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.
That's how you develop trust in the community. The first step is having a vision, the second step is listening to see how close you are to that vision, and the third step would be acting on the feedback that you've heard, so people will know, “OK, we do share these common goals and these common pain points, and something is getting done based on the feedback I've provided.”
That's what community members, parents, teachers and administrators want to know. So we did that to develop the Equity in Action plan. And we gathered various perspectives. We did a cost analysis [because] we want whatever we're doing to be sustainable long term. This is legacy work that we are engaged in, so we want this work to benefit generations of children.
We formed working groups. I have a business advisory council because it's important for me to know that the programs we are providing for our students, that we are growing and developing, will also meet a need in the labor market. And that when students graduate, they have something to go to — that there are opportunities available for them in the region. We also had to connect with the region's workforce development program and office so we can, again, make sure what's trending is also what we are establishing to open those opportunities for our students.
On the career and technical education front, that’s an area that’s been receiving more recognition as jobs that would've traditionally required a high school diploma have become more automated or digitized. What is your advice for superintendents who are looking to flesh out those programs?
WHITE: You have to do an assessment of what's currently in place, and then establish a business advisory council. Do a labor market forecast, connect with the region's workforce development office. With the programs that are in place, make sure there's alignment there so when children graduate and they walk across that stage, they have opportunities available there for them. We do engage in college readiness programs as well as career readiness, so no matter what our students choose for themselves, they have opportunities available to them.
We have an AVID program that teaches our children how to apply to college, how to apply for college scholarships, how to take Cornell notes, and the difference between studying and doing homework, so if they choose a college pathway they are fully prepared.
If they are choosing a career pathway — and it doesn't have to be either/or, they can do these interchangeably — we also have programs for them there, teaching them not only the technical skills but the soft skills. How to begin and end a project on time, how to keep your word, how to be accurate in the project you're completing, how to complete a project on budget.
Whether it's college readiness or career readiness, [leaders must assess] where there are strengths and weaknesses, what is the cost analysis over time, connect with higher ed partners and business advisory partners, and look at the labor market long term. That analysis will benefit students over time.
If you had one piece of advice for other superintendents, what would it be?
WHITE: I often talk about the 80/20 rule. When I talk about that, I'm not necessarily talking about the Pareto principle, but 80% of what people will come to a superintendent with are those things where a superintendent can be flexible.
Do you want this program here, or do you want it here? Will you say yes or no to this activity? Those are the things that you can be flexible on.
I think if I had to offer advice to superintendents, it would be to know what's in your “20,” and that 20% would be your nonnegotiables. Those things are, at your core, what you believe.
I believe, for instance, that literacy serves as the foundation for every content area and everything that we do. And it's critically important for me, as an instructional leader, to make sure we're focusing not only on workforce development — because I do believe that that's important as well — but to focus on literacy development across the grade levels and across every content area. That's how we can make sure kids are fully prepared for life.
Graduating students with a diploma and a resume is in my 20%. Making sure our students have equity and the benefit of high-quality instruction and a personalized instructional program is in my 20%. Those are the hills that I'll die on.
For superintendents everywhere, it's a matter of knowing what's in your 20% so there's clarity in your leadership, your messaging and your vision. That takes the guesswork out of how you're going to lead and how you're going to move the system forward. Everyone will understand what's in your 20%, because it's at your core.