Dr. Walters: A Final Interview

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A few weeks ago, right before spring break, Dr. Wayne Walters announced that he will be leaving his role as the director at Obama and making his current position as assistant superintendent full-time. To find out more about the transition and Dr. Walters’s time at Obama and PPS, Eagle editors Elena Hochheiser and Sam Bisno sat down with the director to find out more. Below is the uncut transcript.

S (Sam Bisno): Okay, so, first off, how many years have you worked at PPS?

W (Dr. Walters): PPS? Well, this is year 26.

E (Elena Hochheiser): Wow.

S: And so when did you come to Obama?

W: Okay, so, it’s weird, ‘cause I started (we started) at Frick International Studies in 2000, and started to transition when we left the Frick building to go to Reizenstein, which is no longer there (that’s in Bakery Square where the Google is) and that was the time we transitioned. And then it was in the 2009 school year (2009-2010) that we became Obama officially, because we were Pittsburgh IB, which is a protected copyright so we couldn’t use that name. So that was a temporary name that we had while we transitioned from Frick International Studies when we got out of that building, because at that time we were sharing a building with Schenley and we were in the Reizenstein building. So we couldn’t be called Schenley, we couldn’t be called Frick, we weren’t in the Frick building but Schenley was still in existence, and so we had to go through our naming. And on December 15, 2009, that’s when we officially became Barack Obama Academy of International Studies, and then we transitioned from that building eventually to over here. So I’ve been the principal from 2000 at Frick transitioning to Reizenstein to Pittsburgh IB to when we became Obama to now. So that’s been.. This is the 17th, that was 2000, so this is 17, this is the 17th year.

E: Wow, that’s a long time.

W: Yeah, it’s a long time.

E: So, did the Frick school have the IB program as well?

W: Frick used to be just a middle school, 6, 7, and 8. Schenley was the high school with the diploma program. So when we started pursuing the Middle Years Program, that was to connect grades 6, 7, 8, and 9, 10, as the Middle Years Program. So when we combined, it kinds held everything in one building. So we started thinking about the IB Program in 2001 and we went through a three year self-study to try to become a Middle Years Program because that’s what’s required with teacher training, getting everyone on board with the program, those kind of things. So we went through that certification process and then we had to go through it again when we became Obama to get the diploma program attached to Obama as well. So we had to go through a Middle Years Program certification, and a Diploma Program certification.

S: And did you – were you principal that entire time?

W: Yes, I was principal that entire time.

E: Wow.

W: During all of that, the transition, the moving, the everything. I was the principal.

E: Okay.

W: [Chuckles]

E: Um, okay, so what made you choose to start working for PPS and Obama?

W: So, that’s interesting. So I graduated from college, I went to Carnegie Mellon, and um, I had finished my education work and I was sitting at home, and um I put my application into Pittsburgh Public Schools but I was kinda set up for a job at home when I returned back home, and um they called and I said (my mother said), “You’re out of here, just go”, and so I was, I was. It was weird how it happened because I was on a flight– I’d left some stuff in Pittsburgh– I was on a flight coming up to visit some friends, and to get my stuff to come back home. And then, next thing you know, they’re calling me for the job, and my mother was like “No, you’re going”.

S: [Laughs]

W: So that was the end of it. And that was when I started working for Pittsburgh Public Schools.

E: Okay, that’s a pretty cool story.

W: Yeah.

E: What are the biggest challenges you’ve had to face during your time here?

W: As Obama, or principal, or in general?

E: In general.

W: So I think that one of the biggest challenges is getting everyone on the same page about the value of the program. So like, I have a strong belief in the impact that this program can have it be transformational for students and in learning, and really advancing them to the next level. And so, that’s been a challenge because sometimes I feel that um, our families make decisions about schools for different reasons, and they may not always align with what the IB program is about. So, for instance, there have been years when parents have said to me– not a lot, but enough that is significant to me– that have said “well why do we have to learn another language, we’re in America?” And I’m like “well, we’re in… it’s a different time now”. So we’ve had struggles with that. Or, you know, um, “I like the IB program, but I’m not sure I want to do it…”, and I say “well, that’s what, that’s what we offer here, that’s our signature program that…. Is our program.” That in itself has been a challenge of getting everyone on the same page and really moving us all in the same direction of like, it’s IB or nothing.

E: Okay. So, when you came here, what was your vision regarding things you wanted to change about this school?

W: So, to be honest, my first year, when I came to become principal, I did more observing and checking the lay of the land of things I liked and things that maybe I wanted to change, so my very first year of being principal was mostly really me just like observing teacher practice, procedures, protocols, those kind of things, and then after that I wanted to sort of create the identity with my signature on it. So at Frick, there were certain things that we put into place after that. One of the things, the biggest challenges when we moved to Obama, was that we couldn’t hold onto anything else from Frick. So at Frick, our colors were blue and white and we were the Frick dolphins, and so we went through this whole thing with a lot of student voice around “what should our colors be”, “what should our mascot be?”. And so we were a fairly new school, and at that time, President Obama was still in office, so you know, that whole notion of trying to create this new identity from an unknown space was a challenge. So the students decided that they wanted purple, black, and silver, because they felt that purple represented royalty, they wanted the Eagle because they felt like, you know, the power of the Eagle but also the reference to Obama. So that whole thing about identity had to come into play. So some of the things with school spirit– some of the students were still like “but we want it to be Schenley”, you know, the older students, who were still attached to the Schenley phenomena. So for us, the challenge was really like getting the Obama name out there, getting our colors, and so one of the things that came out of that was a swag flag. You know, like Pittsburgh has its terrible towel for the Steelers, so we decided on a terrible towel flag. So that year we had some rappers, and they created a song called the “swag flag song” and we had our swag flag and so then shortly after that, we had homecoming, and so we started just giving out to get that, to be the thing, and now that’s part of Obama, you know. And we would talk about having Obama swag and what it means to, you know, be swagalicious, and all of those things. (Laughs). And so those were all of the things, all of the challenges in starting a new school was creating your own brand. And so we knew what we wanted, but it was kinda making it intentional. A lot of people were like “Obama? Is there really a school named Obama? Why? I’ve never heard of it.” And so, all of those things were getting school spirit and identity and all of those things and reputation. So those, those were probably the bigger challenges.

E: Okay!

S: That’s true, like, even today when I tell people I go to Obama, they’re like “Really? Is that really a school?”

W: Exactly. Yeah, exactly. You know that’s still true and all those kind of things…

E: Yeah.

S: Okay so um…. Since you’re transitioning onward, what would would you say the thing you’re most proud to have done at Obama is?

W: i would say that it was establishing the IB program and really seeing the impact of our graduates in such a short time and listening to their stories of what they’ve done. For the past three years, we’ve been named on U.S. World News Report as one of Pennsylvania’s best high schools, and it was an accomplishment for a new school to have that type of credibility after three years for three years in a row. We’ve also had a lot of phenomenal things happen with even our Youth and Government club having two youth governors of Pennsylvania in the last five years, and one lieutenant governor. It’s been great seeing students getting into really good schools and kind of establish that reputation of our school. We’ve had students excel in athletics, we’ve had students excel in the musical, with the Gene Kelly awards, I mean, we had our student who was a three-year Gene Kelly award best actress. So we’ve had a lot of like, outstanding things happen in a short period of time, so I guess I’m more proud of how the staff has come together to share their talents and embrace the entire notion of what this school is about, so that we can advance our students to the next level, whatever their choice is. So that’s what I think is special about Obama is that you’re not typecast– you can come here and prepare yourself to go in any direction you want, but leave with a well-rounded education and well-rounded view of the world, so that whether you want to live abroad or live in the United States, if you want to go into engineering, art, you know, learn languages, teaching, medicine, you know, law– whatever you choose to do, I think this school provides solid instructional for them to advance in that manner.

E: Okay.

S: Um, so you said you’ve been principal for seventeen years, right?

W: Yeah, this is seventeen years.

S: So do you think your philosophy as a principle has changed over those seventeen years?

W: Um, I think some methods and some thinking about what student learning would look like have changed over the years, but I think my general philosophy hasn’t really changed. It’s sort of an any-means-necessary for students to get the best education. I don’t think that has changed. I think what has changed is over time, methodology into teaching methods and like, student voice and, um, thinking about how to engage students in a better manner in a more technological age, those things have changed. But my drive to make sure that every student here has the opportunity to get the best education possible, that philosophical principle, has never changed.

E: Okay.

S: So on a different note, what is one things students do that you find most upsetting or frustrating as a principal?

W: I think when students don’t value education, definitely frustrates me. Because historically, even as a country, there have been so many sacrifices for students to have an equal and access to education– an equal education but even access to an education– and for me education was my equalizer. So I feel that frustrates me when students don’t have that appreciation for education, because I believe that education is transformative. It allows you to change your current condition.

E: Okay. So, on that note, kind of, what is some advice you would give to students in the school?

W: So, I would say my advice is listed, really, in my poems and the school’s motto. I would say first is that you have to believe in understanding that nothing in life is so complicated that it cannot be achieved by discipline and hard work. I really believe that if you work hard and you’re well disciplined, you know, the world is your plate to eat off of. I really believe that. I really believe that, you know, that excuses are not a good thing to have, so that’s why I use that poem about excuses. I believe in, like, not wasting time because you can never get it back, and I do believe in, like, that you always should give your personal best – not that you’re comparing yourself to anyone, but I think if you always land in a place where you gave it your best, I think that’s satisfying. So those are my tidbits of advice, and they live in those poems and the motto that I put in the back of the agenda book and tell every student they need memorize, ‘cause fundamentally I believe that.

E: Okay. So, one of our questions was “What values do you hope to impart on your students?”, but I guess you kind of answered that.

W: Yeah. [Laughs]

E: So you’re leaving the school this year.

W: Yeah, wow. This is going to be hard. It’s really going to be hard.

E: Yeah. So, what do you feel about moving on?

W: So, oh, God, so it’s mixed. I have mixed feelings about it. ‘Cause I’m very attached to my students, and, for me, I would rather be with students than adults. Like, I would rather be in a space where I’m, like, impacting students directly, but, on the other side, I feel that moving on gives me an opportunity to transform opportunities for more students. But the other side of the sword is I probably won’t get to see as much students and interact with as much students as I would in my normal position. So, I mean, it’s been three years of me doing this dual role as assistant superintendent and principal, and so really now what I’m beginning to see is that, even this year per say, like, I’ve been at other schools supporting them more and I’m not even getting to see the students here as much as I would want to. So the students who have, like, graduated – they’ll say, like, “Dr. Walters – I swear he, like, knew your social security number, you know what I mean? They’ll be like “He knew everything about them.”, and just this year, because I’ve been at so many schools and not been able to have the time to kind of intimately get to know each student, I see that difference, and so for me that’s kind of disheartening. But, you know, for me, I would rather be with my students, but I understand that it’s time to move on and change is hard but change is necessary. So I feel that if I could make – I would not do this unless I thought I could make a bigger impact, and so that’s why I’m looking at the opportunity to make a bigger impact for more students.

E: Okay. Awesome. And so what do you hope to achieve in your position?

W: So, for me, what I hope to achieve is that the transformative spirit and the energy of Obama can be translated into other schools and other spaces. I think some of the things that I know and that I can offer in the learning space to transform how teachers teach and reach students – I want to offer that to more schools. I want to give principals more ideas about, you know, ways to lead and options to lead and just ways to transform schools that kind of are aligned with the time. I know that students still want structure but there are some spaces for choice and autonomy. And so some people struggle with that, and then some people struggle with “Do I focus on behavior? Do I focus on culture? Do I focus on academics?” and I think you have to have that healthy combination of all three. ‘Cause I think students want to come to a school where there is a structure, but I think they also want a space where the culture is one that – you know, I’m free to share my ideas, my thinking, and I’m free to make mistakes, and free to be in a space where people are celebrated for their differences. But also, to that, our core belief, our core business as a school is to make students smarter and better than the way they came in, so what I hope to achieve is to really create that balance between academics, behavior, and culture in all of our schools in ways that are transformative and that show up in outcomes so that we can really be a proud district and not just have pockets of proud schools.

E: Okay. So will you retain involvement with Obama?

W: Yeah! So right now I’m in this dual role of assistant superintendent and principal, so I am the principal of Obama but I also supervise Obama.

E: Yeah.

W: And that will continue next year. So I will still be the assistant superintendent and one of my schools will be Obama. I’ll probably have more schools to supervise than I currently have now. First it started off with five; then it changed to seven. And so I don’t know what the number will be next year, but Obama is definitely going to be one of my schools.

S: What are those schools?

W: So right now the schools that I supervise – I supervise a variety – I supervise Westinghouse – most of the 6-12s except CAPA – so it’s Westinghouse, University Prep, SciTech, Obama; I supervise the Online Academy, and I supervise two middle schools: Sterrett, and I supervise South Hills Middle. So those are the schools that I supervise now.

E: Okay. And so how do you hope people will remember you, like, throughout your time here?

W: Oh, wow, that’s a good question. I think I hope that they remember that I was fair, I was firm, but I was fun.

E: Okay.

S: That’s a good way of putting it.

W: I hate the “F” words, because that’s – maybe I should have picked “A” words, but you know. [Laughs]

E: Yeah.

W: You know? But, yeah, I just – I think that they knew that I was firm about certain things and what my value system was, but they knew that I was also fair and that I cared about the experiences that students had at school and that was important. So that’s what I hope I’m remembered as, like, you know, that I’m remembered by like, you know – because my teachers often say, “Well, you know how to get him to say yes. If you say it’s for the kids, he’ll say yes. If you say it’s for you, he might say ‘Well, let me think about it.’” So, you know, I’m unapologetic about students first.

E: Okay. So then I guess I have two more questions.

W: Okay. [Chuckles]

E: We didn’t write these but I’ve been, like, thinking about them while we’ve been talking. So the first is, what’s your favorite memory from your time at Obama?

W: Oh my goodness. Um, give me the second question while I think about that because there’s so many.

E: Okay. The second question is, if you had any piece of advice to give your successor as, like, the director of Obama, what would it be?

W: Yeah. My first piece of advice is really to listen to the students, then listen to the families, and then listen to the staff.

E: Okay.

W: But it starts with listening. Listen before acting. I think students will give you an honest, kind of well rounded perspective because they live that experience, and I think families will give you what they hear their children say, and I think staff will give you their feelings as adults working in this space, and I think you need all three of those, but I think I would start with students first and just listen to them and try to always listen to them first before acting. That would be the advice that I would give them. And my fondest memory at Obama? There’s so many…I’ve got to think. There’s so many, oh goodness.

E: I mean, it can be a couple.

W: Yeah, I mean, I think one of my fondest memories was really when we got that full certification and we started turning the corner around our school having a reputation of, like, academic excellence. And I know there are places where we fell short or places where we have grown above that, but I guess that’s probably one of my proudest moments because I’m probably more academically centered, but then my other moments are, like, when I’ve been at those places – like, graduation days are always very emotional for me because it’s sort of like I get to watch – like, one of the fondest memories was getting to watch a class that I had from sixth grade, and watching them graduate as twelfth graders. So, like, these are students that I knew when, you were like middle school, like, you know…

E: Yeah.

W: Confused – like, one minute you’re mad, one minute you’re happy, one minute you’re like “I don’t know why I’m doing this.” So, like, watching them mature and just kind of go on to the next level, and like last year being invited to, like, college graduations of these students.

E: Oh wow.

W: You know what I mean? And so getting, like, invitations in the mail like “I’m graduating; I want you there.” That kind of thing – that was special to me. And just seeing them, like, wow – like, one of our graduates, she’s a teacher now in Charlotte, North Carolina.

S: Wow.

E: That’s awesome.

W: And she wanted – I remember her from always wanting to be an elementary school teacher, and she had Mr. Naveh, and now she’s a history teacher.

S: [Chuckles]

W: So, like, whatever – and for me, that kind of gives me more evidence of, like, the power of education transforming what you want to be and what you want to do. I mean, that’s who she – she’s like, “Look, I had that Naveh experience, and that was what it did for me.” And so now she’s a high school history teacher.

S: Wow.

E: Wow.

W: And so, I mean – and I have other stories of – you know, I had one student, she sent me a Facebook message and she said, “Dr. Walters, I have middle school now. Is this my payback?” [Laughs]

E: [Laughs]

S: [Laughs]

W: And then she said, “They tell me so many different things.” And she posted something, and I just wrote back, “Hmm.” She said, “Was I that bad?” She said, “I’m sorry.” She said, “I need to send an apology letter for everyone.”

E: [Laughs]

W: She said, “I just need to send a general one for everyone.” I said, “No, you weren’t that kind of student.” She said, “But was I this way? Is this really what middle school was like?” I said, “You have to be the right person to work with middle school students. You have to be that person that understands, can kind of let stuff bounce of off you, and just kind of be that understanding to bounce back and kind of come back the next day, kind of forgetting what happened yesterday.

E: Okay.

W: Yeah.

S: Alright.

E: Wow. Awesome. Thank you.

W: Did I give you enough information?

E: Yes!

S: Yeah, yeah, that was great! Thank you for that. Thanks for your time.

E: Yeah.

W: Oh, you’re welcome!

 

As we clicked off the recorder and were about to exit his office, Dr. Walters stopped us and made us sit back down. Our rolls quickly swapped as he interrogated us each on our aspirations and, true to his word, showed nothing but genuine curiosity in the responses we, the students, gave. Finally, nearly half an hour having passed since we first began talking, Dr. Walters asked us a simple but truly symbolic question. He asked us what we would like to see changed about the school – our school. And we answered honestly, any pre-interview nerves dissipated, replaced instead with a sense of empowerment, a feeling that we were in good hands. We answered without fear of what our principal was going to do to us when we told him what we didn’t like about his way of running things, and he in turn addressed each of our concerns: “Ah, yes, that’s something we’ve been working on.” or “Really? That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought about it that way.” Then we went back to math class, but with a little more pep in our step than when we first walked in.

It is this quality, this altruistic concern for the best interest of everyone around him, that defines Dr. Walters, and we should remember him as such. Firm, fair, and fun. So here’s to the next step in our leader’s career, and good luck to his replacement to fill his shoes.