A well-respected educator, equipping students for success in life
I recall summertime in the countryside in Dominica, West Indies, visiting my grandparents and other relatives. Most of the residents were farmers who woke up early every day and trekked to the mountains to plant and harvest. On Saturdays, my grandmother would sell her produce at a market in a nearby town. She used the proceeds to buy groceries, including kerosene, cooking oil and other household necessities. If there was extra money, I got bubble gum or a small candy, which made me happy.
I remember playing outside with other children under the glistering moon and the bright stars. There was not a lot of electricity around. My grandmother was extremely happy and proud when I visited once a year. I remember having fun walking quite a distance to church with her. I also remember going fishing and hunting for birds with my cousins. I will never forget catching an eel. I was petrified—I dropped everything, including the fishing pole and the eel—and yelled, “I caught a snake!” That was very traumatic!
The simple, slow, quiet and creative life of the countryside left a lasting impression on me. That is my preferred way of living. Upon reflecting, I was intrigued by the ingenuity of the people; for example, making fishing poles from bamboo and catapults from wood. All of those tools were effective and got the job done.
Dominica is an eco-traveler’s paradise, with an unspoiled and lush landscape. I remember the 365 rivers, the produce and the varied fruit trees. When I was about 10, my mother moved from Dominica to St. Croix. I remember her saying that America was a place where people came to follow their dreams. She was extremely patriotic and thankful for the opportunity. She always said hard work never killed anyone, although her five children disagreed. She was a very creative, talented and resourceful woman who knew where she wanted to go and how she wanted to get there. In the catering business, she was second to none.
My mother established her own business and built her house with cash saved for that particular goal. She hated loans. I remember the only loan in her lifetime came in 1989 after Hurricane Hugo tore through the Virgin Islands. Her roof was severely damaged, and she was given a FEMA loan, which she paid back quickly. She definitely was my first role model. She encouraged her children to get an education so we could be independent and not experience some of the struggles she experienced. She believed that education is the silver bullet. We lost her in 2010, but I still think about her every day. She instilled in me independence, an impeccable work ethic, grit, resilience and creativity. She also had an amazing sense of humor, which I did not inherit.
What inspired you to become an educator yourself?
I obtained my bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Bradley University; I also received a degree from Illinois State University. I was extremely lucky to have teachers and administrators who were truly passionate, caring, and opened the door for growth and opportunities for me. My father was a well-liked teacher and administrator for the Dominica Secondary School for Boys. I may have gotten a little influence from that, but my teachers and administrators get most of the credit because they prepared me well, were extremely supportive and held me to high standards.
Describe your career path from teacher to principal to superintendent. How did each role lead to the next?
I was hired for one semester in 1986 to fill in for a teacher who worked at Tha Huong program and went on medical leave. Tha Huoug was initiated in Peoria as part of the Refugee Act of 1980 and its unaccompanied Residential Minor Refugee Act. At the residential school, students were highly motivated and enjoyed learning new vocabulary, reading and writing daily.
After that assignment, I transitioned to working with over-aged middle school students who needed assistance preparing for high school. In that capacity, I was given additional responsibilities, including leading the K-12 programs, adult programs, youth summer employment, and math and science enrichment programs for middle and high school students. With limited funds, we had to be innovative and creative. These various positions got me fully engaged with curriculum, instruction, assessment and leadership; the importance of social-emotional learning and behavioral health; engaging families and communities; and grant writing.
My career path has been progressive, working my way up from elementary, middle and high school experiences—including Roosevelt Magnet School, Whittier Primary School and Manual Academy—to Transformation Officer in Springfield Public Schools and Associate Superintendent of Schools in Danville District 118. I would also say that I find my social service experiences, infused with compassion and passion garnered at the Tri-County (Peoria) Urban League, to be extremely powerful and influential in my being.
What was your time like in Springfield and Danville? Did you ever think you would return to Peoria after leaving in 2011?
Springfield and Danville were great fits for me. I found both to be meaningful and fulfilling; I learn ed a lot and met a lot of amazing individuals. I worked on the school improvement efforts at Lanphier High School in Springfield. For the staff, the work was intense and eclectic. In the end, we realized significant improvement in the areas of reading and math.
I was grateful for the opportunity to work in Danville. I had a great superintendent, Mr. Mark Denman, who spent 40 years in the district and served as a role model for me. I was well received by students, staff, parents and the community. I had a great relationship with the union. They introduced me to the PTHVP (Parent Teacher Home Visit Project), which was documented to be piloted last year within transition grades. This meant teachers would visit the homes of students in need of extra support, who were tr ansitioning from sixth grade to middle school or eighth graders transitioning to high school. I enjoyed my work with the community and increasing parental and community engagement, and providing more support for the administration.
When I left Peoria in 2011, I was focused on making a difference wherever I landed. I always said that I would be committed and loyal to the first district that gave me a superintendent opportunity. Peoria did that, and it happens to be my favorite place to live and work. I am fully committed. Peoria has been my home since 1983.
What are some of the challenges you have faced since your return?
School funding is still a big challenge. For the past five years, Illinois has paid school districts just a portion of the general education funds they are owed—the equivalent of a backdoor budget cut, which has cost the poorest school districts hundreds of millions of dollars. With 75 percent of our students coming from low-income families, it has hit us hard. The state cuts every district by the same percentage, regardless of the availability of local resources to make up the difference. This ends up hitting poorer school districts, which rely more heavily on state aid, the hardest. From FY11 to FY16, it is estimated Peoria Public Schools lost approximately $23 million due to proration in General State Aid. While state funding has significantly decreased, our local income has remained stagnant, yet we are expected to do more with less. Our Board of Education, along with my team and me, continue to do our best and think outside of the box to address this challenge.
Another challenge faced by school districts nationwide is adequate staffing. We are working to place highly qualified, certified teachers in every classroom because our students deserve no less. This will require long-term strategies of recruitment and retention.
Describe your top priorities for Peoria Public Schools, both in the current school year and the long term.
I am intrigued by the idea of designing and piloting new ways of learning to educate students. Another goal is the expansion of opportunities for students in the arts through Roosevelt Magnet School and the Preparatory School for the Arts at Peoria High School. In the same vein, we want to provide high school students with a variety of career-specific pathways, including experiential and work-based learning, like internships, and opportunities to get a jumpstart on college credits and professional experience. Through Woodruff Career and Technical Center programs, the Strong Start partnership with Illinois Central College, Advanced Placement courses and the International Baccalaureate program, our students have an ever-expanding array of opportunities to leave with much more than a high school diploma.
We must address the social-emotional learning needs of our student population and support for staff. Through community partnerships, we must address the extraordinarily difficult challenges our children face, often before they even start school. We must face the effects of poverty, family displacement, homelessness, violence and substance abuse. If we do not lift these burdens and equip our students with the grit to succeed in spite of these challenges, they will not be able to learn.
This school year, improving student attendance is one of my top priorities. We began prioritizing attendance last year with a committee of volunteers, and those efforts are already showing results. We want parents, students and our community to understand and support the critical need for every student to be in every class, every day. Missing school, whether it’s an excused or unexcused absence, can significantly decrease a child’s ability to learn. In addition, for every percentage point we raise our attendance, the District will see an increase of approximately $200,000 in state funding.
District-wide, we are diving deeper around the important essential of a rigorous curriculum. I am excited that there is a common language around rigor, which is defined by the intersection of two important practices. The first is student autonomy, which means making sure students are working with one another and/or independently, rather than relying on the teacher to direct the learning. The second practice focuses on cognitive complexity to make sure students are being given lessons that require higher-level thinking.
Please reflect upon your major accomplishments of recent years.
For Peoria Public Schools, major accomplishments are the completion and implementation of the five-year strategic plan, Our Path to 2020. This important document guides my team each day and keeps our priorities and goals front and center. Another accomplishment has been rebranding our district’s name to Peoria Public Schools. This seemingly small change has had a positive impact on our organizational culture and on the community’s perception of the District.
Other accomplishments include increasing collaboration with all stakeholders; significantly improving the culture and climate by being supportive, listening and learning more; and the successful implementation of grade-level reconfiguration, which allows students to enter and exit each school at the same point and to be grouped in an effective way to better focus on teaching and learning. Switching to first-day health record compliance and providing support to families to significantly reduce the number of students kept out of school, working with the community on the formation of Alignment Peoria, the establishment of an Office of Social Emotional Learning and the implementation of our attendance improvement plan—all of these initiatives, working together, are already giving our students a better chance for success. They were accomplished with the help of parents, staff and community stakeholders.
Describe some of the causes that are near and dear to you.
I really like the work of United Way because it touches so many individuals through its support to the myriad social service agencies. As a result, United Way impacts many Peoria Public Schools’ students and families. Additionally, I also have a long-lasting relationship with the Urban League and Common Place.
What is your leadership style or philosophy?
I believe in innovative and progressive leadership. I like servant leadership practices, where power is shared and individuals are assisted to develop and perform as highly as possible. Servant leadership is one of humility, service, purpose, accountability and empowerment. As a leader, I agree that good things happen when the public is involved; citizens feel ownership, shared responsibility and accountability for results, and support sustaining change—no matter how many principals or superintendents come and go.
Did you have a mentor in the early stages of your career? How did he or she help you along the way?
Many individuals have impacted my life along the way. Some of my mentors included (but were not limited to): Barbara Penelton, Frank Campbell, Laraine Bryson, Rita Ali, Walter Milton, Mark Denman and Jeanne Williamson. They challenged me, gave me authentic opportunities to lead and to be creative, and provided encouragement and support.
What’s the hardest life lesson you’ve had to learn?
Disappointments are many times blessings in disguise.
What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
There are no permanent enemies and no permanent friends. One day you are toast, and the next day you are toasted. iBi