SELMA, Alabama – Five years ago, Avis Williams was new in town, taking over a public school district struggling under a dark cloud of state intervention following allegations of financial and sexual improprieties.
A close-knit town of about 18,000, Selma is perhaps best known for its role in the civil rights movement and the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge, where hundreds of activists led by John Lewis were brutally beaten by police on their way to the capitol to protest for voting rights in 1965. Many people here greet each other by name, often with a warm hug.
Williams was an outsider, a native-North Carolinian. But she gained the trust of the community and as the superintendent of Selma City Schools led the district out of state intervention and over five years spurred, in the eyes of many of her employees, a cultural change for the better.
“It felt like she was born and raised here, she just dove in,” said Selma City Schools Board President Johnny Moss.
In July, Williams, 52, will be a newcomer once again, this time as the new superintendent of NOLA Public Schools, an all-charter district about 15 times larger than Selma’s system.
The Orleans Parish School Board hired her in March after a monthslong search to find a replacement for Henderson Lewis Jr., who announced last year that he would leave when his contract expires next month after seven years at the helm. Williams will have a base salary of $300,000, one of the highest in Louisiana public education.
She feels up to the challenge: “I’m an adrenaline junkie so I’m in my happy place; it’s overwhelming in a good way,” Williams said, laughing. “Leaving, of course, is bittersweet because I do love my community and by all accounts this has been my dream job. But I’m just really excited about having a new opportunity and a new community.”
A cultural shift
On a recent Tuesday afternoon in Selma, Williams walked into Sophia P. Kingston Elementary and was immediately embraced by principal Tamara Nelson, who gripped a tissue and playfully scolded Williams for leaving.
“I’ve been with Selma City Schools for 29 years and she brought the joy back to Selma City,” Nelson said.
Each morning, Williams sends an email to all school employees titled Morning Joy, “MoJo” for short. It might include an inspirational quote, a link to an article, or even a cat meme. Nelson said Williams created an environment where mistakes are not shamed.
“She changed the culture here, you can be vulnerable,” Nelson said.
A few times each month, Williams meets with groups of students from Selma’s 10 public schools for “Lunch and Learn,” talking sessions that Williams said help her understand what matters to students.
One student drew a picture of herself clutching a diploma and said she dreamed of getting a college scholarship. Another, a girl named Jordyn, drew her future bakery called Love + Joy.
“Too often in education we’re doing the work and we may be using data and best practices and research-based and all of that but sometimes we neglect to ask our scholars, ‘What do you need?’” Williams said.
When Jordyn said she didn’t know if she wanted to be a baker, basketball player or interior decorator, Williams smiled and told the students it’s OK to not know, describing her own non-traditional path that included a stint in the U.S. Army and community college.
Williams said she wants students to be aware of options she wasn’t told about in high school and to see their future as one of many possibilities.
“I was really smart when I was in school and used to love to read and made good grades and was the top of my class,” she said. “Do you know nobody ever talked to me about going to college?”
‘No one ever told me’
Williams has described her upbringing in Salisbury, North Carolina, as one marked by poverty. An avid reader, she said she wanted to be a teacher from a young age, graduated at the top of her class and earned scholarship money. But no one in her family had ever attended a four-year college and “no one ever told me there was another option.”
So she followed in the footsteps of her older siblings, joining the Army and earning the rank of sergeant. Afterward, she became a personal trainer, opened a gym with her then-husband, eventually attended community college and then earned a four-year degree at Athens State University in Alabama.
Over her career she’s held a variety of classroom roles: English and physical education teacher; dance team and track coach; elementary, middle and high school principal; and various leadership posts at school systems in North Carolina and Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Along the way she picked up two masters degrees from Alabama A&M and Jacksonville State University and an education specialist degree and a doctorate from the University of Alabama.
She leaves Selma with a solid track record: Under Williams, the district increased its score on the State Report Card, Alabama’s measurement of school district performance, by 8 points, from 68 to 76, the equivalent of a full letter grade. Test scores and graduation rates increased, according to the Alabama State Department of Education.
Two months after her arrival, the state released the school district from intervention.
Selma to New Orleans
Williams said she sees many similarities between Selma and New Orleans. Like New Orleans, education in Selma can be starkly segregated, with many White students attending private schools and Black students at public schools, she said. Both cities deal with crime, poverty, lack of resources and ensuing trauma, but both are strikingly resilient.
“When you think about what a young person is going through on a daily basis, whether they’ve had direct trauma in terms of violence, just to be in a community where it’s happening around them is still going to have an impact,” she said. She hopes to bring an increased focus on mental well-being of students and staff to New Orleans.
Selma ranks among the most violent cities in Alabama and in the nation, its historic streets giving way to abandoned buildings with broken windows and pockets of poverty. Last spring, there was a shooting at Selma High School, and two students were arrested for murder a few days later. A week later, a recent graduate was killed in a gang-related attack when someone threw a Molotov cocktail into his home, a crime that rattled the community.
Williams worked with the city to heal the community and provide safe opportunities for kids over the summer. This year the district hired a therapist to counsel students for anger management.
While interviewing for the New Orleans job in March, Williams met with students at Booker T. Washington and shared her own personal story. Years ago, her father killed her mother in a domestic dispute and was sent to prison for life. He died in 2020.
“What I want you to know about me is that I understand trauma,” she told another group at a community listening session at G.W. Carver High School in March. “But I also understand healing and what it looks like and feels like to be resilient.”
Williams said she never plans in advance to share those intimate details of her life, but sometimes it fits the circumstances of the audience or conversation.
“I do it to let them know that trauma can happen to anybody and you can heal, you can recover and you can still be anything you want and don’t let those circumstances define what you do and be as you grow up,” she said.
Williams isn’t naïve about the drastically different job that awaits her in Louisiana. She’ll be going from 10 schools and 2,800 students to more 83 schools and about 44,000 students. And unlike traditional districts, the New Orleans superintendent lacks typical authority: Her main responsibilities will include authorizing charter schools and some district-wide operations, including maintaining school facilities and enrollment. Much of the day-to-day operations at schools fall to the individual charter management organizations.
Williams has some experience with school closures. As superintendent, she shepherded the closure of three schools to improve efficiency. “I understand how challenging it can be and how emotional it can be,” she said.
Because of enrollment declines stemming from lower birthrates and population declines that are expected to continue, experts have forecast that more New Orleans schools may have to be closed or consolidated. At the end of this year, four Orleans Parish public schools will close.
But despite the different structure, Williams contends that some of her ideas may be scalable, like transforming “Lunch and Learn” sessions into student advisory groups and offering a version of “Born Ready University,” a Saturday program promoting literacy among young children and parents. She said her first few months will include learning specific “needs and challenges and celebrations,” including those from critics of the charter system, she said.
“I’ve had people ask me, ‘Is Act 91 working?’ And that’s a good question,” she said, referring to the law that unified public schools in New Orleans under the Orleans Parish School Board. “I do think we need to interrogate that law and look at what’s working and what’s not working.”
She plans on reassessing the district’s strategic plan and will particularly focus on mental health and the wellbeing of students and staff members.
Some community groups criticized the Orleans Parish School Board for not considering a local candidate as a finalist in the superintendent search. Ashonta Wyatt, an education advocate who co-founded the Erase the Board advocacy group, said the community is supportive of Williams, but “our parents, our children, our culture is a hurdle she is going to have to figure out how to navigate.”
At Selma High School on Tuesday morning, Williams made a beeline for the custodian mopping the floors, giving her a warm hug before greeting Donald Jefferson, a former Selma High principal and Selma City Schools superintendent with the same enthusiasm. She then headed into an awards ceremony for Selma High School graduates. On stage, Williams called out two seniors, Summer and Sky, twins she met her first year on the job as she read a list of “Hope Dealers,” students who work to encourage others to be drug free. She had kept their writings from the first Lunch and Learn sessions.
The high school’s walls bore the name of their mascot, the Selma Saints, accompanied by a fleur-de-lis logo that seemed to foreshadow Williams’ next move. Williams smiled as she walked out of the school and into the bright Selma sunshine. “As a superintendent you have to know when to go,” she said.