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Dennis Walcott Joins University of the West Indies
Dennis Walcott, the man who led America’s largest public school system Joins University of the West Indies Will help work to link UWI and SUNY
by Tony Best
Dennis Walcott who ran America’s largest school system for three years is to spend the next 12 months helping to boost education in the Caribbean and link the region’s premiere tertiary level school to New York.
Six weeks after stepping down as the head of New York City’s Department of Education is doing something he often dreamed of accomplishing: living in the Caribbean and relating to University professors, administrators and students. He has been made an honorary distinguished fellow of the University of the West Indies, the same accolade recently given to Bruce Golding, a former Prime Minister of Jamaica.
“This is something I always wanted to do,” said Walcott, the grandson of West Indian immigrants who rose to become Chancellor of the City’s school system. “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 31st, when Michael Bloomberg’s three terms as mayor finally came to an end, Walcott, 62, was responsible for the education of 1.1 million students who attended 1,800 public schools in the five boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island.
Walcott who was born and raised in Queens, became Chancellor in early April 2011 when Cathie Black, a prominent national magazine executive with little or no experience in public school education, was appointed by Bloomberg to the Chancellor’s position. However, she immediately became embroiled in a succession of controversial issues that raised serious questions about her suitability for the job. She was subsequently forced out after only three months in office and Walcott, at the time Deputy Mayor for education, stepped into the position which pays more than $ 212,000 annually and is considered one of the toughest positions in the country. In essence, he was the equivalent of a Minister of Education in a Caribbean country. He managed abudgetof $ 24 billion, enough to run most Caricom countries.
“It was quite a challenge being responsible for a school system that was so diverse and demanding,” he told the Carib News before setting out for Barbados. He is to be attached to UWI’s Open Campus with headquarters in Barbados,
“This appointment recognizes Mr. Walcott’s prominent role within New York City,” said Prof. Nigel Harris, UWI Vice Chancellor. “His title with the University is quite suitable for someone of that stature. There is the possibility of him 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 persons 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 U.S. tertiary level and other institutions, including the State University of New York, SUNY and its vastnetworkof 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,” Prof. 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 chance to learn something” about the region’s educational system but he will stay away from any of its controversial 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 subsequent elevation to the position, often praised the approach of some Caribbean countries to the education of their public school students. Klein, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney-General during President Bill Clinton’s two terms, once told the Carib News that 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 program, getting the 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.
More than 75,000 teachers work in the City’s school system.