Ethan Ashley is the president of the Orleans Parish School Board, which regained full control of New Orleans public schools on July 1, 2018. New Orleans is the only school district in the U.S. with a majority of charter schools, and the district is preparing to launch a search for a new superintendent. Ashley and his fellow board members are determined to disrupt the usual opaque, insider-network ways of finding district leaders by building a transparent, community-focused search and hiring process. Here’s how.
What is your vision for a new superintendent in New Orleans, and what are the innovations you are putting in place for the search?
We are extremely interested in making sure our next leader is a visionary: equity-minded, anti-racist, experienced. That’s the goal. To get there, we have to include the community.
We are trying to be extremely transparent about this process of going through a superintendent search. The board is leading this process in partnership with the community. We are ensuring that the folks who are most impacted — our students, our families, our educators, our administrators — are kept up to date as transparently as possible.
We’ve launched a website where the community can view every committee meeting or special board meeting, as well as provide their input [related to the search]. it’s not super-fancy. It works well on phones. Information is available in three languages: English, Spanish and Vietnamese.
What makes finding a superintendent for New Orleans unique?
We can honestly say as a district there’s only one person who has experience running our kind of district, and that’s our current superintendent. No one else has been a superintendent of a majority-charter district. That uniqueness alone puts us in a different position.
We’re not as wedded to the traditional qualifications that folks want to see in a superintendent. We’re not going to cut anybody out who is talented and can do the job. We want to see someone who is unique. We want to see someone who will be good partners with our community of schools.
How is the hiring process expected to work?
After the search firm is selected, we’re going to work to ensure that educators, students and families are truly able to build a superintendent profile and job description. We really want to make sure that certain populations are included. Then we’ll publicize it.
Once we get to interview the candidates, the community will have an opportunity to ask critical questions. The public is an integral part of the process. It happened in the past, in our previous search.
There was an ask to make sure that we do not just do blanket, all-call community meetings where you ask people to show up and sit in a gym. In the current [COVID] environment, you can’t do that because there are certain populations that we need to hear from that in-person meetings would make it hard for them to participate. Essentially, we need to have various opportunities for our community to engage. We want to make sure we are providing a real virtual option [to give input].
Which populations are you most concerned to bring into the hiring process?
Our next-largest population, after African-American, is Latinx — that’s important to acknowledge, important to know. We need to ensure we are engaging our Latinx brothers and sisters. We need to reach other minorities, including the LGBTQ+ community. There are grandparents who are acting as second parents — some of my board colleagues are doing just that. Extended family, not just grandparents, who are helping raise children. Community leaders who are doing the work to make sure our students are safe and supported in the after-school hours.
People might think because your school board has substantial Black membership and has historically been majority-Black, anti-bias training would be less of a priority. How do you respond to that viewpoint?
Our board is no longer majority-Black, since January of this year. In fact, we have three Black members out of seven. With that said, this board has been committed to equity. We know how hard it is to get high-level leadership that is anti-racist. Women dominate teaching. In urban districts, women of color are prominent. Yet we still see a male-dominated, not-very-diverse superintendency. We need to make sure we don’t carry biases into the process. You can be as anti-racist as you personally want to be and still perpetuate racism systematically. We’re not perfect.
Who is your partner for the anti-bias training and how did you find them?
Last year, after George Floyd’s murder, we had the opportunity to present a request for qualifications to do a racial equity audit. The people who won that bid were Beloved Community. They did the anti-bias training with our staff, and as a board we thought, “We need to do that.”
How has COVID affected the candidate pool of superintendents?
COVID has been really hard on the education sector. There has been pressure put on superintendents around the country. When former Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson’s contract came up for renewal, she said “no, thank you,” and that’s not unique among superintendents. Education leaders are exhausted from the challenges of the pandemic.
It’s early yet — you haven’t yet formally put out a call for candidates to apply — but what message do you have for those who might be interested in the job?
We are welcoming folks who want to continue transforming an urban district full of great culture, food, and community. Our board is with you. We’re for innovation and we’re ready for bold leadership. We’re trying to be thoughtful at every step of the hiring process. For our students and families, the most important thing is to get this right.
Maureen Kelleher is Editorial Director at Future Ed. She was formerly Editorial Partner at Ed Post and is a veteran education reporter, a former high school English teacher, and also the proud mom of an elementary student in Chicago Public Schools. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. Between 1998 and 2006 she was an ...