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Tom Willis in conversation with Sito Narcisse

Sito Narcisse

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Listen to Sito Narcisse, Superintendent of East Baton Rouge Parish School System on the Culture Eats Everything Podcast in conversation with Thomas Willis.

Read more about Sito Narcisse:

Dr. Sito Narcisse serves as the Superintendent of Schools of the East Baton Rouge Parish School System. Dr. Narcisse most recently worked as the Chief of Secondary Schools of the District of Columbia Public Schools. He understands the challenge of being a young student trying to learn English and living between two cultures, all the while adapting to the American public education system.

The son of Haitian immigrants, Dr. Narcisse moved with his family to Long Island, New York, in the pursuit of a better life for him and his siblings. As an English language learner, Dr. Narcisse learned to navigate both the social and academic obstacles that confront millions of students today. His success as a student led him to enroll at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.

Seeing his second language as a strength, Dr. Narcisse graduated with a degree in French and pursued a master’s degree from Vanderbilt University in secondary education. Doctoral studies led him to the University of Pittsburgh, where he earned a doctorate in educational administration and policy studies and leadership. Serving as both a teacher and a principal, Dr. Narcisse opened a high school in the Pittsburgh Public Schools and led turnaround efforts in a Boston public high school.

Dr. Narcisse has also been a director of School Performance and acting Chief School Improvement Officer for Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland; an Associate Superintendent overseeing school improvement efforts for 74 schools in Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland and was the second officer in charge as Chief of Schools for Metro Nashville Public Schools with 159 schools.

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YouTube Transcript

Dr. Narcisse thanks for joining me on the podcast today. You're the superintendent of the East Baton Rouge schools and have been there for about a year. We'd love to to jump right in and just hear from you about when did you know that this leadership stuff was for you.

It's interesting that's always an interesting question because I always feel like um uh just to be where I am today I'm always feel fortunate um um you know if you had told me you know the the kid that grew up in New York just outside the city with braids in his hair baggy jeans and Timberland boots would when they become uh the superintendent of the second largest District in Louisiana.

I would tell you no that's not true probably some of the people who taught me probably would have like you know have one eye up one eye down. I always feel fortunate um I I probably didn't start think first of all let me just say I didn't even know what a superintendent was to be honest with you um when I was uh I remember that I got I got into teaching uh just thing.

I wanted to teach when I was actually in college I met a a woman named Dr Elaine McAllister who I still keep in touch with now who was I was complaining to her about something because I was like helping this kid through some tutoring stuff and the kid couldn't read um and as I was doing some support I was like mad I told her I was like why why they let this kid get through all these grades and they can't read and you know and that really like frustrated me a little bit um um so you know that's how I even got into like.

I want to uh you know went to complain to her and she said well what do you want to do about it and uh and I said I don't know I just want you go teach and she kind of put me in that pathway to to going to teaching um in terms of being a leader I probably was sitting when I went to uh for grad school I went to school called Vanderbilt in Nashville and when I was sitting at Vandy I was sitting with all these kids in the classroom in grad school and I was listening to them talk about like you know how you help schools do this how do you do that and that's when it dawned on me like wait a minute you know I think I could do this you know um I might be able to you know get into this work uh to try to like help you know lead schools and stuff like that um so that that was kind of my first I guess aha moment at that time um I didn't know what it entailed I didn't know what steps to take but you know at that time I was like I think I could do this you know I know I could work with kids I could do this you know so and and um for you know for young people out there that were in you know a similar situation who maybe not quite sure what the future holds for them what what advice would you give them as as young people thinking about their future yeah I I learned you know um I would say to just experience like you have to like one is don't be shy like try anything you know go out and try if something you have your mind set to try and then ask questions engage with people learn about it you know do internships if you can you know put yourself in the opportunity to get exposed to it um I learned pretty quickly at a young age like people will tell you all type of stuff but like you gotta actually go out and like experience it to see if it's something that fits for you um I mean you know I I love what I'm doing because you know I I was able to get the passion for it and I got exposed to it and I said oh this is something I can do in my life and I could come you know contribute back to to doing stuff and that that's that was kind of my space I mean you know the thing Tom is you know you're talking to somebody who grew up speaking another language my mom and dad when I grew up in New York I spoke Creole and French at home as a uh you know with Haitian parents um and I learned English in school right and so you know I had to learn how to navigate even with those things even though I was growing up in New York and um you know I was just exposed my mom and dad my my pushed everybody is you know I became uh educated unintentionally because my mom and dad put me around the right people even though it was probably just trying to keep me off the streets to her you know know you know just being around folks but like you know my mom's like okay if that person's wearing a suit then you need to be that person wearing a suit that person is like doing this you need like that was how they did it and you know they they would they did through like going to church and stuff like that and it just so happened that those folks had kids and you know I was just in that space and you know whatever they did I did and so that was kind of how I was able to navigate I mean my mom and dad they work so much you know they were just hard workers you know work from Sunset to sundown and um and seven days a week just trying to make sure me and my brothers you know just survived and so uh you know if I any any any uh advice I would say is you know one don't be scared and two you know just go out and try and also probably the third thing I think I learned over time is you know if there's something you want to be like go do your research read people who are in those positions to see what kind of experiences they had in terms of like what their Pathways were so then you know that helps you make it more human so yeah I love that I love this idea of going out and trying and I hear also not to be intentional it sounds like your parents were very intentional about exposing you to things as much as they could putting you around situations where they knew you could learn and then you adopted that same sort of mindset of how do I intentionally go out and make my future make my uh make the future version of myself bigger than my past and really go out and seek that yeah I mean you know my my parents you know when they came here you know they were just trying to get an education so but they were pretty clear like you know if I put you guys in spaces that you can be positively influenced or be in spaces where other people at least in their mind were being able to succeed or even though other kids were you know in this pathway that you know you have a chance I mean you know I could have easily been eaten up by the streets I would tell folks you know um you know because I was like a latchkey kid in a way you know so I uh you know was at home after school myself doing those things but you know my mom and dad they just you know that was just their view okay you guys are home right like go go over here go go this after school thing because miss you know Miss H is sending her kids there you know so I was like it was just it was just how they viewed the world um you know or at that time you were wearing clothes my father I could remember uh he was obsessed about uh us wearing suits she's like you know you Gotta Wear suits because if you look at the guys who are doing well they wear suits all these weird little belief systems my uh mom and dad had so yeah well that's so weird I mean are they but as you think about them now are they what I said they don't they don't seem so weird to me and upon reflection I'm wondering do they still seem weird to you no I don't I don't think my um I don't know I mean you know now now that I'm a parent too so I I don't think they're they're weird but you know you like every I guess every parent they want the best for their children and you know what they know they'll try their best to help navigate in that way regardless of their resources or regardless of their situation um you know you tend to learn that as you get older you know not everybody's situation is the same for a number of reasons you know but the reality is you know they they did the best that they knew how so they try to maximize those resources in that way um you know until folks you know I I may have not grown up with like money or anything like that but I grew up with parents who you know taught me to like you know you know have confidence go try it you know if you fail you learn through failure you know even though like people talk about those things in some way I would argue my parents kind of raises that way I mean like without even knowing right I mean because I would argue I've learned through failures just as I learned through successes I mean you know I'm not perfect and so you just try to make the best of it and and also like you know engage with people um you know I know social media takes a whole different space on like going now have conversations versus where you know kids now everybody text messages you and stuff like that but my mom used to say well pick up the phone and call them just ask them you know and so you know like little things like that I I guess you kind of forced me from not being shy at an early age so yeah yeah it's um it's all the little things that make the big difference and um a lot of that is actually a great leadership lesson I think in there you know we in our work we talk a lot about the difference between leadership management and coaching those are three very distinct tools we tend to to mix them up in our society we think they're all similar we think they're all the same thing but they're really not they're very distinct tools and and Leadership is fundamentally about the future and it sounds like your parents always held out a a big future for you and your you said Brothers I think you know that you guys could could live into that that future and I think that's so so dearly missing and frankly in most organizations it's why so many organizations are are getting um this huge turnover and losing people and they can't keep people because there's no there's no real leadership happening there's lots of management there's lots of sort of tactical things being done which is not bad it's just without that leadership you you don't really have a whole lot to to work with and so I'd love to hear from you on how do you how do you think about as a superintendent of the like you said the second largest school district in Louisiana how do you think about leadership yeah so so I always think leadership uh similar to what how you um you shoulda has um like three various spaces right um you know one is uh you're trying to engage folks into you know moving towards a particular direction uh then there's also the mentoring piece uh you know a lot of mentoring on trying to you know bring people along in the way I would say uh and also creating pipelines and then the last thing I think about is that you know they're probably similar to how you friend is just coaching right you're trying to coach folks to be able to get to a Target um in our world that targets providing kids with opportunities in a lot of different ways to succeed in whatever they want to do um and kind of leading through that and I think like um you know distinctly like they're they're very different um they are actually in three different spaces to work in uh because you know as you move up in the organization you know you deal with more adults than you do with kids and so my my my work you know we have about you know 41 000 plus kids years six thousand employees and although you know I go visit you know our 83 semi schools the reality is I'm working with adults to help support kids and I have to always uh create a space for folks to feel valued a part of a school system you know work with other leaders of leaders I guess you could say because they're leading folks to help them engage in order for folks to not only you know work and support kids but also at the same time make it feel like a connected Place uh and I think sometimes to be frank with you is it's it's harder in some spaces versus others just because of the Dynamics that are usually around you in that work um I always remember that in a I always feel like teaching was probably the most funnest part of the job and through my educational way because you know you get to impact the children right away and you get to see that result right in front of you but when you start moving up into leadership working with adults of you that um it's a whole different Dynamic on the type of environment you have to to arrange and set up so people can feel good as they're being successful I mean I worked for a lot of leaders used to say uh you know just worry about the kids but you know I've learned over time that you know you have to worry about the kids the families but also the people that work for you because it's important for them to to have buy-in and also be able to um you know see the same vision for things that happen so I think like all of that's a part of the leadership work and and what is um is I think you're all right is that right you're about a little less than a year into this uh January is actually gonna make it two years for me so two years okay yeah so when I came down I came from I was in the DC public schools um I was over all the middle middle schools and high schools in Washington DC uh with Workforce Development that stuff and then when I came in covid was full blast yeah it came down in January I could remember um coming down here uh uh DC was all locked up and you know nobody was going to school and then when I got to Louisiana it was like full-blown school going on and uh so you know I had to quickly you know adapt and you know you know figure out make sure the code protocols and those things and so um that's it's been uh that's been my experience since yeah yeah okay well so back to that future back to that Vision what what is your your vision for East Baton Rouge yeah so what's important for me is I'm a very um heavy in the space of getting kids to not only feel connected to be a part of a community but also to be Workforce ready um I really believe that schools should be designed for children to to be able to um you know go on to that next step around their Workforce uh and whatever they want to do in the workforce um I think like one of the things that I've learned in all the times I've been in schools is that um you know people talk about letter grades or they talk about you know a child should only read about I think everything that a child does should be helping and preparing to become better citizens and also to contribute back to the to the country right and I think like going to work is a part of that process with independency and all those things and so my vision has been that we want to create a community and a culture where not only children are connected to the work that we do here but also that they have uh the tools necessary for their next step in terms of Workforce Development that's really important to us here in Baton Rouge and and you said in there the uh better citizens and I wrote it down here contributing back to our country what's important to you about that yeah I think like you know my my father used to say a long time ago um when my dad came here from Haiti he used to say you know the educated always lead the uneducated and I used to tell my dad what does that mean he said well you know because when you get an education and you're able to be taught how to think and have these opportunities to do things like education helps you in a so many different ways in ways that you would never think about and not everybody's fortunate to to be in that same space even though education may be free in our country it's about sometimes you know they may not have the same type of access they may not have that same opportunities and so that becomes more and more limiting when you don't have education in that space I mean I would argue if I didn't you know my family or myself we didn't get any education you know how well would we be able to think about you know what are the type of things you should do to help contribute back or to help our community or to be better productive citizens I mean all those things play a part but I have the luxury of thinking that way because I got educated so I could be into it to analyze that and figure out what does that mean for me in that space and I think that it becomes harder when you have those roadblocks you know if you can't read you don't know you know you don't know what things are being said or if you um you can't write you can't articulate you know you access becomes a problem I just think like you know those basic needs are really important but I also think like you know at the same time schools should be providing not only those basic things but also more opportunity for access and so that they can ultimately be of service to the country there's some higher purpose there there's another example of leadership when you give people a sense for what they can contribute then they tend to step up to that and I think it's so valuable nowadays because so much of our society is focused on me me me you know what do I get out of this and that's a pretty hollow life in my opinion what do you think oh no I agree 100 I mean you know uh was there was that line they always say when much is given much is required right in you know I think that you know whatever opportunity you get or whatever more information that you receive there's a responsibility you have in some way shape or form to pay it forward or to do more right um and I think that you know those things sometimes are missing in a lot of different ways uh it could be sometimes I think culture impacts it for us technology impacts sometimes for us in other ways but you know I think you know those those are the things I think that are important for kids uh to to do well um you know we we live in a great country I mean I know sometimes it feels you know with all the the politics and the chaos or whatever goes on but like you know you know it's our country's so beautiful and also we meet we have a country that's accepting to so many different type of people right if you know there's challenges in the fabric of history and you know even now sometimes I think sometimes they're challenging but for the over overall you know people are people are good people right I mean you know there's always a goodness in the Humane of people and I think that you know that's important for kids to to experience that you know and see that this world is much bigger than than you know books yeah yeah rather than the most recent tweet about how how bad things are you know when you look at the overall arch of of history in the last couple thousand years we in many ways are sitting on top you know we have this I couldn't agree more of this unbelievable freedom in this country and this unbelievable Prosperity um that is never the world has never seen before and in many ways I think young people aren't aren't being they're not being taught that they're not they're not appreciating what how blessed they are no matter where they are and sort of the the spectrum of of wealth or race or sex or whatever that's um fundamentally if you were born in this country you gotta you gotta leg up out of out of the gates and uh something to be something to be grateful for and a little bit of hard work and you can go a lot of places yeah I mean very very few places in the world where you can be born in any class level and you can you know reach any Heights that you want I mean you know um you know my mom and dad came from a you know hey he's a third world country and um you know I always say if you go to Haiti there's rich and poor right a whole lot of poverty and there's small little riches not it's not technically a middle class in Haiti and you know when my parents used to take me out there um you know to when I was younger and my grandmother always there you know was to not only like go visit but also like if you understand like how fortunate we were right I mean you had children who could be walking in the streets Barefoot with no shoes and those things I mean you know we we have those type of challenges in our own country but there you can get out of it right in ways of trying to you know go go get a job or you know there's a lot of ways you can or get support right social uh support services and those things not not every country has that that model and structure or sometimes they have the economy to do that and so I think that there's just so much there's so much opportunity we we have and I always try to think about for our kids is like yeah not only we want them to like be able to read and do all this stuff but like how do they know ways that they can create more opportunities for others because I do think it's it's about that um how do you create more opportunities for others and you can only do that I think if you're in a space where you you have more knowledge age you have more opportunity you have more access I think those are the main ways to do those things yeah and you're in a you're in a wonderful position that with you know 6 000 plus employees and 40 some thousand students that you can reach and then the families of those students and the communities of those those students and families that you can touch you know which all gets back to the power of culture you know this podcast is called culture eats everything which is really meant to be kind of fun and a play on Peter drucker's quote that that culture eats strategy for breakfast that everyone's familiar with but we think it's actually bigger than that the culture eats strategy and everything else for breakfast lunch and dinner and dessert um so how do you think about with that many folks that you're able to reach and to lead and to inspire and to motivate how do you think about creating a culture where people can come and be their best yeah so one thing I you know I have about nine Chiefs that work for me uh each Chief has a section you know from the CFO Chief Operating Officer you know chief of schools and what I tell them all the time is I do not leave by myself yes when things don't go well I'm in the papers getting beat up on for a decision or you know you know if the X happens you know you know I'm the guy that that takes the the brunt of that you know publicly but I I tell folks that you know if you talk to any of our team members they'll tell you I say to them we lead together and and a part of that we are the culture creators and how we create an environment that people feel that they can come to us provide feedback show how we're responsive to them uh provide guidance where they need guidance or or co-create with them great things I said you know how well we do that determines how well well the organization moves and it also determines how well students do because those folks are helping their teams of people and the teachers underneath them and you know uh to do great work you know I had one meeting probably I want to say it was a couple of months ago when I got got in the room and I said to folks that you know I said under the nine Chiefs and said well do you know out of the 6 000 employees we have each of those folks fall underneath somebody in this room

and one of the um Chiefs that was there sat back and she looked up and you know she's been a part of the district for us I never thought about that I was like yeah every single person that works four kids in this city Falls in this room so you know depending on like you know the type of environment you create the culture you create how we you know uh how we you know the actions we do things all of that determines how people react underneath you right you may you may not think about that because you know sometimes they were like well you know um I remember her telling around when you think about my direct reports and I said yeah but underneath your diamond reports you get like thousands of other people right so and I think that uh that uh sparked a little something in her but I but I I I tell folks like you know really for me I find this job I'm much more of the educational facilitator of education for our city and what I'm trying to do is facilitate environments for opportunities so we can have um our folks help lead the different various people underneath us to help teachers do a better job with kids or a better job with our families or do a better job with Community stakeholders you know or faith-based whatever group that works with the school district and so that has always been how I've learned to lead that doesn't mean you don't have you know conversations around you know focusing on what your target is or you know trying to say hey how you know learning from your lessons on what you can do better but it does mean that you know you you have the opportunity to create an environment that people feel that it's much more productive and that they feel that they belong to it I've learned in a lot of places I work once people feel that they belong to a place it's much harder for them to leave a job because they they feel like they're part of that fabric and so you just have to keep figuring out what are the ways to create that environment and then make them a part of helping you continue that environment creating underneath them or whatever their sphere of influences I love that I love that this whole idea of of really belonging you know which is becoming more popular with uh Renee Brown's work you know the fundamentally you're talking about how do we create this fabric that that extends throughout the entire organization where we feel like we all belong and we all can contribute to to making things better for the for the students we serve um and I also love that you said that you see yourself as sort of the facilitator you know that you're the conductor there's a great book by Max Dupree called leadership Jazz and he makes that same analogy that really you know a leader is really a conductor almost of a symphony and sometimes it's loud and chaotic and sometimes it's quiet and methodical and sometimes it's repetitive and sometimes it's fast and and that ultimately you've got to make all these moving Parts come together but in jazz it's free form you know there's a lot of free-form minutes there's not a there's not a script there's not a template that you're you can go and say oh yeah how am I supposed to lead this play right it's uh as a leader we have to be willing to to make some stuff up sometimes um so um we're running out of time and as we always do it's it's uh it flies by um so maybe I'll ask you um for your book recommendation you know what what book really made an impact on you and your life when it comes to Leading or when it comes to culture or maybe it's just a a book that you think is phenomenal that you'd love to share with the audience here yeah the the the one book I read um the one of many books I read was one book that changed my whole um life and also just how I uh just myself and my role as in schools and jobs and it was a book uh by The arbinger Institute it's called leadership and self-deception and um if you ever get a chance to read I won't give you the whole thing but it talks it you know gives gives a story through a journey of like you know folks getting along together to try to learn uh about how they engage with each other and um you know there's different camps in there but but the the reason it made an impact on me is when I got through it you know you can deceive yourself in a lot of different ways when you do these jobs in terms of like not knowing who you are and being humble and learning to leave from the the mind and the Heart versus where sometimes you know people tend to just lead tactically about things uh and you know it's about what kind of impact you want to have not only overall from the sense of like a job but also is from a Humane standpoint and I know it's not like your typical educational book but that made such a difference to me I was like wow I wish I read this like in college because you know you're you're young and you know you got all these ideas about what you think life is and and how things are and then you get older and you start to see things a little bit differently you know from your being with you know your partner and in your you know you're having kids and all those things and and that that book just really helped me a lot in terms of how I I started to think about leadership and how to not deceive myself or or there's a term you read in the book called putting yourself in a box right now you know if you're in the Box you can't provide support to folks you know can and how do you determine what red flags are so you're not in the box you can start thinking about how you can you know better support people you know and uh it was just I mean you know I I would if it was up to me I would make that as a requirement as a part of the curriculum for any leader to go through that book um The arbinger Institute they actually have a few books there's another one called the anatomy of peace that they wrote and so I've kind of gone through their their sectors of their books but it it made such a huge difference in my life around how I just approach people how I approach things Within Myself um I think it made me a better leader uh today than I ever have so um that would be my my recommendation yeah well I love it leadership and self-deception that's uh that's an awfully appealing title right of the gate there um well thank you and not just thank you for the time today but also just thank you for the work that you do on behalf of the 6 000 people and the 41 000 plus students you represent um it's just a an honor to know there are humble leaders like out like you out there doing this important work so thank you thank you so much Tom [Music]

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