BY TRONE DOWD
Dennis Walcott’s long life in public service has overlapped with his passion for education several times throughout his career. This dedication to future generations culminated in his appointment as both deputy mayor of education and then as chancellor of New York City schools.
Walcott was asked to be deputy mayor of education in late 2001 by then Mayor-elect Michael Bloomberg. Serving 1.1 million students across the five boroughs, the New York City Public School system is the largest in the country.
“I was really honored that he would ask me to be deputy mayor of education,” Walcott said. “We came in with the idea of reforming the system and making it better for children and doing it in a way that it was not necessarily done before. The first step was to gain control and change school governance.”
Walcott explained that unfortunately, education languished under the previous administration. He described that under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, each school district became a “power center” unto its own. Each district had its own executive boards and fiscal funding period, all independent from the DOE and all with different measures of what a successful school looks like.
Coming into office, Walcott looked at the system set in place and restructured it by giving power to the schools and allowing them to be the decision-makers when it comes to methods of educating. In terms of power over the policy of the schools, things were streamlined significantly.
“We wanted to change the paradigm of the system’s being solely a top-down operation to a more collaborative process,” he explained. Accountability was another big thing that he and Bloomberg believed was important and was the impetus behind the former mayor’s controversial request to have control over the educational system.
Another change made while Walcott worked under the Bloomberg administration was having student and school performance measured and graded. This allowed different institutions to set goals and milestones for themselves and their students, which in turn allowed Walcott and Bloomberg to distribute funds based upon accomplishing those goals.
“Something that people tend to forget is how much educational funding increased under Mayor Bloomberg,” Walcott said. “While other agencies saw cuts at times, the DOE was left unharmed if not receiving more money.”
He said that having Joel Klein as chancellor while he served as deputy mayor made for a great team.
“It never became an ego issue or a turf issue, as far as having a deputy mayor working hand in hand with him,” Walcott said. “He was the chancellor and he was in charge of the day-to-day operations, while I worked in conjunction with the mayor setting policy.”
In 2011, after the reforms that took place in how education was set in place throughout the five boroughs, Walcott took over as chancellor of New York City schools. With the groundwork of this new system in place, his main focus became about education of the children. Evaluation systems of the students, dealing with the union and the state, and other “macro issues” were all a part of his tenure as chancellor. His predecessor, Cathie Black, was the only person to take the job with no experience in the educational field. As a result, many were discouraged by the direction of the New York City education system. Walcott spent much of his time quelling those concerns.
“We had to remind folks of the purpose and mission of the education system,” he said.
Walcott said that the creation of parent coordinators and the amount of choice that parents have when it comes to schools for their kids are the things he’s most proud to leave behind.