Superintendent White’s First Roanoke Interview

Where are you from and what drew you to Roanoke?

I am originally from Baltimore, Maryland. I was raised there and attended Baltimore County Public Schools.  BCPS is the 25th largest school district in the country and I learned a great deal from my experiences there. As I considered the next steps in my journey, I knew that I wanted to contribute to a new place where my experiences and background could directly benefit my new community.  I was looking to serve a city that cares deeply about children, each other, and high-quality instruction. I hoped to find a place where the people are kind, friendly, and genuine.  

So, I did what any good student would do….my homework. I watched, read, visited and was delighted to find that Roanoke is a thriving and progressive city filled with people who are warm and welcoming. While Baltimore will always be a part of my story, my youngest child just graduated high school and my husband and I are really excited to start our next chapter and make Roanoke home.

Can you talk about your own educational journey and how it’s helped prepare you for this role?

My educational journey started with a relentless push by my parents to stay in school.  Both of my parents grew up during the great depression and, due to limited opportunities, were forced to cut their formal education short. My father lost both of his parents at a young age, and he dropped out of school at 14 years old to get a job so that he could care for his eight brothers and sisters. My mother graduated from high school but was unable to attend college due to limited funds. So, my journey started with my mother reminding me “Get your education. That is something that no one can take away from you.” 

I graduated from Towson University with a B.S. degree in education, College of Notre Dame of Md. with a MA degree in Educational Leadership, and I am currently finishing up my doctoral dissertation at Morgan State University.  

Formal schooling has played a significant role in my preparation for educational leadership opportunities like this one. It has helped me see all of the facets of teaching and learning, and explore both the philosophical and the practical aspects of the job.  

My work experiences have also shaped me as a leader.  I have been blessed to serve as a teacher, mentor, assistant principal, principal, professional developer, assistant superintendent, chief academic officer, and superintendent of schools.  In each of those roles, I learned something new about how to best meet the needs of students.  Of course my informal experiences, and conversations, have been equally valuable in teaching me the human side of education as well. 

As Maya Angelou said in her essay, “Wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now.”

Can you tell us about your leadership style and philosophy?

For me, leadership is about relationships.  I am a collaborative leader and I believe that perspectives matter. It is imperative for me to hear from all stakeholders  parents, teachers, administrators, students, community members, elected officials, business and higher education partners, etc. By understanding how they perceive current practices that impact student learning and student advancement I know I can make better and more thoughtful decisions.  

To solicit and make space for all of these inputs, I believe in being visible and approachable.  It has been my experience that a collaborative approach is respectful and responsible, which is where all good things start.

Stepping into this new role, what do you see as the top priorities for the Roanoke City Public School District?

My number one priority at this moment is ensuring a safe and healthy environment for our students and staff members. As we consider the best approach to managing the unique and evolving challenges of COVID-19, and resuming onsite schooling, this is essential.  My goal is to get up-to-speed right away on the measures that are already in place or that are being planned to get our students and staff back to school safely.  

My next priority is capitalizing on the continuous progress related to student achievement.  RCPS is growing and progressing in many ways. My hat goes off to the district and to all those who have contributed to these achievements.  As we continue to push forward, we need to find ways to continue this momentum. There are opportunities to close gaps in achievement, to ensure equity in instructional practices, and to create strong foundations for all students as they prepare for college, military, and the workforce.  

How do you anticipate the upcoming school year will be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?

COVID-19 has affected every one of us in a multitude of ways. I know firsthand how serious this illness is and how critical our decisions are with regard to our reopening plan. I recently lost my brother-in-law to the virus. I also understand the economic challenges brought on by this pandemic. The school district has a responsibility to consider all sides of this issue.

First, please know that critical decisions like these should not, and will not, be made behind closed doors.  I will make sure that all decisions related to our reopening plan are inclusive of both parent and staff perspectives. We will also work closely with the Health Department and will follow CDC guidelines. 

The CDC’s most recent guidelines for schools put a great deal of emphasis on screening procedures. As a mom and an educator, I want to know that there are firm and effective procedures in place for screening both students and staff.  In collaboration with health officials, we will develop procedures that will allow our parents to feel comfortable sending their children to school and will allow teachers and staff members to have confidence that they are working in a safe and healthy environment.

Our school system serves a number of historically underrepresented groups, speaking to this population specifically, how do you intend to serve and support their unique needs?

To those who have been underrepresented, I want you to know a few things as we begin our journey together. Under my leadership, all students will have the benefit of high-quality instruction. As a district, we will maintain high expectations for all students and will do everything possible to make sure that all kids have access to high-quality content, curriculum, and programs. I will meet with you. I will listen to you. I will hear you and I will look for institutionalized practices that may need to be disrupted to better serve your children. Together, we will bring diverse voices and experiences to the forefront to make sure we are preparing all students for the future that awaits them.

We might be biased but we believe we have the best teachers in the state, if not the country. What do you hope to learn from those who have been here longer than you?

I am a superintendent, yes, but I am a teacher first. As a teacher, I always wanted my administrators to know what I’ve done to help my students succeed, but more importantly, I wanted them to know what I needed and how they could provide additional support. It is my guess that the teachers of Roanoke City will want me to know those same things.

I will visit schools and hold meetings to ask these important questions. As they say, “Experience is a good teacher.” I want to learn from each stakeholder’s experiences. I want to know what has worked well and about those initiatives that didn’t work so well.

I truly believe we can retain our best teachers if we listen to them, advocate for them, and act on their requests.

Transparency and ethics are critical in any leadership role. And, they are important to our community. Can you speak to how you will view your responsibilities through these lenses?

As a public servant, it is important for me to earn the faith and trust of the community. It is my intention to earn that trust not just by my words and promises, but by my transparent actions.

In a previous role, I worked for a leader who broke the community’s trust.  The organizational ramifications and subsequent fall-out created significant distractions for the school system, and myself. Sadly, it all took the focus off of student success for far too long.

I truly believe that character starts with personal integrity and full transparency. I am deeply committed to both.

As I look for ways to apply past experiences forward in pursuit of positive outcomes, I believe there are specific actions I can take in my new role here in Roanoke to ensure that community trust is continuously safeguarded. I want to always ensure that we maintain the essential unity and focus required to provide for the collective health, safety, education, and well-being of all of our students.

These actions will include:

  • promoting and demanding ethics and integrity across all levels of leadership
  • creating data dashboards on school progress
  • keeping the public up-to-date on current school system events
  • updating the school board on student progress in public sessions
    obtaining parent, teacher, and administrator feedback on proposed initiatives
  • making myself available in schools and through community meetings to answer parents’ questions directly

These priorities are critically important to my success in this new role and it will be my responsibility to standardize these practices to ensure their effective implementation.

What can we expect to see you focus on in your first 100 days on the job?

My first 100 days will center on forming, assessing, and developing strategies that can have real, measurable and meaningful community impact. Again, my leadership style is based on relationships; therefore, it will be critical for me to begin forming strong positive relationships from the start.

Relationships are created through trust and trust is established with time and conversation. To that end, I will have conversations with parents, students, teachers, administrators, staff, and community members right away. This will happen through school visits, meetings, and listening and learning tours.

I will also use the first 100 days to assess school system operations so that I can have a firm grasp on current initiatives and priorities across both the instructional and operational sides of the house.

Finally, but most importantly, my first 100 days will include developing clear, transparent, and focused plans to support students’ health, safety, and academic needs.

You are scheduled to start work on July 1. What do you want the community to know about you on day one?

First, I want the community to know that I am a parent. When my husband and I sent our kids to school each day, my prayer was for them to learn, yes, but also to be happy, healthy, safe, and strong. In that regard, I am sure that my family’s hopes and prayers are similar to yours. I am committed to treating your children accordingly.

I am experienced, passionate, and hard-working and I will do everything I can every day to provide the best possible outcomes for each and every student. However, in this role, I will be required to make tough decisions and I will rely on many partners.

I will prioritize efforts based on my best understanding of how we, as a school district, can provide the maximum benefit to all of our children, but much of my knowledge and understanding will come from conversations and insights provided by each of you. I want to thank you in advance for those contributions.

Some decisions will be popular, and some, significantly less so. When conflict arises, please share your perspectives, hear mine, and then commit to rolling up your sleeves and partnering with the school district so that we can do more together. When we respect each other’s contributions we all grow in our understanding and our capabilities and we start to model the kind of world we all want for our children.

I can’t wait to get started.