Columnist Will Sutton talked with New Orleans School Superintendent Dr. Avis Williams about the system she inherited, what she thought before she started, what she thinks now and why she decided to take on Lafayette Academy as a district-run Leah Chase School with grades K-5 when it opens in August. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.


Read Will Sutton's column:?New Orleans Superintendent wasn't sure about a direct-run school, until Stella spoke


SUTTON: Before you got here, I remember you talking about considering the job and becoming a candidate for the job and doing all your homework for the job. You knew what you were getting into.

WILLIAMS: Indeed, I did.

SUTTON: How much of that has changed since you thought you knew what you were getting into?

WILLIAMS: I will say it changed significantly. And I say that because there was a focus on... doing a deep dive on understanding what it means to be a charter authorizer. (We did) a deep dive on understanding what the autonomy piece looks like.... From a quantitative and qualitative standpoint, some of this was looking at data points, and some of this was having conversations.... All of that was geared towards me understanding that this role was not the same as a traditional superintendent role.

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NOLA Public Schools (NOLA-PS) Superintendent Dr. Avis Williams sits in a second grade class during the first week of school at Alice M. Harte Charter School in New Orleans, Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022. (Photo by Sophia Germer, NOLA.com, The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

SUTTON: At what point do you think you reached that understanding and began to pivot?

WILLIAMS: When we were finishing up the Cohen High School building,? working with a number of charter management organizations to see what it would look like for a different organization to lead Cohen. The one thing I knew for sure, was that Cohen was not closing. There was some angst amongst the alumni because we didn't have an operator. I conveyed to all of the amazing alumni that there was not a world where I would be closing a legacy high school. That was the first time that I had a conversation with board members about what it would look like for us to direct run a school. It was a conversation that needed to happen. It also made me realize that we weren't prepared to do so in our current state. Everything about our central office is intentionally set up to do our current job will, which is, of course, very different than direct running a school or different from a traditional school district. That was my first time kind of getting an idea of what that conversation even might feel like with board members. Then again as we started to approach contract renewal time, this past year, so in summer and fall of '23.

It's always clear that we've got some schools that may be in danger of their contracts not being renewed. Of course, we have a very intentional process using our charter school accountability framework, using a comprehensive evaluation process, and many meetings with (Charter Management Organization) leaders, their board members, as well as community members to get to a point for a decision to be made.... There's a chance that a school would not be renewed. So started those conversations, again, with several board members. It was well received. I knew the district was not in a position to (have a district-run school) immediately.

SUTTON: How did you get to the point of saying you'll take on the Lafayette School as the Leah Chase School?

WILLIAMS: So there were conversations that were general because they weren't really specific about any one school. Then, at the point where it was actually the recommendation time point.? I believe that was our December, board meeting or a special call meeting where...it was really clear that we would not renew contracts for the Living School, or for Lafayette, and Moton... surrendered their charter. Okay, so it wasn't as much conversation but then because they did surrender....There were no applicants for the Lafayette School, which was concerning.

When that doesn't happen, when there aren't any operators, the next step is usually that the school will close and we look at how the facility will be used...

The question was asked, 'What if the district ran it?' At our January board meeting, I did a presentation where I addressed the challenges with that, what it would look like to direct run a school when we don't have the infrastructure in terms of personnel in place. I unpacked all of that with our board. The next step for the board was to say, let's do it. And I work at the will of the board. I gave them my my very well thought out opinion and facts..., where we were at that time.

Fast forward to the February board meeting. Shortly after that meeting, I talked to Lila Eames, who was now our vice chair. And I told her, I said, 'Look, my only issue is understanding the will of the board.' When I took the job, it was really clear that my job was not a traditional school district and not a traditional superintendent, which was fine....What I needed from my board was to clarify for me, and for my team, what their will was. After that January meeting, it was clear to me.

So I called Stella (Chase) Reese, my soror and Link sister. I said, 'What, do you want? For us to direct run the school and do it in '24?' I said, 'Okay. Enough said.' ...Now we're shifting. It's all hands on deck. I told (board leadership) at the February board meeting that my team and I will be prepared to unpack what it will look like to operate a new school to operate the Leah Chase School.

I had a great conversation with her. I'll tell you, after that conversation, there's nothing anybody could have said that would have stopped me from wanting to do this.

After talking to Stella....she expressed to me that the family was really grateful for (the building name) and it's still not the same as a school. There was an additional level of excitement and appreciation from the family by honoring her mom with the name of the school.?

Avis Williams

Avis Williams.

SUTTON: I can't imagine doing this in a few months.

WILLIAMS: We're going to do it and it's going to be amazing.... We're talking about from a human resources standpoint, transportation, the facilities, all of the things that's necessary for the school....We're still very much deep, deep into the planning stages, and we're getting things done. We've started the interview process for staff, we've had several walkthroughs, with the building to look at everything from furniture to security. We've had several curriculum meetings so that we can consider what type of curriculum we'll have, particularly for the core courses....We're surveying our Lafayette families to learn more about what they love about Lafayette, what they would like to see different if they choose to stay at the Leah Chase School.

SUTTON: I'm gonna give you three phrases. I want you to give me your response.

SUTTON: The Recovery School District.

WILLIAMS: In the past. Believed to be necessary at the time. It's something that's been replicated across the nation in various ways. From my perspective, and as a researcher, I do see it unfairly impacting Black, Brown and poor students. And when I say that, I don't mean explicitly our recovery school district here.... The unfortunate part about it is it's usually designed to have an impact on schools that mostly educate Black, Brown and poor students. ...I've not ever seen it actually solve all of the challenges. Not everything is? necessarily educational. By that what I mean are things like systemic racism, poverty, crime, housing, mental health, those types of things. I would argue that until we get to some of those root causes, we're going to continue to have some of the challenges that we have in education that a recovery school district would not fix.

SUTTON: Charter school.

WILLIAMS: Choice. That's the first word that comes to mind. And when I think about our charter schools here, one of the things when we talk about choice with our five year portfolio plan, one of the questions that are asked is 'What does choice mean?' And what choices do families actually have? And when I asked that question, I'm thinking about it from, like a geographic standpoint, if I'm a family and my child, because I hear the stories of families whose children go to school across town, you don't have to get on a bus early and stay on a bus for longer than a family would like. So my question becomes, is that because that was your choice to go there? Because you inherently wanted your child to go to that school? Maybe it's a legacy school, right? Or was it your only choice? Because you you didn't have a closer school that you felt had the quality that your childhood? Yeah, that's a question that I have when I think about choice. And that's one of the questions that we're trying to unpack with our five year portfolio plan. What does choice actually mean to families? Right.

SUTTON: Charter school system.

WILLIAMS: New Orleans.