"This was where I was supposed to be"
A decade ago, Henderson Lewis Jr., the man responsible for unifying New Orleans schools after years of division, was interviewing for an assistant principal’s position. Even then, he knew his true destination – and so did his potential employer.
Brian Riedlinger, then superintendent of the Algiers Charter School Association, interviewed a dozen candidates. As usual, he asked Lewis about his future career goals.
“I’d like your job,” Riedlinger remembers Lewis saying.
Lewis went on to say he wanted to be superintendent of a small school district and then move on to a larger district. “And,” Riedlinger says, “that’s exactly what he did.”
Lewis got that assistant principal’s position and quickly moved up to a four-year stint as principal of the Algiers Technology Academy and later ACSA’s director of academics. In 2012, while in his late 30s, Lewis was appointed superintendent of East Feliciana Parish’s seven schools. The following two years, East Feliciana won recognition by the Louisiana Department of Education for academic growth in grades 3-8.
He didn’t know then, of course, that he would become one of the most influential men in New Orleans, but one of his employees divined such an advancement soon after meeting him.
“God has sent you to East Feliciana to hone your skills because he has a bigger assignment for you,” Lewis remembers Ella Philson telling him.
Philson, a devout Baptist, remembers that day well. On one of those scorching Louisiana days, Lewis visited the school where she served as principal, a visit she feared would lead to forced retirement. With trepidation, she watched him exit his Mercedes, cross the parking lot, and walk up the school steps. At that moment, “It was revealed to me in my spirit that he wouldn’t stay long,” she says. “As he came up the steps, the feeling got stronger.”
Less than three years later, the Orleans Parish School Board unanimously appointed him superintendent of its district of about 30 schools, a miraculous action, considering how contentious and drawn-out the search process had been.
Maybe OPSB’s rare agreement was divine intervention as foretold by Philson, or maybe it was just the result of careful, ambitious planning on Lewis’ part. After all, his career, from college on up, has been marked by incremental, upward steps, with each advancement bringing valuable experience and a new perspective.
Either way, God’s choice or his own, at the young age of 42 he stands at the threshold of an important moment in New Orleans history and his own future biography. He could be the superintendent who enhances the state Recovery School District’s remarkable turnaround of the majority of the city’s once failing schools, or he could let the miracle slip away.
Unknown to him and the board, the stability Lewis’ appointment represented triggered the state’s decision to return schools seized after Katrina. That decision makes Lewis the eventual superintendent of one of the most watched urban school districts in the nation. The RSD transformed failing schools into average ranked schools in only ten years by turning them over to semi-autonomous charter operators.
Assuming the preplanning stage goes well and five members of the OPSB continue to support him, Lewis will take charge of an additional 50 charter schools as early as this summer.
It is a meteoric ascent for a man rooted in Violet, a community in St. Bernard Parish. Though rich in family support, there wasn’t much in his background to predict his future. Aunts were educators, but his grandfather, with whom he lived, was a longshoreman with little education.
That grandfather was instrumental, however. He told Lewis that school was “his job,” and his grandson has taken that job seriously ever since. Another spark that led him to education as a career, Lewis says, occurred in boyhood when he witnessed Josephine Johnson, his aunt, interact with her students. She provided a positive atmosphere, he says, and showed him “what learning should look like.”
Even though tall and lanky like a basketball player, sports weren’t an option. He veered to academics and graduated as salutatorian of St. Bernard High School. He went on to get a bachelor’s degree in math education and taught high school in St. Bernard until 2004, when he received a Ph.D. That same year, he took his first administrative position. Two years later, ACSA hired him. Then in ’07, he won election to the St. Bernard Parish School Board, a position he still holds. Then came the step up to East Feliciana superintendent, his springboard to New Orleans.
This steady progression in Louisiana schools appears to have led to his hire by OPSB. With many black residents suspicious of so-called “outsiders” taking over schools, Lewis’ local connections contributed to his attractiveness as a candidate.
Now, just two years into serving as Orleans Parish superintendent, Lewis believes that Philson’s premonition about a special calling was key in his decision to seek the position.
Religious himself, he thought of her words during periods of doubt about his path.
“I believe with all my heart that she was truly a messenger,” Lewis says. “This was where I was supposed to be.”
Now CEO of the School Leadership Center of Greater New Orleans, Riedlinger says that Lewis “engenders trust,” a trait that eases the trepidation that RSD charter operators feel about returning to OPSB control. Though legislation protects their authority over budgets, hiring and curriculum, the OPSB’s history of inept and occasionally corrupt leadership makes them leery of having their charter renewals overseen by its elected members.
Lewis’ experience leading both traditional public schools and charter schools, Riedlinger says, makes him uniquely qualified to lead New Orleans schools. “It’s choppy waters,” he says, “but it looks like we have a good captain.”
Lewis is described as “thoughtful” and “diligent,” traits that will serve him well in a position that has chewed up and spit out what seemed equally qualified superintendents.
He’s prone to long days, a work ethic noted by Philson. She says his car was often in the central office parking lot at 10 p.m., and he sometimes responded to emails at 2 a.m. He never neglected his family, though, who were still living in St. Bernard Parish, 100 miles away. He was only a phone call away if “his baby” need help with homework, Philson says.
“It was nothing for him to leave for New Orleans to help his daughter,” she says, “but he’d always be back before that central office was awake.”
Though usually projecting a formal demeanor, he sometimes breaks into a boyish grin that reveals how he might be at the kitchen table with wife Zinnia and daughter Taylor.
These days he spends time in a black-glassed building in Algiers that resembles stacks of Ray-Ban sun-shades. His office, dominated by an imposing desk, looks toward the Crescent City Connection. From there, he navigates the sticky business of unifying two school districts – a merger that will add thousands of students to his charge.
He also must negate memories of how dreadful most Orleans Parish School Board schools were pre-2005.
Lewis says he’s aware of the magnitude of the task ahead, and he also knows where it’s headed: “We are bringing the schools back together to write a different story.”