If you ask Black folk who lived in New York City in the 1980s and 1990s what it was like, you’ll probably hear a mix of memories: block parties, hanging out on the stoop talking to neighbors, witnessing the golden era of hip-hop — all while being surrounded by violence, drugs, and a lack of opportunity everywhere they turned.
Especially from their neighborhood public schools.
Garland Thomas-McDavid, the CEO of Brooklyn Laboratory Charter Schools, says life could have been very different for her if she’d been forced to attend her neighborhood schools.
“I would have been limited by the quality of schools that were available at the time in my neighborhood, and my mother was very concerned because she had gone to schools in Brooklyn,” she says.
So instead, Thomas-McDavid woke up early every morning and hopped on a bus.
“I was bused from East New York to Bensonhurst,” Thomas-McDavid says. The bus “would pick up me and my friends from different communities in East New York and then scatter us around.”
So it’s no surprise that through her work in the charter school movement and strengthening the Black teacher pipeline, Thomas-McDavid is out to build a bright future for Black children the way it was built for her.
Generational Roots in Education
Thomas-McDavid knew she wanted to be a teacher from an early age. Her parents were involved in the public school system — her mother worked as a paraprofessional and her father was a teacher.
“My father became a teacher after a lot of hard days and times,” Thomas-McDavid says. “He went through a period where he was on drugs, and life was really challenging in our home life, but he pulled himself up and ended up going to school and becoming a teacher, making an incredible impact in the community.”
After college, she became a special education teacher and taught at traditional public schools in the Chicago area, eventually becoming an assistant principal. Then she heard about an opportunity to join the Noble Network of Charter Schools in Chicago.
Making the Choice to Work in Charter Schools
“It was a child-driven decision,” Thomas-McDavid says of her 2008 move to Noble. “I just was stressed and frustrated by the bureaucracy that existed where I was assistant principal. It really wasn’t about the broader macro charter movement for me at that point.”
And she couldn’t help but reflect on her own ability to attend a school outside her neighborhood and the doors that opened.
Thomas-McDavid believes there are good and bad charters as well as good and traditional public schools. But, she says, “We all have an obligation, whether we’re traditional, or charter, to do our jobs well.”
“Wherever you are, and whatever you signed up for, you need to serve, and show up with the best interests of those children,” she says.
In 2022 she headed back to her hometown to run Brooklyn Lab, a 6-12th grade public school.
Along with her day-to-day work as CEO, she has started initiatives such as “Success Looks Like Me,” a career day that exposes children of color to professionals from racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds. In February, 20 Black professionals from a variety of fields came to the campus to talk to students about what they do and the path they took to get there.
“I want them to give them love, I want them to give them hope. I want to give them encouragement,” she says of her approach to students. “If they’re a girl, I want them to believe in what’s possible, despite any gender barriers,” she explains.
Building and Supporting the Black Teacher Pipeline
Showing up for children also means working to increase the number of Black teachers and ensuring they stay in the classroom. After all, having an excellent Black teacher has the ability to boost a child’s self-image and confidence.
“As a school system, we have to love on those teachers,” she says. “We have to love on the women, we have to open opportunities fairly, and we have to be the place that will allow our children to thrive in the future. I think whatever teachers have, they can give away to the children.”
And for Thomas-McDavid, the pipeline starts at home. Her oldest daughter, Chanel, 28, is realigning her path toward education.
“She’s at the University of Florida, and she’s actually reoriented her career and decided that she wants to be an educator,” Thomas-McDavid says. “I was not surprised.”
To make things even better? She secured another teacher for the pipeline — her other daughter, Aliah. She’s “teaching in Chicago at the Noble Network where I founded a high school,” Thomas-McDavid says.
She credits her children for helping shape the vision she has for well-rounded educators — and a wider vision for how she envisions equal, equitable, and fair education for Black students to be like in this country.
A Life of Service Outside the Classroom
“What are you doing in the broader community?” That’s one of the guiding questions that drives Thomas-McDavid.
Whether its working with the National Coalition of 100 Black Women — focusing on advocacy and the condition of the black community around education, economics, voter rights, and public policy — Thomas-McDavid intends for everyone around her to understand her mission to help reshape a world that has failed Black and Brown children.
After all, Thomas-McDavid knows first hand that “life may not be ideal, your house life may not be ideal,” but there’s always something you can do to make a difference in your community.
“Think of Harriet Tubman. What if she just was content with her own freedom?” Thomas-McDavid asks. “What if she didn’t say, you know, I’m responsible for going back for other people? In my work, I just like to think that I’m going back from my people.”
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