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New Chancellor Dennis Walcott is a Stark Contrast to Cathie Black

By Nicole Bode | April 7, 2011 1:21pm | Updated on April 8, 2011 6:29am

By Jill Colvin and Nicole Bode

DNAinfo Staff

CITY HALL — With his decades of work in the New York City public school system, incoming city schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott could not be more different from Cathie Black.

Unlike his predecessor, who hailed from the media world and sent her children exclusively to private schools, Walcott is a former public school teacher who logged nearly a decade as Deputy Mayor for Education, and his grandchild is a fourth-generation student in the city's public schools.

"I'm just a guy from Queens whose parents were raised in Harlem," Walcott said at Thursday's press conference at City Hall announcing his appointment after Black stepped down. "I consider myself very blessed and very lucky to be asked."

Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott speaks at a press conference Thursday when Mayor Michael Bloomberg named him as the new schools chancellor, replacing Cathie Black.
Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott speaks at a press conference Thursday when Mayor Michael Bloomberg named him as the new schools chancellor, replacing Cathie Black.
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DNAinfo/Jill Colvin

Walcott, 59, has been in the trenches alongside Mayor Michael Bloomberg ever since the mayor declared his intention in 2002 to wrest control of the public schools from the state.

He's stayed in position as two chancellors have come and gone, starting with Joel Klein, and he's logged countless hours at community meetings, from the now-defunct Board of Education, of which he was a member, to the now-defunct Community School Boards.

"There's no one who knows New York City public schools and the challenges" that the city faces better than Walcott, Bloomberg said Thursday. "I think there is no better person qualified to step into the job as chancellor at this point."

Bloomberg said Walcott was "my first choice" and denied offering the job to anyone else, including Harlem Children's Zone president Geoffrey Canada, who turned down Bloomberg's offer to run the schools system before it went to Black.

Walcott entered the Tweed Courthouse rotunda, which is the headquarters of the Education Department, to rousing cheers and applause from his colleagues at the department.

Walcott will step down as Deputy Mayor for Education and Community Development once his waiver is approved. He will continue to earn a deputy mayor's salary, which is lower than what Black earned as chancellor, Bloomberg said. Walcott will not be replaced as Deputy Mayor of Education because of budget constraints. His responsibilties with the NYC Housing Authority, the Department of Youth and Community Development, and other duties will be absorbed by other deputy mayors, the mayor's office said.

Walcott has a host of educational experience, from his elementary school education at Queens' P.S. 36, J.H.S. 192, and Francis Lewis High School, to his 10 years spent as a kindergarten teacher in Southeast Queens, Bloomberg said. He and his wife Denise have four children: Dejeanne, Dana, Shatisha and Timmy; and two grandsons, Justin and Gavin, according to his bio.

He holds two Masters' Degrees in Education and Social Work, logged three years as a foster care worker, led the NYC Urban League for more than a decade, and founded the Frederick Douglas Brother-to-Brother mentoring program, Bloomberg said.

Walcott's appointment comes on the heels of a bruising three months for Cathie Black, whose appointment was greeted with howls of disapproval from parents, educators and politicians. Black's approval rating was a dismal 17 percent in a poll released earlier this week.

The reception for Walcott, on the other hand, was warmer, earning the tentative approval of education experts including Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters.

"Cathie Black did not know what she was getting into. She was thrown into a situation beyond her control," Haimson said.

Dennis Walcott, on the other hand, "certainly knows what he's getting into.... [He is] prepared for the job of dealing with the politics and parent dissatisfaction with the direction of our public schools. Whether his particular skills will be able to improve the situation is still uncertain to me," Haimson said.

But Haimson cautioned that she doesn't know whether the DOE will make the fundamental changes she believes are necessary to reduce class size and listen to parent feedback.

"Without taking a substantially different direction, [the DOE] will not be able to regain the trust and confidence of parents," she said.

Public Advocate Bill De Blasio said he has "known Dennis Walcott for many years, and he has a history of being open and accessible to the stakeholders in our education system. As a public school parent and as a public servant, I will work with him and challenge him to right these wrongs."

United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, who was openly opposed to Cathie Black's appointment, sounded optimistic about Walcott's selection.

Mulgrew said he and Walcott had worked together for many years and had been able to accomplish things in the past, but cautioned that no matter who the chancellor is, he's looking for change from the Education Department.

"It doesn't matter who the schools chancellor is today, yesterday, next week, next month, who knows anymore. The important thing here is to focus on what we can do to support schools and teachers so children can be successful and schools can be successful," Mulgrew said.

He declined to rate Cathie Black's performance, saying it wouldn't be fair considering "she wasn't in the class for the semester."

"It's been a lot of rhetoric and noise out there and it's been more political than educational," he said. "What I can say is I wish her well."