Lessons In Leadership: Roanoke superintendent puts equity in action through career and technical ed

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Lessons In Leadership is an ongoing series in which K-12 principals and superintendents share their best practices and challenges overcome. For more installments, click here.

“Kids are kids, and kids and their families need support regardless of their socioeconomic status,” says Verletta White, superintendent of Roanoke City Public Schools in Virginia. “If we’re honest with ourselves, practically everyone is going through something, right?”

White, who spent 25 of her 30 years in Maryland’s Baltimore County Public Schools, took the reins in Roanoke in early 2020, right as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold.

The health crisis ultimately gave the award-winning superintendent — she was recently named the state’s Region Six Superintendent of the Year — a chance to further demonstrate her commitment to whole-child education and community engagement. Finding ways to continue engaging with parents, business leaders and other stakeholders in the education community, she led the development of an Equity in Action plan that seeks to improve access to career and technical education, centralize district administration, and create a Center for Community Empowerment and Education.

We recently caught up with White to learn more about how she balances addressing community pain points, avoiding misunderstandings, strengthening career and technical education, and more.

Editor’s Note: The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

K-12 DIVE: One of the balances superintendents have to navigate is finding commonalities in the community while also identifying pain points to resolve. What strategy have you taken on that in Roanoke?

VERLETTA WHITE: I think it starts with being committed to listening. When I started in Roanoke City, my first week on the job included a listening tour — and that was at the height of COVID. I took a chance because I wasn’t sure if people would come out to meet with me, but they did — teachers, parents, students. We held it outside, so it was safe, but I asked the simple questions of what’s working well and what’s not working so well.

I think that before you can identify pain points, you have to listen first. And that commitment to listening then opens opportunities for you to see the commonalities of the strengths and weaknesses people talked about and what they share.

It’s up to us as leaders to make those connections and connect the dots between the strengths and weaknesses of the school district. When we’re committed to listening, we can identify those pain points. Pain moves us. Pain moves people. So if you have a certain pain that’s completely different from mine, there may be a lack of understanding there, and a lack of movement or momentum. But when we share collective pain, well, now we can move forward as a community, and we can use that as our springboard, as our starting point.

I have learned over the years that that’s how we gather momentum.

What do you think is important for district leaders to keep in mind to mitigate the potential for misunderstanding and misinformation in the community?

WHITE: My father, God rest his soul, used to say nothing beats a misunderstanding but a good understanding. I think with the commitment to listening, there also has to be a commitment toward transparency. And that means being available to the community.

So with engaging in activities such as the listening tours and town hall meetings, even during COVID, my team and I were able to be available to the community — even through virtual town hall meetings. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Visiting schools and being out at community events — and not necessarily just gathering and providing feedback and information during those formal times, but taking advantage of the informal times and being available at basketball games and football games and going to where our parents are, where the community members are, where our students are — those informal times can help guide our path forward, just like the formal opportunities can.

So there has to be a commitment to transparency and to openness and availability.

When it came to developing the district’s Equity in Action plan, how did those early listening tours and informal opportunities to connect with the community help?

WHITE: I think you just hit on it, that the process starts before a formal process. So it starts with a vision. And I do think as leaders, we have to know what we want, and we have to have a vision for the students we serve.

My vision has always been, especially as superintendent, that our students will graduate with a diploma and a resume of skills and experiences that will give them a leg up on the competition and that will fully prepare them for the life they desire.

It’s also important to listen and to see and identify where those challenges and opportunities are related to that vision. Part of the process has been not just to look for those opportunities, but to act on that feedback.

This article originally appeared in www.k12dive.com

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