Thursday, April 28, 2011

In New York’s Schools Chief, a Knack for Quiet Conciliation

A generally favorable cover story in today's NYT about NYC's new schools chancellor, Dennis Walcott:

After early work mentoring children in Queens and a searing stint in Harlem finding homes for crack babies — he even adopted two children of an addict — Mr. Walcott rose to the presidency of the New York Urban League, one of the city's premier civil rights groups. But in the racial turmoil of the Giuliani years, Mr. Walcott refrained from getting arrested alongside scores of politicians and other black leaders in demonstrations against police brutality. He chose to advise the embattled police commissioner behind the scenes, trusting that his subdued approach would be more likely to win results.

All along, his trademark has been forbearance, and in his new role as New York City's schools chancellor, Mr. Walcott will test whether the nation's full-tilt approach to urban education reform is ready for a different kind of leader. But for the past nine years as a deputy mayor whose main responsibility was to oversee the Department of Education, he has left only the faintest of fingerprints during a time of momentous changes to the schools.

In a lengthy interview, Mr. Walcott struggled to name any achievements for which he had been the driving force, finally citing the creation of an early-literacy program for children in public housing and a mayoral Office of Adult Education.

In a City Hall populated with visionary strategists, managerial wizards and publicity magnets, Mr. Walcott was none of these. Working between a strong-willed mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, and a tenacious chancellor, Joel I. Klein, he seemed more comfortable in a role as deputy mayor for mollification: mediating disputes, calming tensions and endlessly listening.

That, of course, may be precisely what is needed at this moment: Mr. Walcott is taking over the nation's largest school system after a disastrous experiment with Cathleen P. Black, at a time of low mayoral approval ratings and with teacher layoffs and other retrenchments in the offing.

But Mr. Walcott, 59, concedes that despite his years in City Hall, there is little record on which to judge whether he is the right person to defend, advance and improve upon Mr. Bloomberg's education agenda of test-based accountability, welcoming charter schools and closing failing ones.

"People will question spine," Mr. Walcott said. "I'm very confident about decision-making and toughness. It will be my actions they have to take a look at over the next two and a half years to determine whether there is spine or not."


In New York's Schools Chief, a Knack for Quiet Conciliation

Published: April 23, 2011

This article was reported by David M. Halbfinger, Javier C. Hernandez and Fernanda Santos and written by Mr. Halbfinger.

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