In many ways, 19-year-old Gerald Washington isn’t all that different from the thousands of other students at Pensacola State College. When The Pulse caught up with him this week, the second-year pre-law student was in the library, in between classes. The one big difference? He filed this week to run for Escambia County Superintendent of Schools.
The position comes with a lot of responsibility. The superintendent is essentially the CEO of the county’s school system, tasked with managing more than 60 schools and programs as well as more than 5,000 employees. It’s a position typically sought by longtime administrators two or three times Washington’s age.
However, after just a few minutes, it’s clear that Washington’s candidacy isn’t a prank or a stunt. The 2014 Booker T. Washington High School graduate speaks with passion and a clear command of the issues. He says he’s been thinking about running since his junior year of high school. “I want to be an advocate for the socioeconomically challenged,” says Washington. “Forty-two percent of the students in this school district are what we call socioeconomically challenged, which means they receive some sort of public assistance.” Citing his own upbringing, Washington said that he doesn’t think district leaders have an understanding of the challenges many students face at home.
To expand the opportunities available to students, Washington wants to create a comprehensive workforce education program, expanding the specialized career academies and applied curriculum currently available at select schools. Washington credits his high school’s Health Sciences Academy and E-Commerce/Marketing Academy with giving him a leg up, helping him earn a position as a student teller with Pen Air Federal Credit Union.
While he clearly disagrees with incumbent superintendent Malcolm Thomas on some issues, Washington is quick to give credit where he feels it is due. “I commend Malcolm Thomas for the job that he’s done,” he says. “He has made numerous small strides for the school district. But I think I can make larger strides and create a more innovative school district.” Asked about Thomas’ closures of small, predominately inner-city neighborhood schools like Hallmark, Spencer Bibbs, and Allie Yniestra, Washington spoke highly of the decision. Contrasting the older facilities of the shuttered schools to the newly-built Global Learning Academy, the school to which many inner-city students were redistricted, Washington says the decision “overall was a good move.”
Even if voters are willing to overlook his age, Washington’s at a numerical disadvantage. He’s running as a Democrat in a county where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than 16,000. “My plan is to have a better plan than anyone else,” says Washington. “I think I could win over the Republican party.”
Washington also says he wants to be an advocate for teachers, administrators, and other support personnel. He wants to look at starting salaries for teachers, which he points to as some of the lowest in the state. In order to fund increases, Washington said he would look to cut back on what he called “non-essential district personnel.”
Some have suggested that maybe he should aim his sights a little lower and consider running instead for a seat on the school board, but Washington says he “doesn’t want to sit behind a desk at the J.E. Hall Center.” If elected, he plans to spend as much time as possible “making rounds” at the district’s schools. In addition to evaluating teachers and administrators, he says he’d like to spend time working — “Undercover Boss” style — as a bus driver, food service worker, or substitute teacher. “If you don’t do the work, you won’t understand what our educators face every day,” he says.