RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Students and staff at John B. Cary Elementary School heard from the first woman and first African American woman to serve as Superintendent in the state of Virginia on Wednesday as part of its Women’s History Month celebrations.
A former Associate Professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C., Dr. Lois Harrison-Jones is considered a trailblazer in the world of academia, also serving as the first female Superintendent of Boston Public Schools in Massachusetts.
But education wasn’t her first choice.
“I went to undergraduate school as a Business Administration major,” Harrison-Jones said. “I happened to have had a roommate who was an Education major, and as I watched what she was doing versus what I was going and what I was preparing to do, I realized that she would be working with children, she would be working with people.”
Harrison-Jones said the interpersonal relationships are what ultimately drew her to pursue a career in education.
She began teaching in middle school, which she said presented a challenge, given that curriculum standards for that age group were not as detailed as they are now.
“If you do something that’s more difficult and you’re successful at it, that’s even more rewarding,” Harrison-Jones said. “I’ve always worked with children who are underserved and underrepresented, and you get more pleasure from seeing the growth because you can make more growth.”
Later on her teaching career, as a professor at Howard, Michael Powell was a student in Harrison-Jones’ class. He is now the Principal at John B. Cary Elementary School.
“I will never forget the lessons that she taught me,” Powell said.
He remembered Harrison-Jones being tough and encouraging students to be their best, something he passed on to 4th and 5th graders as they concluded their speaking event with Harrison-Jones via Zoom Wednesday morning.
“I grew up in a rural area of the Northern Neck of Virginia. While schools were inferior, teachers were excellent,” Harrison-Jones said. “Everywhere I have worked, I have found that foundation that I got from an inferior facility with excellent teachers has served me well, and I wanted to emulate those teachers and give back because, without them, I might not have been able to pursue my passion.”
In addition to being called a “trailblazer,” Harrison-Jones told students how she was first called a “book worm,” encouraging them to research such terms and strive to live up to them.
“The story is called, ‘The Little Girl Who Was Called Names'”, Harrison-Jones said. “It’s a real story, and it’s about a little girl who grew up to be a woman. I am that woman.”
She shared her accolades with students in the form of a storybook, describing how she was later called “veteran educator” and “mentor.”
But even as her accomplishments have mounted over the years, Harrison-Jones said there is still much work to be done in the fight toward equity.
“While the mission may not be impossible, it may be more than you want to take on as a challenge,” she said. “When I was appointed Superintendent of Richmond Public Schools in 1985, there were only 24 Black women Superintendents throughout the entire country. We practically knew each other. Now, there are many more, but not nearly enough.”
Harrison-Jones said she needed the support of both men and women throughout her career to achieve her goals, and that she always needed to be more prepared than those around her. Even still, she has remained realistic about the hurdles left to climb.
“Be flexible,” Harrison-Jones said. “Redirect your efforts if you find that you are not going to be successful. You don’t have the prerequisite talents or interest or intuition to do it? Then change.”
She recalled one local school in which students were encouraged to respond to questions to which they did not have the answers: “I don’t know — yet.”