Every great educator is passionate about and committed to high-quality and equitable learning for all students.
In some instances, passion looks like connecting with students in the classroom — instructing, shaping, and molding children one lesson at a time. For others, it means climbing to the highest out-of-the-classroom leadership positions to influence teacher recruitment, policy, and other means of ensuring students receive the best education possible.
Dr. Randolph “Randy” Ward has done it all — and given the depth and breadth of his 45-year career, he’s a legend in both national and California education circles.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Ward was appointed state administrator and brought the Compton Unified School District — which was $20 million in debt and had the lowest standardized test scores in the state — back from the brink of disaster. He went on to work similar magic as the state administrator of the Oakland Unified School District.
Nowadays, he’s the executive director of Teach For America San Diego, but Ward’s passion for education took flight from the time he was a young boy growing up in Massachusetts. One of seven children, Ward quickly understood if he wanted to reach the highest heights, he’d have to study long and hard to get there.
He certainly achieved his goals. After graduating from Tufts University, Ward went on to earn three more degrees — two master’s degrees (one from Harvard and one from the University of Massachusetts) and a doctor of education degree from the University of Southern California. With so much expertise and experience at his fingertips, we asked Ward to share his outlook on the status of public education for Black children in America.
Word In Black: What made you want to become a teacher in the first place?
Randy Ward: I grew up in Roxbury, a very low-income neighborhood — some fondly call it, “the ghetto.” I understood the power of education very early. Seven of us grew up in Roxbury, and all of us went to college. We have doctors, jurist doctors, and education doctors, and so just understanding the power of education as opportunity begins there.
WIB: Was this something that was natural for you? Or did somebody in particular push you to understand that value?
RW: Certainly, in the family, we understood that everybody’s going to go to college — we couldn’t figure out how to pay for it because my dad was retired military, and basically a custodian supervisor, which, back then, that’s what Black people did. But he figured it out, and so did the rest of us, with scholarships, or he worked. He literally worked three jobs. So he put away all the money, and when we needed it for college, it was there.
WIB: Was there a particular moment early in your career where you had an interaction or an experience where you were like, “This is why I do the work?”
RW: At one time, I thought I wanted to be a pediatrician, so I studied all my math and sciences. And, in my sophomore year, one of the teachers from the lab school at Tufts University asked me to observe and volunteer in a classroom, and I fell in love with the power of education. What you can do with a life when you teach kids how to think, read, write, and do math! That was my moment when I realized I want to do this for the rest of my life — where I can have an impact.
WIB: You’ve described yourself as being a kindergarten teacher at heart, but you’ve seen a lot over the years, from being the state administrators for both the Compton and Oakland Unified School Districts to now being the executive director of Teach For America San Diego. What has kept you involved in public education all these years?
RW: I recently had a conversation with Malin Burnham, who’s a philanthropist in San Diego. As I asked him for a legacy gift for Teach For America, he looked at me and said, “You know, I’m very impressed how you’ve kept your energy up.” The reality is, the need for equity is something that I live for and understood very early in life. And interestingly enough, my son is studying at UPenn Wharton around creating equitable health care in the world. That’s something that’s very important to me, and it’s translated to my kids.
WIB: At this point in your career, what’s your role specifically in ensuring that Black students get the opportunity to attain an excellent education?
RW: A big part of the work that we’re doing now in the San Diego region is recruiting BIPOC educators in San Diego, but also to close that gap between who the adults are in our schools and who the students are. 70% of the adults are white, yet 70% of the students are kids of color. There’s a big mismatch, and there’s lots of research out there that says, when you see yourself in your teachers, your capacity to grow and thrive is greater. We’ve got quite a push to recruit BIPOC educators from outside of San Diego County to come to San Diego County. We’re recruiting within San Diego County, as well: Educational leaders, BIPOC leaders to lead schools, and working with community partners to understand how we can collectively impact a group of students that have been traditionally underserved.
WIB: What is something that you think has been a positive change in educational opportunities for Black children since the start of your career?
RW: One of the reasons that I came out of retirement and came to work for Teach for America is because of the record at recruiting people of color to go into the education field. Our last group of new teachers that we had, 80% were people of color, and 60% had Pell Grants, which means they come from lower-income homes. That’s a positive sign that, if we want to, we can find people to come into the education field and make a difference.
WIB: What did you hope would change for Black children in public education that hasn’t?
RW: Well, I think it’s obvious — the education of Black children has not improved.
WIB: You don’t think so at all?
RW: Not in general. The numbers are pathetic. And unfortunately, the rhetoric is common. The policies are nil. What we tend to do is throw money at things and don’t hold anybody accountable for how they use it, or for results. Even the federal government learning loss money that they sent out to school districts — who knows what they’re using it for, but it’s certainly not for educating children who lost learning during the pandemic. Hopefully, we can get to a point where there’s real accountability in our system, but I’ve been at it for 45 years, and I haven’t seen it.
WIB: Why do you think it’s been difficult to recruit Black folks to be teachers and get them to stay in the classroom long-term?
RW: I actually have a couple of quick stories about that when I first became a kindergarten teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was their first Black male teacher, certainly in kindergarten. In kindergarten, you don’t find males anyway, let alone Black males. My first year as a kindergarten teacher, they put all the Black boys from the projects into my class. And let me tell you, that was a tough year. I almost didn’t make it that year because of that. And that’s too often that happens to Black male teachers. They give them all the responsibility of representing Black males.
Quite frankly, it’s difficult for Black male teachers to stay in education when you’re paid so little, and when you’re confident you can earn so much more outside of education. You really have to have a missionary attitude to stick with it. What we’re finding is, as Black males become leaders, it becomes even more difficult for them because they’re looked upon differently. Their ideas are different, and it’s a predominantly Anglo, white world that they’re living in.
One of the things that I advise my aspiring school leaders who are Black males — I tell them don’t get into the prison guard attitude. Don’t let them put you into the disciplinary role because you’ll get stuck there. I encourage them to become instructional leaders — curriculum folks — and not get stuck in that bouncer role that they are often asked to do. We need more support for them, but not just for them. We need more support for staff on diversity and how to appreciate diversity in terms of diversity and excellence in thinking about educating children from all over our society.
WIB: What do you think administrators should be doing to ensure that district and school environments make learning relevant, current, and enjoyable for Black students?
RW: It’s a collective effort. It’s not just administrators, but it is about positive engagement and experiences. I think about my honors physics class in high school — every time this guy was introducing new concepts, I was amazed. So that’s what we need to happen in our classrooms for all students, and certainly for our Black students to get them engaged in learning. Get them an understanding of the path learning provides to success and generational success, and the generational wealth that others have had the privilege of having because of who they are and the color of their skin.
WIB: What’s one piece of advice you’d give to anyone hoping to teach Black students?
RW: First, you need to care. I mean, really care. You need to love students, even the ones that are hard to love, because they’ve learned how to push people away because no one’s ever shown them that they really do care. And when students know that you can, and feel it, they perform. There’s too many students, particularly our Black students, who know their teachers don’t like them. How do you go to a classroom 180 days a year and know that the person that is in charge of teaching you doesn’t like you?
I remember my son in his kindergarten class. I’m not sure there was another Black student. Certainly, there were other kids of color, particularly Latinos. His teacher happened to be a Hispanic male, hard to find also in kindergarten, and I said “how do you like your teacher?” He said, “Dad, I really like Mr. Gonzalez.” And I said, “Why?” He said, “Because he likes me.” And I said, “How can you tell he likes you?” Because the way he treats me, and that’s all I needed. And so here’s a 5-year-old in a classroom where he’s the token. He understands that his teacher likes him, and he wants to go to school every day. That child ended up an International Baccalaureate public high school valedictorian.
WIB What is your top issue in public education that if you could wave a magic wand, it would be fixed tomorrow?
RW: Equity. Access. Access. Equity. That means access to the best teachers, access to the higher-level courses. Give them a chance at a high-quality education. If they never get the chance, they will never be able to perform at the level they can perform.
WIB: Is there anything else you want our readers to know?
RW: The question is, looking at the state of education, particularly in Black communities, do you still have hope? If not, I wouldn’t still be working. Absolutely still have hope and absolutely know, as a community, we could thrive given the proper circumstances that anyone else gets.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
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