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Alumna works her ‘magic,’ now in elite Harvard program

Robin Chenoweth
Thu, 2018-11-01 06:00

In 2008, things weren’t looking so good for Erica Jordan-Thomas.

She was ready to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Textiles and Clothing when the economy tanked and the bottom dropped out of the job market. Her three-year internship at L Brands ended with no prospects for getting a job.

“They were downsizing and people were losing their jobs,” she now recalls. “I had to figure out other options.”

Downcast, she strolled through Ohio State’s Campbell Hall. The colleges of Education and Human Ecology had just merged, and someone had tacked up a Teach for America poster on the green, glazed brick wall. “I thought, let me check this out, because I have an experience that makes me passionate about education,” she said.

She did, and her world pivoted.

Ten years later, Jordan-Thomas has received a New Leader Alumni Award from the College of Education and Human Ecology for her innovation in school leadership.

Her favorite hashtag is #PrayHustleSlay. Here's why: She went on to become a high school math teacher, program director for Teach for America, vice principal and principal in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. She earned a master’s in instructional leadership and honed a reputation as a fierce defender of children’s learning. She implemented a new system to pay top-notch teachers more while increasing their reach — then she presented a TEDx talk about it. 

And Jordan-Thomas is still not afraid to change course. Last summer, she left her job as a principal at Ranson IB Middle School and packed a rental truck to head for Harvard — this time to pursue a doctorate in educational leadership.

Her LinkedIn profile reads: “Equity warrior and advocate for children. Ohio raised me, North Carolina made me. Currently spreading my black girl magic in Cambridge, (Massachusetts).”

 

Erica Jordan-Thomas, center, at her fifth grade graduation at Eastgate Elementary School in Columbus, Ohio.

Two schools, two worlds

Her drive to make educational change was born in Columbus’ impoverished south side. Early on, she attended a private school near Ohio State’s main campus, where both her parents worked. “I remember being the only black girl in my class,” she said. “I remember learning French in first and second grades.”

But when her parents divorced, things quickly changed.

“I started going to the public schools. All of a sudden, everybody in my class looked like me. I finished my work very quickly. My schoolwork was so easy.”

In high school, she bused across town at 5:45 a.m. to attend a better city school. Her grades were good and she took the few college prep courses offered. But she was one of only three in her class to be admitted to Ohio State’s main campus, and she struggled academically her freshman year. She earned Cs for the first time and was shut out of her preferred major.

“Those were some of the experiences very early on that were planting the seeds of a passion and purpose in education,” she said.

On the cusp of joining Teach for America, she thought back to friends who struggled to pass 10th-grade proficiency tests and scored in the teens on their ACTs. She realized that having a mom with a PhD had given her an advantage.

“If I got a C, I was going to my teacher and figuring out what I did wrong; what I needed to do next time; is there any way I can bring my grade up?” she said. “My belief that I could be academically successful was instilled in me by my parents, and that’s a form of privilege that everyone deserves.”

Jordan-Thomas wanted to even the score for kids who found themselves on the outside of opportunity. In Charlotte, North Carolina, she taught high school math so well she began driving up standardized test scores.

Later, she became resident principal and partnered with a virtual classroom to provide algebra instruction to eighth graders who otherwise wouldn’t get it. As principal at Ranson, she ramped up training, making sure every teacher and administrator got weekly coaching. She also expanded college prep courses.

People said teachers couldn't be paid more. So Jordan-Thomas partnered with an organization called Public Impact to make top-performing teachers — she calls them Beyoncé educators — into teacher leaders who received better pay.

“She was vital in transforming school culture and advancing instruction,” wrote S. Denise Watts, superintendent for Project LIFT, which seeks to improve graduation rates and proficiency in Charlotte schools. “The results of this work were nothing short of remarkable and positioned the school for deeper reform efforts…There are many visits each year from people across the nation to observe best practices that are occurring there.”

The perfect fit

Jordan-Thomas had stumbled upon her dream career.

“You know those career tests you do to try to figure out, given your personality and work style, the type of careers that align?” she said. “The principal job was made for me. I found my sweet spot.”

The community spurred her determination. She witnessed parents working two and three jobs, fighting to give their kids opportunities they might not have had. “Every time I witnessed some type of inequity or injustice, I’d get fired up to do something about it,” she said.

She wrote blogs calling to task the status quo and the labeling of schools as “failing.”

“It undermines … years of blood, sweat and tears of hundreds of educators,” she wrote. “It perpetuates a dangerous bias about the communities we serve (that they can’t achieve).”

But even in her sweet spot, she saw limits to her ability to affect change as a principal. District decisions can disproportionately affect low-income communities because communication is geared to affluent families.

“If you watch the board meetings, if you read the newspaper, if you have access to the internet, you are more informed than others,” Jordan-Thomas said. “So you have a one-up, or you are in a space of privilege.”

Low-income families have multiple priorities: Putting food on the table, keeping the lights on, dealing with lack of healthcare, transportation and inadequate housing.

“We don’t always see through the lens of our most complex families,” she said. “And because we don’t, we actually put them at further disadvantage by making decisions when we’re not intentional about getting their input.”

But it doesn’t have to be that way, Jordan-Thomas decided. Something must change if we’re to best serve families and communities. “It sparked a new interest and a fire in me. This is something I feel like we can figure it out, and I want to figure it out,” she said.

So she decided to switch paths … again.

Erica Jordan-Thomas, center, at the College of Education and Human Ecology Hall of Fame Awards ceremony with her mother, Freddie Jordan, PhD, and other friends and family members.

Back to school, as a student

She aimed high and applied for Harvard’s Doctor of Educational Leadership program, which trains leaders to engineer system-level change to drive education quality and equity.

“I felt in my gut that I cannot stand by knowing of this greater inequity at a system level, and a greater opportunity for change," she said.

Jordan-Thomas was one of 25 accepted into the three-year, multidisciplinary program, which includes full-tuition funding. She began in September, delving into classes on business leadership, entrepreneurship and educational ideology. She’s explored her core values, and how those shape her leadership. She’s focused on personal mastery with her own executive coach.

Thus far, her studies have affirmed certain choices she made as a principal and “unveiled some of the blind spots” that she had. But mostly, she knows she made the right choice a decade ago when she spotted that poster in Campbell Hall.

“The thought of education as liberation has resonated with me very deeply,” she said.

Her goal remains: Bring communities together, challenge inequities in the system while empowering children to break free of constraints that hinder them. And to do that, she’s willing to spread her "black girl magic” whenever and wherever she’s needed.

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