Carolyn White has been bestowed a royal title by those who know her for helping schools improve their mathematical standings.
“She is recognized as the ‘Turn-Around Queen,’” said Anne Papakonstantinou, director of the Rice University School Mathematics Project (RUSMP). “She turns around low-performing schools in a kind yet firm and nonjudgmental way. Teachers and administrators all want Carolyn in their lives.”
White is director of mathematics programs for RUSMP whose mission is to promote effective teaching of mathematics to Texas schools and beyond. One of her main responsibilities is to coach and mentor teachers in elementary public, private and charter schools.
“I love developing teachers into the professionals they want to be,” said White. “Once teachers understand what needs to be done for students to become successful, they develop a positive self-esteem and support other educators in their journey to become successful.”
In the 12 years that she has been at Rice, she has worked with teachers from the Houston Independent School District, the surrounding school districts, and those of Beeville, Galveston and Beaumont. Her work has also reached schools such as KIPP Texas Public Schools, Academy of Accelerated Learning, Saint Thomas’ Episcopal School, St. Mark’s Episcopal School and The Shlenker School.
Most of the schools she helps, however, are those struggling with their math programs. “I am mostly getting calls from low-performing schools to assist teachers and administrators in understanding the mathematics content they are to teach and what does the delivery to students look like in the classroom,” she said. “I support educators in developing mathematics pedagogical content knowledge.”
Over the course of her career, White has coached more than 1,000 teachers, who in turn have imparted their mathematical knowledge to about 30,000 students. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Houston, schools turned to White to help them transition to virtual learning. White quickly researched the technologies that could help teachers conduct lessons via Zoom or other online programs.
Last year, she logged more than 1,000 hours conducting virtual workshops. On a typical day, White starts at 7:30 a.m. and works until 3:15 p.m., instructing educators via Zoom on how to improve their teaching and curriculum. “After the sessions,” she said, “I debrief with administrators and then send a summary of the day with a link to review the recorded session.”
According to Papakonstantinou, White is that “rare and precious gem” that all administrators would love to hold in their hands. “Her breadth and depth of knowledge and solid experience, her approachable personality, and her creative approach to solving problems make her highly sought after by teachers and administrators across Texas,” she said.
Isla A. Villarreal, instructional coordinator at Joe E. Moreno Elementary, agrees. “Coach White has helped our entire campus,” she said. “She is highly knowledgeable and skilled in her job and shares it with our teachers. She provides rigorous instruction to our math teachers, which has allowed our campus to perform at the highest levels in elementary school mathematics on the STAAR state exam.”
She continues, “Coach White collaborates and identifies our specific teacher needs and supports them through in-person trainings, team teaching, one-onone meetings, emails and phone calls. But most of all she challenges them. These challenges, which are outside our teachers comfort zone, have allowed them to grow as educators.”
Before she became a coach, White had a long history as a teacher. Born in Houston, she grew up in Independent Heights in northwest Houston, and was raised by parents who were teachers. Her mother taught seventh and eighth grade and gave private music lessons; her father taught fifth and sixth grade.
At 16, White was already being groomed for a teaching career. Her mother invited her to teach at their church school and gave her valuable teaching instructions. “She guided me in studying curriculum and how to approach students to be successful,” she said. She also spent time at her father’s school, Burrus Elementary, preparing bulletin boards, checking papers and organizing materials, she said, to develop an understanding of the duties and responsibilities of being an elementary teacher.
White graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in 1965 when Houston schools were still segregated. Her parents encouraged her to attend Texas Southern University because they thought that would be the best college to prepare her for teaching.
She received a bachelor’s degree in elementary education in 1969 and a master’s in education in mathematics in 1974. She then went to work at a segregated school. During her second year of teaching, she was assigned to another school that was being integrated. HISD had to comply with the Singleton Ratio, a numerical principle named after the 1960’s desegregation case that required that the percentage of Black teachers within a school remain within five percentage points of the district average.
Decades ago, Papakonstantinou met White for the first time at Travis Elementary, where White was teaching a math class for gifted fifth graders. White was teaching Pascal’s Triangle and encouraged students to look for patterns. She did it so skillfully, according to Papakonstantinou, that students eagerly shared their findings with their teacher.
“I vividly remember that brilliant lesson that could easily have been used in high school,” she said. “These are the same skills she uses in her professional development sessions and with schools that she coaches.”
The Turn-Around Queen doesn’t plan to rest on her laurels anytime soon and she has every desire to continue using her skills to develop math teachers. “I want everyone to love math and have a passion for developing creative ways to present to students.”
— David D. Medina
Multicultural Community Relations