NOVEMBER 2022 | DR. CHRISTINA KISHIMOTO
Verletta White became superintendent of Roanoke City Schools in 2020. She has dedicated her life to public service and serving students, families, and the community at large. She leads Roanoke City Public Schools, a beautifully diverse urban school system that serves nearly 14,000 students in central Virginia.
Prior to her appointment as Superintendent of Schools, Mrs. White served the community of Baltimore County, Maryland, in a variety of roles. Most recently she served as the Interim Superintendent of Schools for BCPS from 2017 to 2019. Prior to becoming the interim superintendent, Mrs. White served as chief academic officer for BCPS, the instructional leader responsible for defining and communicating the instructional vision of the school system, while motivating a division of more than 500 curriculum and student support staff.
Mrs. White holds a bachelor of science degree in education from Towson University, a master of arts degree in leadership in teaching from the Notre Dame of Maryland University, and is currently a doctoral candidate in urban educational leadership at Morgan State University.
I am with Dr. Verletta White, who is the superintendent of Roanoke City Public Schools of Virginia today. Verletta I’m so excited to be talking to you.
I’m excited to be here. Thanks, Christina.
So, you and I were at an event recently in Denver, Colorado where you actually did the opening. And it was just awesome to hear you talk. I almost felt like I had an inside view of kind of a private moment where you were up on that stage, almost reflecting to yourself, talking to yourself about the importance of leadership, and the audience was captivated.
There was something about that moment. Can you tell us what you were talking about? Why was that opportunity to talk to 100 superintendents, state leaders, and corporate leaders at that moment in time about equity and engagement and staying student focused so important to you? Why did your passion and grace show so publicly?
Well, you’re too kind. And thank you for saying that. It was a captivating moment, and I could feel that the audience, that we really kind of connected. That’s because right now, especially during an endemic, we all want to say post-pandemic, we know that we’re still in a pandemic. But thinking about, especially this point in time, where the politics are high and when equity really has come into play. We saw a lot of that during the pandemic; things that were inequitable, things that we already knew, really came to light in terms of lack of resources or support mental health services for children, family support, and how our families are struggling.
Well, it’s hard to think about innovation during a time when we’re just trying to manage the necessities of life. As they say, you know, it’s hard to read a book and run from a lion at the same time. So many of us have been kind of running from the lion. We’ve been just trying to manage and trying to survive. But in that survival stage, if we just stay there, then we really can’t continue to innovate, especially to meet the needs of our students, not only right now, but with what our students are going to have to face in the years to come.
“I think that we’re on to something special, and I believe that it can happen anywhere in the nation. We just have to have the will and the skill to come together to make things happen for our kids.”
— Superintendent Verletta White
So we can’t just stay stuck in survival mode. We have to innovate, and so the point of my talk was, how do we innovate for equity for the sake of equity? How do we have the momentum? How do we maintain that momentum? So to really talk about how to gather and have collaborative innovation and being on the same page, and I believe that it’s possible. I am very fortunate to work and serve a community where we’ve kind of rally together. We’ve come together on the things that we really believe in and the things that matter most. We had to find those collective pain points. Then we had to also find our collective momentum to move forward. I think that we’re on to something special, and I believe that it can happen anywhere in the nation. We just have to have the will and the skill to come together to make things happen for our kids.
Verletta, you were in Baltimore County city schools for 25 years. You served as Interim Superintendent there. You were very engaged with that community. How have things changed for you in terms of your leadership? Are the two communities different? Are they the same? Are the points in time different in terms of how you need to engage and build capacity of your staff to serve this generation of students today?
Well, you know, I served in Baltimore County for 25 years. I served in Baltimore City for years prior to that. Coming to Roanoke City, certainly, there is a difference between Baltimore County and Roanoke City, just simply in size, especially where in Baltimore County, there are about 114,000 students in Roanoke City, there are 14,000 students. So in size and scale, there is a difference there. However, the service is the same. When it comes to meeting kids’ needs, our focus on literacy was the same in Baltimore County as it is in Roanoke City because literacy is the foundation of every other content area. And, so, I find that my work and my charge, in terms of really focusing and staying focused on literacy, is the same. Now, the scale is a little different. And the scale is important because of communication.
It’s important as a leader to make sure that everyone is on the same page. So before you start communicating, it requires a lot of listening to see where people are. And that’s harder to do, I think, in a larger school system, you need your lieutenants, if you will, to help you with that kind of listening tour. For me, one of the reasons why I love Roanoke City so much is that personalized approach and that I can have a listening tour. I can have my principals in the same room, and we can talk about where we are. Even pre-pandemic, during the pandemic, and even now post-pandemic, we can look at that continuum and see where we need to go. So yeah, it changes. The scales are a little different, but the mission is the same.
I love the way you talk about the intimacy of a smaller district where the communication shifts and the opportunity to kind of spend more time directly with your leadership team, your teachers, your students, and your families. That really does change how you have the opportunity to lead. I think that’s also helpful for women who are aspiring to the superintendency to think about where they want to lead. Certainly, the dynamics are very different when you’re in a large system. Thank you for sharing that.
So we’re in the midterm elections, as you know how crazy it is. I don’t know how else to put it.
The fact is everything is just hyper-politicized during the election, certainly, but also at this point in time where there are lots of politicking, even around values and who has voice. That’s made leading across different fields very challenging, but especially I think, in education, where a lot of education, instructional matters, and teaching matters have been politicized during a time when teachers and leaders want to just focus on engagement of students and making sure that students have high-quality instruction and are in fact fully engaged, and feel seen and heard. That’s so important to our young people today. And so, I wonder what your thoughts are about how you lead during this time? How do you stay focused on what’s most important?
Well, it is hard sometimes. Let’s just be real that it is difficult many times when we are living in such a polarized society. And a lot of times in education, we’re facing the darts, right, and we have to protect our kids and our students and our staff so that we’re not used as political pawns in the political game. We are working in the best interests of children, and we are focused on high-quality instruction. And we’re making sure that that continues to be our focus. But the reality of life is that we do have to find some commonalities.
We do have to listen, and we can’t just shut out the side that we disagree with or that disagrees with us. I talked about those collective pain points. And I also talked about finding common ground. I do think that that is essential, especially when we’re in such a polarizing kind of political atmosphere. It’s important to find, but what are the commonalities? Where are the points that we can agree on? So in Roanoke City, for instance, we have agreed on workforce development and the importance of workforce development as a gateway for so many students. We absolutely invest in our college readiness programs. But we also want to make sure that we have an investment in our workforce development programs.
What I have found is that [workforce development] is a bipartisan topic that we agree on in Roanoke City. And so because of that, we have a new equity and action plan. We are doubling our CTEC capacity. We are creating a community engagement center. And that’s because everyone from our city council to our community members, and our staff, agree that this is a pathway forward, that we can do better, it’s an area where we can do better. And that is a, you know, our political, if you will, similarity, commonality, and that’s our starting point. So we may not agree on every point. But when you do, and you can find common ground, then you can be open to some of the other conversations as well, and the walls kind of come down. So that’s what I’m finding.
I’m just really proud of Roanoke City for coming together in that way. And I’m proud of the work that we’re doing collectively. You can’t be in every fight, you know, part of my talk also had to be about that 80/20 rule. And when I talk about 80/20, I’m not talking necessarily about the Pareto Principle, where it’s 80% of the output is responsible for only 20% of the work that gets done. I’m really speaking of the 20% being your non-negotiables. The hill that we die on. And as leaders, it’s important for us to know what’s in our 20%? Where we make a mistake is not knowing. Right? And so, in that way, you would have a tendency to be pulled to other kinds of political arguments and things that are not necessarily in your 20%. So my advice to leaders is, we have experience, we know what’s best for children, we’ve worked with parents and families, now, what’s in your 20%? And now what is in the communities 20%? Can we find common ground? That’s the starting point for those conversations that are most important when it comes to benefiting students in the long run.
Verletta, I couldn’t have said it better. That’s so well said. I love that. Focus on where we have intersections of agreement of joint areas of focus and passion. Otherwise, we could spend all our time arguing back and forth around these matters that we don’t agree on. And we know that can happen when we are caught up in the emotions of where there is this agreement, as opposed to where we have passion and agreement. I’d love to hear, in closing, what you see as the policy issue that’s most important today in terms of what will help to advance our young people and is responsive to this generation of young people.
I do think that we see this building for more and intensive mental health needs that are bubbling up, not only for our students but many times for our families and for the staff members that we serve as well. I would love to see, in terms of policy, policies that truly support mental health services for our staff and for our students. Again, it’s really getting back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We have to make sure that we are well cared for and taken care of. That way, we can truly get to the academics.
I would love to see some policy enacted that would really get to the mental health services. Because many times we’ll jump straight to safety, and safety is critically important. We can’t do our jobs well if anyone feels unsafe. If I feel unsafe right now, I can’t speak to you; I can’t do my job well. And so we jump to safety. But there’s a reason why safety is so prevalent right now. And I believe those reasons are rooted in mental health services that we need to increase, that we need to fully fund, that we need to pay attention to, that we need to have more professional learning about. Because those are the things that we can’t visibly see.
The physical disabilities we can see. If a student comes in with a broken leg, we can see that. We make accommodations for that. But the mental health services we can’t see, yet they are still there and are still prevalent. So let’s take time and know our students and spend some time at that relationship building so that we can adequately and effectively engage in teaching and learning that matters, high-quality teaching and learning.
I think we’re at the point, Verletta, where we are seeing the impacts of mental health needs. So much of that does lie in the invisible, the personal, the psychological. And yet now we’re starting to see the outcomes of that in our society, in our community amongst our kids, amongst our staff. So it’s a critical policy need. And it’s just making our work and education even more complex today than it has ever been. We need leaders who really understand that.
I thank you, Dr. White, for the time with you today and for your leadership.
Not Dr. yet, but almost Christina.
I’m just projecting! I have to. You will be soon! Superintendent White, we are so excited about your leadership, how you have led, and what you’re bringing to this field of education in terms of leadership, and the role model that you serve for other women who are pursuing this work, who need to understand that there are ways in which you can manage the complexity of these times. And I think that’s really important. So, thank you for being with us today.
Thank you. Thank you for having me. Always a pleasure.