As Verletta White tells it, she was “that kid” growing up, the one who would line up her stuffed teddy bears to teach them, dreaming of one day becoming a teacher.
She has achieved her dream and more. On Wednesday, White, 52, will become superintendent of Roanoke City Public Schools, her newest role in a storied career that spans 28 years in Baltimore and Baltimore County schools.
Her foundation as a teacher remains at the forefront, she said in a recent interview.
“I will always consider myself a teacher first,” she said. “It is my passion. It’s my life’s mission. It’s my work. It’s what I do.”
White has always led with grace, wisdom and passion, said former Baltimore County Executive Don Mohler, who spent a bulk of his career in Baltimore County schools and worked with White throughout most of her career.
“The students of Roanoke are incredibly fortunate because they are about to be led by someone who connects with communities in a uniquely personal way,” Mohler said. “I don’t think it’s possible to spend five minutes with Verletta White and not know that she is driven by one thing and one thing only, and that is what is best for students. She brought that to the table long before it was fashionable.”
White, who is transitioning into the district’s top job amid a pandemic, hopes to capitalize on progress made under outgoing Superintendent Rita Bishop’s administration, such as improved graduation rates. She also wants to make strides in literacy and equity and apply what she’s learned during her years with the nation’s 25th-largest school system. Former colleagues say White is “perfect” for the job, and the Roanoke School Board is eager to see what she can accomplish.
First, though, White wants to listen.
“Ultimately, before we absolutely nail down the way forward, it will be with community and teacher and administrator input,” she said. “Our teachers and administrators are with our students every day. We have to trust them and trust that they are the experts. And it has always been my goal to value their perspectives.”
White will make good on that promise on day one, embarking on a listening tour to meet the community. She has pledged to do “everything that I can to be visible, to be accessible, and to be available” to staff, students and the community. She specifically singled out students, calling on their ability to “really shed light on what they need and the way forward.”
“We cannot underestimate the power of student voice,” she said.
Career rise in Baltimore system
The importance of education was instilled in White early on by her parents.
White’s father didn’t get the chance to finish high school, and her mother didn’t attend college. They both taught White to value education and give back to the community, among other core values.
Upon graduating from Towson University, White taught in Baltimore City for three years before going to Baltimore County to teach in the school system that educated her. Since then, she’s held a number of positions: teacher mentor, assistant principal, principal, professional development coordinator, assistant superintendent, chief academic officer, interim superintendent and consultant to the superintendent.
Along the way, White also earned a master’s degree in educational leadership from the College of Notre Dame of Maryland and is in the process of completing her doctoral dissertation from Morgan State University. White has been married to her husband, Sidney, for 21 years, and they have two college-aged daughters.
It was in those early years with Baltimore County that White learned how to lead and connect with the community.
It was as assistant principal at Mars Estates Elementary School, White says, that she learned to deliver constructive criticism to teachers: “improve the practice, not destroy the person.” And it was at Seneca Elementary — “the sweetest little spot in the southeast area of Baltimore County” — that White had the chance to lead as principal for six years.
White stepped from chief academic officer to interim superintendent in 2017 after her boss, Dallas Dance, resigned after failing to disclose $147,000 received from consulting work. Dance, a Richmond native and the youngest principal in Virginia history, later pleaded guilty to four counts of perjury.
The Baltimore County School Board twice voted to drop the interim title and make White superintendent, but the state superintendent blocked the move, citing White’s own ethics violation. In 2018, a Baltimore County ethics panel determined that White violated two county policies when she failed to disclose income she received from the Education Research & Development Institute, a Chicago-based company that makes educational products and services for schools across the country. She received about $12,000 in fees, mostly from ERDI, over a four-year period.
The panel called it a “technical violation” and determined the school system’s financial disclosure forms were unclear about whether the income needed to be reported. ERDI didn’t do business with Baltimore County schools, so the panel found no conflict of interest. The findings called for no punishment. White amended the disclosure forms and made the panel’s confidential findings public.
White has said transparency is extremely important to her, and that she did not intentionally withhold information.
The Roanoke School Board was impressed with White’s transparency, Chairman Mark Cathey said. He found news stories about White’s violation, but she brought it up during her first interview before he could ask a single question. It became clear the violation didn’t speak for an otherwise stellar record, Cathey said.
“When we talked to her about it, we were comfortable that it’s not something that indicates any impingement on her character,” he said.
Outside employment is allowed with the board’s permission, according to White’s Roanoke contract.
“My No. 1 priority though, is Roanoke City Public Schools,” she said. “And I don’t want anything to detract from that. So anything that I think would be a setback or that would take me away too long or too far ... I will not pursue.”
White’s application to Roanoke was one of only three applications she submitted as she approached the end of her Baltimore County contract. Purposely selective, White said she wanted to find a school system whose goals matched her experience.
“I saw that Roanoke city is progressing, and I felt like I could build on that progress,” she said. “And it seems to be a city that cares deeply about children. Well, I care deeply about children. So I believe we match.”
White said she could tell by school board members’ line of questioning during interviews “that the board has a heart for children, that they have goals that are similar to mine, and that we could make a really good partnership.”
Cathey said White was one of the board’s top choices from the beginning because of her rich experience and the similarities between Baltimore County and Roanoke.
“The only thing I thought was, ‘Gee, why did you apply here?’” Cathey joked. “She’s somebody who’s already succeeded on the highest level. ... She just struck us with her energy right off.”
The school board publicly announced White as Bishop’s successor on May 26, sealing the search. White’s contract is for an initial term of four years. She will be paid an annual salary of $217,000, with an additional stipend for a doctoral degree.
“There’s not a whole lot of people in this world, I think, who can be a large district urban superintendent, but Verletta White already was,” Cathey said. “And so that’s why we were so delighted that she applied.”
Mohler called White “perfect” for the job, especially during a tumultuous time in the nation.
“There is only one Verletta White, and that’s the Verletta White that you encounter the minute that you see her,” he said. “It’s this gleam in the eye. It’s this warm, empathic, caring individual who will wake up in the morning wanting to do what’s right for children and go to bed at night thinking about what she can do the next day.”
White has a heart for children and puts students first, said Penelope Martin-Knox, who worked under and beside White for years and is now a superintendent in South Carolina.
“They couldn’t have picked a better person for the job,” she said.
‘My leadership is about service’
One of the first challenges White will tackle is safely reopening schools in August after they closed in the spring due to the coronavirus pandemic. White has been serving on the district’s reopening Transition and Restoration Task Force ahead of her official start, and she plans to “get right to those practical measures” that will make teachers, students and parents comfortable.
“No one knows how things are going to end,” she said. “But I think that we can plan in a way that’s responsible.”
This means preparing curriculum that’s ready for either virtual or in-person learning, communicating with parents and ensuring teachers and staff feel supported.
Safety, White said, is her absolute top priority.
“We have to make sure that we’re taking care of the human beings that we serve first, and we have to make sure that they have all the basic needs [met],” she said.
Her top academic priority is literacy across all subjects.
“When I say literacy, I don’t mean just reading,” she said. “I mean reading, writing, listening, speaking, and computing, quite frankly. It is the foundation of everything that we do. So setting up a really strong literacy program will be important to me.”
White also has expertise in teacher retention, which she studied for the past year. She wants to implement additional supports, such as pairing new teachers with coaches.
“[Support is] what we need to retain the best of the best,” she said, which has taken on new urgency during the pandemic as teachers go virtual and deal with new challenges.
White has always had the ability to genuinely connect with teachers, according to Mohler.
“Teachers and principals rallied around her in a way that you rarely see,” he said. “Principals and teachers knew that although Verletta put students first, she also knew how difficult their jobs were, and she was going to do whatever she could to support them in the classroom.”
She “created this true esprit de corps” that moved education forward, Mohler said.
“She provides that support and that leverage in making sure that her staff has what they need to get the work done,” Martin-Knox said, who said she witnessed it firsthand when White was her supervisor.
White also worked to improve Baltimore County’s four-year graduation rate, which climbed to over 89% in 2018. That’s similar to Roanoke’s, which was just under 60% when Bishop began in 2007 and reached 90% in 2018. White said under her tenure as chief academic officer and later interim superintendent, the graduation rate gap closed between Black and white students, a rare feat.
Such gains were possible, White said, because the district didn’t wait until high school to intervene. Educators monitored every student’s progress and stepped in with parents’ support when students began to get off track. She wants to “dig a little deeper” to look at implementing similar measures in Roanoke.
White takes a holistic approach to equity, which means going beyond the big picture.
“If we’re going to be serious about all meaning all when it comes to our kids ... then we have to do everything that we can to look at every aspect of schooling,” she said.
That includes asking whether students see themselves reflected in the curriculum, making sure all students have access to high quality instruction and scrutinizing policies to see if they unintentionally marginalize or leave behind students. Digging into equity means having uncomfortable conversations about bias and inequities and being intentional, she said.
White said she will develop strategies and plans for tackling these topics and more during her first 100 days as Roanoke’s superintendent. But she also comes back to listening. Listening to teachers, to students, to parents, to the community to best serve Roanoke.
“My leadership is about service, and that’s why I do this work,” she said. “I do this work to not only serve children, but to serve those who educate children, and to serve those who are the parents of the children. ... I just can’t wait to get started.”