Courtesy of Paul Whyte

When Paul Whyte ’93 was a kid, he wanted to be a doctor or lawyer. Education, he said, was not on his radar until college.

Nevertheless, throughout his 31 years in the field of education, Whyte has touched countless lives as a non-profit founder, teacher, principal and the assistant superintendent of instructional leadership for New Haven Public Schools. 

Drawing from his decades of experience, Whyte said he believes that “learning how to learn,” and not simply how to memorize or recite facts, has been the key to the success of his students. With a focus on reading “authentically” outside of standardized exams, Whyte told the News he wants his students to unlock a “world of possibilities” for themselves. 

“That’s what drives me, that’s what gets me up,” Whyte said. “So that the 19,000 kids we have here, have the tools [so] whether it be Yale, or whether it be the school that’s right for them, or the job that’s right for them — that they are able to get that. That they get to live out lives that they’re happy with and able to support themselves and their family.”

Whyte’s parents immigrated from Jamaica to the Bronx before he was born, adamant that their children receive a good education. Whyte attended New York public schools through his entire K-12 career, walking the packed halls of Harry S. Truman High School alongside 4,000 other students. It was in Truman’s magnet program that he began to cultivate his interests in math and science in Advanced Placement courses, Whyte said. 

He then furthered his interest in STEM as an undergraduate student at Yale. Intending to major in biology, he “sawed off” the majority of the pre-med requirements by his sophomore year. When it came to tackling the other distributional requirements, however, he noticed a shift in his passions. 

When he took the social sciences course “Child Psychology” — now known as “Child Development” — which was offered through the Yale Child Study Center, his career trajectory took a turn towards education. 

“I got that moment where something comes natural to you, and that was it,” Whyte recalled. “I realized the difference between an interest in something and a passion for something. So I had an interest in sciences, but it wasn’t the passion that I had immediately for education and doing this sort of work.”

Living in and making life-long friendships in Silliman College, Whyte said, was one of the highlights of his college experience. He also frequented the Afro-American Cultural Center to study, attend parties and find support amongst the Black Yale community. He joined Yale’s Zeta Chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, a historically Black Greek organization that is part of the Divine Nine. 

Whyte said he felt the tensions between Yale and New Haven as a Black student on campus. During a time when Yale still used physical keys to access residential colleges, he described instances of gates being intentionally closed on him, even when he had asked someone to hold them open. 

In the summer after his sophomore year, Whyte lived off-campus for a fellowship hosted by Dwight Hall. He said that living and working away from Yale remedied any disconnect he felt as part of the “Yale bubble.” 

“I felt like I became a citizen of New Haven as opposed to being a Yale student,” Whyte said about the city where he has lived for the last 15 years. “It’s been a wonderful journey and I’m grateful for the experience of Yale and how it gave me an experience in finding a second city that’s become home.” 

Whyte stayed in New Haven after graduating Yale in 1993. He founded his nonprofit organization, the Young Voices Initiative, as a fellow with social impact startup incubator Echoing Green. Young Voices offered career-planning, college preparation, athletic and academic programming for local students. 

He described his nonprofit as part of an entrepreneurial boom period for New Haven where Yale students and others began startups in the community. Even decades later, Whyte said he still sees the impact of Young Voices.

“These kids who were 13 and 14 in our program, now have their kids of their own and in our schools here in New Haven,” he said.

After five years of leading Young Voices, Whyte realized he needed to study education more in-depth in order to lead organizations through informed practice. He returned to school, earning his Masters in Education from Harvard University before leading other nonprofit organizations out of his home of New York. 

He initially partnered with Park East High School in Harlem as part of his nonprofit work, but when the principal learned Whyte had a master’s degree, they told him to “pick up some classes.” As a result, Whyte taught math, science and technology at Park East for three years. Teaching and being part of traditional education, he said, was “totally accidental.” 

However, his “accidental” entry into the traditional education pathway led him to what he said is one of the best jobs he has ever had. 

Whyte served as principal of New Beginnings Family Academy in Bridgeport for five years, where he focused on fostering a “family community” for the parents, faculty and students. He had the experience to help the small public charter school operate smoothly on a day-to-day basis, but from his perspective, culture was key. Even simply calling each student’s name during carpool duty made a difference, he said. 

Ronelle Swagerty, who has served as NBFA’s executive director and chief executive officer for the last 20 years, remembered Whyte’s legacy amongst staff who worked alongside him. 

“Dr. Whyte is a gentle giant with an incredibly kind soul,” Swagerty said. “That does not mean he doesn’t have a backbone. He does, but he has a way with people that endears them to him. He is even tempered and never seems to get upset … to this day, NBFA alumni remember Dr. Whyte fondly.” 

Today, Whyte works to support NHPS principals so that they can be the best instructional leaders for their teachers and, most importantly, familiar faces to their students. As he knows intimately, the job is not easy. 

“Sometimes the start of the day can be interrupted very quickly by what’s happened the night before, or what happened on the bus slide to school,” he said. “So it’s easy for that to absorb a whole day, sometimes figuring all those pieces out. The role is to make sure we have all principals — the whole leadership team — and make sure the right people are in the right place to handle things so that principals are leading the instruction.” 

Edith Johnson has worked with Whyte for five years as the former principal of Wilbur L. Cross High School and the current director of professional learning and leadership development for NHPS. Johnson said that Whyte, who was her supervisor when she served as a principal, constantly challenges leaders to think strategically. 

Part of this approach, according to Johnson, includes listening to the principals he works with, being approachable and helping his colleagues maintain their cool under pressure.

“Dr. Whyte often supported me as a building leader. Whenever we met, he knew if I needed coaching, directives or just a venting session,” Johnson told the News. “He is always a calming presence, especially during turbulent times.”

Johnson described Whyte as a “great thought partner,” sharing that she frequently meets with him to discuss professional development and other plans related to leadership.

Currently, Whyte is spearheading a new collaborative principal audit review, which aims to support principals in effectively using their resources. Under the initiative, principals from around the district will gather to delineate the challenges faced at their schools, discuss with and observe other schools and develop strategies based on their findings. 

For those interested in entering education, Whyte emphasized that the work is not easy, but is rewarding. Seeing his students and their families years later, whether they are from the Young Voices Initiative or one of his schools here in New Haven, is the reward. 

“I remember one time a parent, when she was aware of my credentials, said, ‘I want to feel like your parents felt seeing you walk across the stage,’” Whyte remembered.  “[My vision is] giving those experiences to the next generation.”

Whyte has served as assistant superintendent of instructional leadership for five years. 


Megan Vaz is the former city desk editor. She previously covered Yale-New Haven relations and Yale unions, additionally serving as an audience desk staffer.