SEEN UP NORTH: US educator to sample Bajan life
About six weeks after stepping down as the head of America’s largest school district, Dennis Walcott is doing something he often dreamed of: living in Barbados, if only for a year.
“This is something I always wanted to do,” said Walcott, the grandson of Barbadians who ran the 1 800 public schools in New York City’s five boroughs for almost three years.
“I always had a dream of going to Barbados to live and to be there with my best friend, my wife Denise.”
For almost three years ending on December 31, Walcott, 62, was the chancellor of the Department of Education, the agency responsible for the education of 1.1 million children, tens of thousands of whom are Caribbean immigrants.
Walcott who was born and raised in Queens, became chancellor in early April 2011 when Cathie Black, a prominent national magazine executive who was appointed by then Mayor Michael Bloomberg, became embroiled in a succession of controversies over her suitability for the job and her views about the needs of the city’s youngsters.
She was forced out after only three months in office and Walcott, deputy mayor responsible for education, stepped into the position, which pays more than US$212 000 annually and is considered one of the toughest positions in the country. In essence, Walcott was the equivalent of a Minister of Education in charge of an annual budget of more than US$24 billion and responsible for 75 000 teachers.
“It was quite a challenge being responsible for a school system that was so diverse and demanding,” he told the Sunday Sun before setting out for the Caribbean, where he will spend the next year as an honorary distinguished fellow of the University of the West Indies (UWI) Open Campus with headquarters in Barbados.
“This appointment recognizes Mr Walcott’s prominent role within New York City,” said Professor Nigel Harris, UWI vice chancellor.
“His title with the university is quite suitable for someone of that stature. There is the possibility of his working with us as we seek to establish a much greater presence in New York, not only as it has to do with education but in terms of linking with influential [people] whose relationship with us can be of great benefit to the university.”
Walcott is expected to be deeply involved in UWI efforts to establish relationships with United States tertiary-level and other institutions, including the State University of New York (SUNY) and its vast network of senior and community college campuses scattered across the state. SUNY has a student enrolment of 462 000 students, 20 per cent of whom are black and Hispanic. Its board of trustees is headed by Carl McCall, a former New York State comptroller who once ran for governor.
“We have been in discussions with SUNY, which is sending a delegation to the Caribbean next month led by Mr McCall to move the discussions further along,” Professor Harris pointed out.
“The delegation is going to Jamaica but we will use video-conferencing to involve all of our campuses, including the Open Campus, in our deliberations.”
Walcott, a soft-spoken public official, said his stay in Barbados would “give me a chance to learn something” about the island’s educational system but he doesn’t plan to get involved in its education issues.
“In due course, I will get to know about the system there,” was all he would say.
Interestingly, Joel Klein, Mayor Bloomberg’s first education chancellor, whose resignation led to Black’s ill-fated appointment and Walcott’s subsequent elevation to the position, often praised Barbados’ approach to the education of its public school students. Klein, a former assistant United States attorney general during President Bill Clinton’s two terms, once told the Nation in New York he would have been happy if New York City’s elementary students were reading at the level of Barbados’ students.
During Walcott’s tenure as chancellor, he made a point of visiting schools across the city, going to more than 1 000 of them, usually meeting children and teachers in the classroom and the cafeteria to find out what was being served to the students. He had placed student health high on his list of priorities.
When asked just before leaving office about his major accomplishments, Walcott, who has four children and two grandchildren, listed the introduction of a teacher evaluation programme and getting public schools up and running shortly after the disaster Hurricane Sandy left behind. It had forced the closure of the entire system for days. He also cited the opening of the school bus system for competitive bidding in the wake of a strike by drivers which had closed it for weeks.
The chancellor’s position was the “best job in the world”, he said.
“I have been to Barbados on several occasions with my wife and best friend and I have always enjoyed myself in the country,” said Walcott.