Dr. Grenita Lathan: The First African American Woman to Lead HISD

The Houston Independent School District (HISD) Board of Trustees were thrown a serious curveball back on March 5 when it was surprisingly announced that then-HISD Superintendent Richard Carranza, who had only been with HISD since August 2016, was leaving his post immediately to become the Chancellor of New York City schools effective March 31.

Shockwaves instantly hit the Greater Houston community, forcing the HISD Board of Trustees to hold an emergency meeting the next morning to discuss how they planned to move forward.

As they met in closed session for over nine hours to discuss who they could possibly choose to lead the state’s largest school district during a vulnerable period of facing major financial challenges and having to make extremely tough budget cuts, the HISD Board unanimously voted to name HISD Chief Academic Officer Grenita Lathan as its interim superintendent.

“Dr. Lathan has a track record of turning schools around,” said HISD Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones. “We are fortunate to have someone of her caliber on our leadership team, and we hope this will be a seamless transition as we continue to move the district forward.”

Dr. Lathan, 48, assumed the role of interim superintendent on April 1, and will continue to serve in that role, as trustees search for a permanent replacement for Superintendent Carranza.
Dr. Lathan is the first African American woman to serve in this role since the district was established in 1924. She holds a bachelor’s degree in business education from North Carolina A&T State University, a master’s degree in business education from the University of North Carolina, and a doctoral degree from Southern Illinois University.

In visiting with the Forward Times for an exclusive interview, Dr. Lathan stated that right now, she is completely focused on the immediate task at hand versus looking into whether she will be named the superintendent beyond this interim status.

“I am grateful for the opportunity to help our schools achieve educational excellence,” said Dr. Lathan. “We are on the right path toward educational excellence in all of our schools, and I want to ensure that all our students have quality educational opportunities that will prepare them for college or a career. I’m fully prepared to lead the district in this season of swift transition.”

Dr. Lathan, who officially joined HISD in 2015, is a 26-year veteran educator. She has served as Chief Academic Officer since the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year. Prior to that, she served as the chief school officer in the HISD Office of School Support for the district’s north area, and she also served as the chief school officer over elementary transformation schools during the 2015-2016 school year in which she led more than 20 schools out of an “improvement required” state rating to a “met standard” rating.

As it relates to what Dr. Lathan sees as the top 3 immediate needs for HISD at this time, she is focusing on: 1) submitting a plan to the state with an approved partner, to enter into an agreement around Senate bill 1882 that deals with the district’s 10 lowest performing schools; 2) submitting a balanced budget to the HISD Board that they will approve in June, which includes making sure they cut $115 million out of the budget and 3) presenting final recommendations around magnet school criteria and magnet school funding to the HISD Board in May.

These are some pretty serious issues that Dr. Lathan finds herself having to deal with instantly, but she believes her previous roles in education have prepared her for this opportunity.

Dr. Lathan previously served as superintendent of schools for Peoria Public Schools, where she oversaw approximately 14,000 students and 2,700 staff. She began her education career as a high school teacher in North Carolina and later served as both an assistant principal and principal in the state. She went on to serve as chief elementary school improvement officer of the San Diego Unified School District and as an interim deputy superintendent.

“Being a former superintendent has prepared me for this opportunity, but coming up through the ranks as a classroom teacher, as a principal and by holding other central office positions have prepared me as well,” said Dr. Lathan. “Ensuring, regardless of the position that I am in, that I provide an opportunity, and making sure there are resources available to the neediest of students, while putting children first without the fear of repercussions, is what defines my overall impact to date in the area of education.”

Dr. Lathan tells the Forward Times that she has been charged and is entrusted with making all of the necessary decisions that a permanent superintendent would make, as it relates to hiring staff, presenting a balanced budget and handling reorganizations and cuts to departments.

“I have full authority to do what I need to do as the interim superintendent,” said Dr. Lathan. “I made a recommendation initially as it relates to the funding model that we are going to utilize for the 2018-2019 school year. We don’t have a choice but to make cuts, because we must make a recapture payment to the state soon. As the interim superintendent, we are making the necessary cuts at the central office department levels as well as the school level to handle the financial shortfalls in the district.”

Relative to the concerns many people in the African American community currently have regarding the possible closure of schools, Dr. Lathan states that she has not had any of those discussions with anyone. Regarding the lack of trust that the community has concerning HISD, however, Dr. Lathan wants the community to stay engaged and be aware of what the district is currently doing to address the inequities between schools with a heavy concentration of African American students versus traditional non-Black schools.

“I would say be present at community meetings, board meetings and see what is happening,” said Dr. Lathan. “Go out to the schools where there is a high number of African American students, or where there is a perception of what the district has not done to support the African American students in those communities, and meet with the principals. Attend different school events to see what is happening, and to find out how HISD is making an investment in those schools. Also, look at our different bond projects, where we are rebuilding, renovating or remodeling schools. I also encourage you to ask us questions about funding, and then look at how those schools are being funded along with finding out about the additional support we are providing, especially as it relates to Achieve 180.”

Dr. Lathan tells the Forward Times that her biggest mentors have shown her the things that a successful leader should do as a superintendent, but have also shown her the things a succesful leader should not do, as it relates to properly engaging the community, principals and teachers. She believes those words of wisdom and encouragement will help her greatly as it relates to her new role, and is looking forward to helping the district progressively move forward.

In the meantime, the HISD Board of Trustees will use the firm they used in the previous search to hire former superintendent Carranza, to look for a new superintendent. A silver lining in Carranza’s swift departure in less than two years with the district is that the superintendent search will not cost the district any money per the contract agreement.

The search firm will help the trustees conduct a community-wide survey and hold community meetings in order to receive community input on the superintendent candidate profile, which will be used to go after potential candidates.

The Forward Times would like to congratulate Dr. Grenita Lathan on this historic accomplishment, and wish her well in her quest to help move the district forward.