David White ’92 hopes he can impart a message of resilience to more than 2,200 students whose education he oversees: They will mess up at times. But mistakes can become opportunities.
“Failure is an option. It’s what you do afterward that matters,” said White, who’s in his second year as superintendent of public schools in King William County, Virginia. “You can have that ‘Aha!’ moment at any time and get it together.”
It’s a life lesson White was fortunate to learn early. He had way too much fun as a freshman at Virginia Tech, and his grades showed it. His parents pulled the plug.
Back home in the Fredericksburg area, White applied to Mary Washington, where both his mother and grandmother had worked. He wasn’t the strongest applicant, but Sallie Washington Braxton ’77 in admissions took a chance on him, he said. “She told me that since she got me there, I’d better prove her right.”
He did, applying himself to academics, fulfilling Army National Guard obligations, working a second job to pay tuition, and still graduating on time. He blossomed under Mary Washington’s emphasis on writing and critical thinking, and he fondly remembers classes with Professor of Business R. Leigh Frackelton and with James Farmer, the late civil rights leader.
After college, he worked as an assistant dean of admissions at Mary Washington, then worked for the United Negro College Fund and in book publishing. Eventually he started his own successful business in the Fredericksburg area. All were good jobs, but “none of them sparked a great passion.”
Then a friend in Fredericksburg’s school system told him of some teenagers struggling with Virginia’s science Standards of Learning test. The teens needed remedial help, the friend said, but they also needed a black male mentor.
White worked with a dozen students over several weeks, and all went on to pass the SOL. “I loved it,” White recalled. “I loved relating to the kids, talking to them, sharing my experiences.”
With a new sense of purpose, he took a full-time high school teaching position. And he went back to school to earn his teaching license, opening a door to graduate education.
He earned a master’s in educational leadership from Virginia Commonwealth University, then a doctorate in education at the Richmond campus of Virginia Tech. His parents, Frank and Dorothy White, and his daughters, Kiersten and Kayla White, helped him celebrate his 2015 graduation.
All the while, White gained experience in public schools as a teacher, central office administrator, and principal. That range of experience made him a good fit for King William County, a rural division with four schools.
There, White has focused on elevating special education, mathematics, and English language learning, and on adjusting to changing demographics. He’s absorbing expertise from his staff, using a skill his schools emphasize to students: “In order to be a leader, you have to learn to listen, and that is key here.”
The work has been demanding, and that suits White. “I’m living the dream,” he said. “I come to work every day, and I’m challenged.”
– Laura Moyer