Last Thursday, over 1.1 million students in the New York City public school system said goodbye to summer and poured into classrooms for the first day of the 2012-2013 academic year.
And for the second year in a row, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott welcomed students back. Walcott has hailed this year as a "no-excuse year," vowing to take on a litany of serious challenges facing city schools.
The Chancellor recently opened up to HuffPost about the the reforms he says will bring significant progress to the system. Walcott, a New York City public school alumnus himself, also discussed his own days as a young pupil and what it's like getting his two grandchildren ready for school now.
HP: The state recently identified 123 city schools that need to improve by 2015 or risk being shut down. What's being done to help these schools? Are posting higher graduation rates and higher test scores the only way to avoid being closed? Or are there other criteria?
Walcott: We've been working closely with the state and the schools in trying to provide the appropriate support. We have to take a look at our own progress reports and see how schools are measuring up. Our goal is really to provide the support so schools can get strong, but unfortunately if these schools do not get stronger, then we have to make a decision on whether to shut them down. That's why we initially announced our plan for 24 turnaround schools to shut them down and have them reopen to be ready for this school year. We're very clear about our role and responsibility with both working with these schools and if that fails, making sure we give our students all the options to choose from and that means potentially shutting them down.
HP: What about critics who say the mayor's practice of shutting down schools and replacing them with new ones has failed to improve academic standings?
Walcott: I totally disagree with them; it's just that simple. We can show that the schools that we have shut down and replaced have basically out performed [struggling schools]. You may find a case or two where they're not performing greater than others. But still overall, schools we have replaced other schools with have definitely outperformed. So we basically have a disagreement on the facts, and I think the facts that I'm talking about are correct.
HP: Are there any new innovations, maybe technology-wise, the city is bringing to school systems this year?
Walcott: One of the things we've done is we've added money into our capital budget to add technology throughout the entire system. We're very committed to improving the technology of our schools. The mayor announced the new texting program we'll have for parents, so there's an essential number that parents can dial into if they want to be a part of it so they can receive information on updates on what's happening in their childrens' schools on a regular basis.
I'll be doing webinars with our parents on a regular basis as well. That'll be starting at the end of this month. We're looking at how we use technology in a different way both from an infratstructure point of view in increasing capacity especially with our iPads and everything else, but two we're looking at using technology to improve our external communication especially with our parents.
[Interview continues after slideshow]
HP: What is the hardest part about your job? What is the most fulfilling?
Walcott: Most fulfilling is just going into a school and seeing the students learning. I was at a school today; it was a great experience at a 6-12 school. I could walk into the classroom and tell students were truly resonating with what teachers were teaching. To me that's the greatest point of satisfaction, just seeing these students learning.
The downside, and I said this to someone else as well, is to try to get people not to react to headlines and soundbites and let that waver their opinion of what's happening in our education system. Our students, teachers, parents, principals are all doing a marvelous job as far as raising the bar, demanding and expecting success. I see that take place throughout the system and sometimes I don't see that reflected in coverage. While we definitely have more work to do, there has been a lot work accomplished.
HPt: In 2011, the NYPD made 882 arrests in New York City schools. 96 percent of those arrested were black or latino. Can you comment on these statistics?
Walcott: Unfortunately, we're going to have students that do things that may require them to be arrested. That's a part of everyday life and unfortunately that's a part of our school system as well. The fact I would point to even more so is that within less than eight years, we've been able to drive down crime in our schools by 40 percent. To me, that is something that provides a safe working environment for our students.
HP: You are responsible for nearly 1.1 million students, including your two grandsons. What advice did you give them for the upcoming school year?
Walcott: Well one grandson attends public school, one is a bit too young. The advice is to take school seriously, balance it with having fun. Undersand what you're working on and trying to do in the classroom. I've said this in a variety of different ways with the students overall, as well as my grandsons: the ability to focus on what is being taught and focus on your end goals and how school prepares you for that is important.
HP: What challenges do students face in this generation that you didn't face or your children didn't face?
Walcott: The challenge is to stay current. Things are moving so rapidly in today's society especially electronically and any way you talk about it. Whether it's students or oldtimers, you should be focused on new technology and what it means to apply technology to different areas they may not have previously existed. That's the one thing that really jumps off the page as far as something being completely new [to this generation].
HP: We hear you have a penchant for waffles. Do you have a favorite recipe or a favorite New York restaurant for waffles?
Walcott: No restaurant, I make them myself. I make them for my grandchildren and my family. It's a very healthy recipe which involves gluten-free batter, unsweetened soy milk, bananas, and unsweetened syrup. But you would never know it's unsweetened, you get used to it. That's my recipe, along with egg whites instead of the whole egg.
HuffPost: Are your grandchildren fans of your pancakes?
Walcott: Oh big time! Just made it for them this past weekend. They had them Saturday and Sunday.