A conversation with John White By PETER MEYER
A 35-year-old former teacher, John White headed to New Orleans in late April to become superintendent of the Big Easy's Recovery School District (RSD), quite an accomplishment for such a young man. But, with his bags barely unpacked, he found himself nominated by Governor Bobby Jindal to be interim chief of all of Louisiana's public schools (thanks to the sudden resignation of Paul Pastorek, who had recruited White), in addition to running RSD. Newspapers claimed that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was calling members of the state's school board, praising White as "an extraordinary leader [who is] committed to reform and is a great asset to the state." Is your head spinning?
John White's wasn't. He told the press that he was flattered by Jindal's offer, that he had come to the Bayou State to run the New Orleans schools, but if they wanted him in Baton Rouge, he'd be glad to help out. Cool. Calm. Collected.
"I've got more gray hair than I should at my age," he says, smiling, during our interview in a first-floor chancellor's conference room at New York City's education department headquarters just a few days before he left for New Orleans. Tall, boyish, soft-spoken, White is cordial, even gracious, but never flip. When I ask if we should wave to the mayor, whose "bull pen" office windows were visible from where we sat, he responds that such proximity to the mayor is "a beacon for accountability and the priority that this mayor has placed on public education." Accountability is a word White frequently used during our talk.
Where did this rising education star come from? The short answer is Teach For America (TFA). He is one of a growing list of wunderkind school leaders produced by this moon shot idea of Princeton University student Wendy Kopp (20 years ago) to put smart college grads in the nation's worst schools. White, son of a lawyer and "private wealth advisor" father and television journalist mother, grew up in Washington, D.C., and attended the prestigious private St. Albans School, where he learned, he says, "that education starts with relationships between adults and students and among students, who then reinforce the high expectations that are held for them." But he never thought of being a teacher. In fact, there was a time in high school when he wanted to be a naval officer. As he looks back, he says he was attracted to the military's "faith to mission, the commitment to excellence because of the deep understanding that they cannot fail."
Instead of the military (his younger brother and only sibling did become a naval officer), White entered the University of Virginia (UVA), where he majored in English and was aiming at journalism for a career until he discovered an interview of William Faulkner, who had taught at the school, describing Ike McCaslin, protagonist in Go Down, Moses. "There are three kinds of people in the world," he recalls Faulkner saying. "And I'm paraphrasing. There are people who don't know there's a problem. There are people who know there's a problem and choose not to do anything about it. And then there are people who know there's a problem and say, I'm going to do something about it. And the power of reading that one night on my couch in my apartment in Charlottesville, Virginia, knowing that it had been spoken only half a mile from where I was living, and amidst this incredibly complex book and this incredibly complex writer and man, but the simplicity of that call literally was a life-changing moment for me. The next day I applied to Teach For America." And he never looked back.
Into the Crucible
TFA sent White to Jersey City, to 3,000-student Dickinson High School, overlooking the Holland Tunnel, where he taught English for three years and learned that "there are a lot of challenges and we shouldn't kid ourselves. The school itself was not organized to serve every child. …