history.
In her first interview as superintendent-elect, Williams spoke to education reporter Aubri Juhasz about her accomplishments as the current principal of public schools in Selma, Alabama, about what drew her to New Orleans. and how she plans to run the nation’s only public charter school. system.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Aubri Juhasz: What attracted you to this work and to New Orleans as a place to live and work?
Williams Review: First of all, I love New Orleans and it doesn’t hurt that I’m a huge New Orleans Saints fan. I like culture, music. I actually attended a few of the festivals, but absolutely loved being there even outside of festival times when you really get to see authentic New Orleans.
But part of what really drew me to this job is what makes it complicated and challenging, honestly. I am truly made to work with families in need. I myself grew up in poverty and I strongly believe that education saved my life. So my life’s journey has been to serve like-minded student populations and to really engage with communities to contribute not only to the educational aspect of it, but even to the overall well-being of ‘a community.
That’s what I enjoyed the most about being at Selma and I really see a lot of the work being very similar.
AJ: One of the other challenges is how different this system is from any other public school system in the country. How well did you know about the mechanics of the system when you applied for this position, and was it something appealing or was it something like “Well, here’s that extra challenge I’m going have to meet to prepare for?’
AW: Yes, I think it was both and yes the challenge, but also some intrigue in terms of the fact that we have the only 100% charter school district in the country. I like challenges. I am an adrenaline junkie. What really attracts me is when I’m grappling with certain complexities. I love strategic planning and I’m a visionary.
I certainly understand that there are challenges related to the unique structure of our school district. But I come with five years of experience as a superintendent who grappled with complex issues and challenges. One of the first things I will do at the start will be a listening tour where I can listen and learn not only about the structure of our current district, but also any additional challenges or needs that need to be prioritized.
AJ: What experience do you have working with charter schools in the past?
AW: Honestly, it was somewhat limited. Charters are relatively new to Alabama. They’ve been around since 2015. I’ve had many conversations with my board about becoming an approver, [but] we are not right now.
It’s interesting that you ask [me this question] because I was actually listening to a show where [someone was] say that I just KIPP [charter schools].
I worked with KIPP. They have one leadership development scholarship [that I did], which was amazing. But there are misconceptions about me being “from KIPP” and I don’t even know what that means, because I have never worked for KIPP.
My interaction with charter schools is actually quite limited. I come to you as a pedagogical manager. I know the instruction. I know the program. I know the direction.
AJ: Let’s talk a bit about your initial plans, your main priorities. I know you’ve been explaining all of this to us throughout your school board interviews. But for those who haven’t gone through this process, can you tell us what were your most important initiatives in Selma, in hopes that you might want to bring some of these practices to New Orleans?
AW: I would say first and foremost community engagement. That’s one of the things I feel really strong about what we’ve mastered.
When I arrived in Selma, we were under state intervention, and the only news you usually saw was negative. One of the first things I did was create a post for community engagement and I really worked to engage the community and make sure we were telling our own story.
The other element is mental health. Here at Selma, all of our guidance counselors have mental health first aid training, and we also have a full-time behavioral interventionist who is a mental health first aid trainer. We’ve had a lot of trauma within our community, and that sometimes involves our academics and our families. So certainly prioritizing trauma-informed practices and looking at what social and emotional learning looks like, not just for our academics, but also for the well-being and self-care for our adults.
When I think of this in the context of what Orleans Parish needs, I certainly see that there has been trauma, whether you’re looking for pre-Katrina or post-Katrina. You add the pandemic, Hurricane Ida last year and there was certainly a lot of violence. I look forward to working hand-in-hand with our community to be able to determine what some of our needs are in terms of trauma-informed practices, mental health and general well-being.
The final piece would be about excellence. Selma City Schools is the only district in the state of Alabama to have earned both Tier I and Tier II awards for the Alabama Performance Excellence Program. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing what we can do to make sure our work is really great as we move forward.
AJ: New Orleans is about 15 times larger than Selma. I know you were in Tuscaloosa, which is a bigger district with about 11,000 students, but that’s still a jump. Moreover, you are dealing with a much more decentralized system, where you are going to have to involve a lot of people to share your vision.
What’s the strategy going forward to take what you’ve done in Selma and apply those best practices to a district that’s going to be a different landscape to navigate?
AW: The key is teamwork and collaboration. As I go back and forth over the next few weeks, I will have very strategic opportunities to meet with a variety of people who will help inform my entry plan and what the priority should look like, especially during my 100 days of work.
There is a lot of talk about size in terms of the difference, but you also have to consider the difference in endowment. I wear 12 different hats as a superintendent here because we’re small, like most of my team, and we do a lot. But one of the benefits of being in a larger system is that you have more people to actually participate in the work.
AJ: Something other than community members raised during the search for the superintendent was their desire to have someone who was born and raised in New Orleans or who is rooted in the community in some other way. I think it comes down to the fact that you just want someone who is going to commit, who is either going to have understanding or be willing to really develop their understanding of all the factors involved.
How do you plan to show the community that you are committed to this position, that you are committed to New Orleans and that you are not just going to be here for a few years, check off some of your goals, but not all of them and then move on to the next thing?
AW: First of all, let me say that this is a legitimate concern and a very good question to ask. I really appreciate the community for being passionate about this issue and that’s important. It really is. I recognize the fact that I have to earn their trust, and I look forward to having these meetings, these conversations and showing them who I am. I am a very transparent person.
I live by my core values, which are excellence, fairness and joy. The work that I do will speak for itself, but I also plan to engage and have those conversations and make sure that people who need a seat at the table want a seat at the table, have a space where their voices are heard and where we have true high quality two-way communication.
AJ: Avis Williams is in her fifth year as Superintendent of Public Schools in Selma, Alabama. She will begin leading New Orleans Public Schools on July 11. Thank you very much for speaking with me.
Oh thank you.