February is dedicated to Black History Month, and although the contributions of African Americans should be recognized every month–woven into all of our learning, celebrations, and acknowledgements–we wanted to take time this month to highlight the great accomplishments that are specific to the field of education. As educators, who grew up in the Christina School District and have worked, and continue to do so, in schools throughout New Castle County, Delaware, we have witnessed the tremendous work being done by African American teachers and administrators. These incredible leaders have accomplishments and stories that must be told throughout every year as schools look to educate their current students and work to build the next generation of educators. We feel that it’s of critical importance to our schools and districts that we spotlight the influences of both past and present African American leaders. These leaders have made and continue to make a huge difference in the lives of students in school and beyond.
The individuals who are the focus of this piece are not only tremendous educators, but also shine in terms of the opportunities that they’ve created for others in such unique ways. There is a great deal of work being brought to the forefront recently regarding equity and agency, which is central to our focus in education and the reason for our selections below. To write this blog, we evoked what we call “standout educators” who have shaped and influenced the three of us as well as countless others. One such person is Booker T. Washington. Washington’s autobiography, Up from Slavery, describes the endless struggles that he endured and overcame throughout his life. His own formal educational pursuit, traveling over 500 miles to the Hampton Institute and then forming what is now Tuskegee University, has undoubtedly influenced America. Washington’s desire for a quality education and then the way he dedicated his life to a quality education for others changed our way of thinking forever.
There are so many African American educators, such as George Washington Carver, who was hired by Washington, who we might feature for both inspiration and aspiration. The Black educators who motivate our efforts and captivate our attention are always the ones who have created the greatest change in our educational system. For the betterment of students, and society at large, they have altered what it means to be a teacher or leader in schools.
We picked six for this blog, and we encourage you to add 6 more in the comments below. Our point is that there are great Black leaders from the past and the present, making a difference for students in a way that will transcend time. The first three are from the past; the next three are friends and colleagues doing the work today. We learn from the past to make connections to a future that will certainly be better for all kids. All kids.
What we know about these leaders is that they all have the same three qualities in common, something we wrote about in our Passionate Leadership book. They focus on growth, challenging themselves to be their best at all times. They work hard for the sake of making changes that will last; they never shy away from even the seemingly impossible. And, they maintain a positive outlook, even when things seem bleak or desperate. You can learn from both their accomplishments and what they mean to a profession that shapes the fabric of our American culture.
Three “Then” Leaders in Education
Our “then leaders” are slightly lesser known than maybe someone we could have highlighted that many people know as African American leaders in the field of education. We wanted to do that on purpose to show the contributions of the unsung heroes of our past and to demonstrate that leadership is important at every level. We never know the impact of the work we’re doing in our small corners of the universe, just that it matters now and we hope our legacy lives for another day.
Marva Collins — Marva Collins is the first of our “then leaders” in education and Black History Month highlight for educators. Collins was unsatisfied with the education that poor black children received in inner-city public schools so she started a low-cost private school in Chicago. She invested her own money and provided a better education for her students at half the per pupil expenditure of the local schools. She was a leader who paved the way for those of us who want to do something different so that all students succeed.
Kenneth Bancroft Clark — We celebrate Kenneth Clark as the founder of the Northside Center for Child Development in Harlem and the Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited organization. He was a psychologist who made major contributions to supporting young people, specifically in the methods of social work, psychological evaluations, and more. He was the first African American tenured full professor at the City College of New York. The grand scope of his books, publications, and contribution for educating and supporting young people is practically endless–a real educational hero.
Edwina B. Kruse — Edwina is among a small group of Delaware educators who were committed to African American students getting a quality education during times of exclusion. She was the first Black principal for the Howard School in Wilmington, and through her leadership, the school became one of academic excellence with a rigorous curriculum for what was then the only high school for Black students in Delaware. A little known fact is that the school was practically a boarding school because students from Delaware’s lower two counties often resided with their teachers, members of the community, and even Edwina herself.
Three “Now” Leaders in Education
It’s always great to review the history books, and being that it’s Black History Month, the history itself is of importance. But we don’t want to ignore that we have friends and colleagues who are making history. Current black leaders in education are laying the groundwork for the future of what education will look like for our students. They impress us with the work they are doing, and although it was difficult to narrow our selection to three, these folks are nothing but the best at what they do for their schools and districts.
Cynthia Jewell — We wrote about Jewell in Passionate Leadership, and she has been doing nothing but great work since that book was published. She is focused on her own growth so that she can be a beacon of support for others. Recently, she earned a Dare to Lead certificate from Brene Brown. She leads school admin through a virtual PLC process that has transformed online teaching and learning in her district, and she continues to support principal leadership as the guiding force for improving schools. Cynthia is a powerhouse, and we’re happy to call her a friend. You can connect with Cynthia on Twitter at @CynthiaSJewell
Basil Marin — Dr. Marin is a champion. If you don’t already follow him on Twitter, click here and make that happen. He was a 2017 ASCD Emerging Leader and he holds a Ph.D. in educational leadership. His kids-first mentality shines through in every national presentation we’ve seen him conduct, and his focus on equity is making a difference in his school and beyond. You can check out his website here as well. You can connect with Basil on Twitter at @basil_marin
Deirdra Aikens — Simply put, Deirdra Aikens is an impressive educator with an intense resume. She joined us for our Principal Induction Program as a guest speaker, and we’re pretty sure she could have just led the whole evening’s session. She was a principal of a school, a senior director of teaching and learning, and currently serves as deputy assistant superintendent of schools in her district. She’s also a certified Data Wise coach for Harvard Graduate School of Education. She makes a difference across the country, and at home in our great State of Delaware.
Our “then” and “now” educators are truly impressive and deserve to be recognized and celebrated. The most challenging part of this month’s blog was narrowing our list down to just a few incredible people. One of the joy’s of writing this post was doing the research and uncovering the tremendous “then” educators who have lifted so many students. We know that our “now” educators continue to do the same.
We want to dedicate this blog to the African-American educators who have left an indelible mark on each of us. If it weren’t for Dr. Sandra Countley, Joe may have never entered into school administration. As a young, novice teacher at Newark High School, Dr. Countley mentored Joe and planted the seed that administration was for him. In a couple short years, Joe was working side-by-side with Dr. Countley at Christiana High where she served as principal and Joe as an assistant principal. Those early formative years of encouragement, support, and belief are guiding principles that continue to motivate him to this day
In January, the world lost another American icon and we would be remiss if we also didn’t dedicate this post to Hank Aaron who once said, “I am very proud to be an American. This country has so much potential, I’d just like to see things better, or whatever, and I think it will be.” Those words still ring true today, and it is our fervent belief that things will get better because, together, that’s the direction that we will lead.
Stay tuned for more nuggets of wisdom, podcasts, books to read, reflection sessions, and the best resources for leading better and growing faster in schools. Follow us at theschoolhouse302.com to join thousands of leaders who get our content each month. Send this to a friend.
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Joe & T.J. and our guest blogger w/ us this month is Principal EL (Dr. Salome Thomas-EL)
Oops this is Cynthia’s Aunt Gwen In my excitement yesterday I misspelled peers, just want to make that correction…. proud Aunt.
Wow and Bravo is all I can say! Thank you so much for this article
Thank you for bring to the forefront black leaders from out own district who have made a difference and are continuing to do so. Diedre was a great choice to begin with. I remembered being marveled with the knowledge and expertise she shared being a part of the Delaware Writers Workshop initiative some 20 years ago. I got to experience her kind, honest leadership as assistant principal. And I am happy to see her become the second in command of our School District.
If you need another important black leader who grew up in Christina School District, please include Dr. Freeman Williams. As an educator of elementary students, I am positive the most important contribution he made that really changed the culture of our classrooms, were the “Freeman Four” Many teachers continue to use the Freeman Four in their classrooms today as a way to have a calm atmosphere which benefits learning for the whole class.