I was pretty blown away with Lewis Jackson’s story. I met him during his nomination for 2016 principal of the year, an honor he wears with very little fanfare.
Jackson has been principal of Dania Elementary in Broward County Public Schools for seven years, a school as unique as he is. It’s home to around 535 kids with almost an even spread of Black, Hispanic and White students. Last year 86 percent of the students qualified for free- or reduced-lunch. Dania also has the largest program for students on the autism spectrum (ASD) in the district and a very high transient rate of over 45 percent of its students coming and going throughout the year.
With all this, you would think Dania Elementary would fall to its circumstances. But, instead, Dania has held an “A” or “B” rating for nine of the last 10 years.
From humble beginnings, Jackson, or “Lu” as his peers like to call him, thrived through difficult life circumstances with an air of optimism and opportunity. I sat down with him recently and talked about how he got to be nominated for principal of the year.
You’ve had an interesting life journey. Can you tell me how you became a principal?
I am the oldest of nine children in my biological family, but I also have a foster family and a foster step-family. We use to move from relative to relative with my mother and/or father. From my understanding, my parents weren’t sending me to school as needed, so I ended up in foster care just before I turned 7. I recall starting school at the end of first grade.
I went in and out of different foster homes for several years, then back to my natural family when I was in fifth grade. After a year I was placed back into foster care. But, that was OK because I ended up going back to my last foster family. I stayed with them, on a dairy farm, until I was 18, when the state of New York recognized me as independent. They became my second family, and remain a big part of my life to this day.
With state dollars, scholarships and working as a janitor, I put myself through college. Then, I joined the Peace Corps and was based in Sierra Leone and Liberia, West Africa. I re-enlisted twice because I felt as if I hadn’t accomplished what I wanted.
Eventually, I was released from my contract because I got multiple diseases all at once. For a little less than three years I was teaching, promoting modern agricultural practices for native cash crops, and collaborating with tribal leaders and U.S. agencies to fund new schools and clean water resources.
For the next few years, I travelled throughout the world and taught at several schools in New York until I came to Florida and started teaching intellectually and neurologically handicapped kids in the private sector. Over the course of those two years, I felt this particular school was more interested in making money than the best interest of children, so I eventually changed to public schools.
I’d always wanted to be a teacher. I was good at it, and believed that I was really making a difference in people’s lives. I was one of only two in Florida to be National Board certified, and was nominated for teacher of the year.
Administrators saw my leadership qualities and encouraged me to follow this path. I became a magnet coordinator, assistant principal at several schools then eventually principal. I’ve been a principal for 10 years.
How has your journey shaped your story as an educator?
I think it gives me more empathy for disenfranchised families and kids, because I’ve been there. Many times, their story is my story. I didn’t even know I was living in abject poverty. At one point I lived with my grandmother in a home where our bathroom was an outhouse attached to the house.
You have very unique demographics here at Dania Elementary? How has that affected the learning environment?
One of our challenges is giving every child the best education while they are here. So many of them leave, sometimes returning later. It can be hard to convince our primary teachers that they are having a big impact on their fourth- and fifth-grade student results when a lot of those students won’t even stay here. But, we believe every child who enters our doors deserves a world class education while they are with us.
The diversity of the school and how it reflects in our staff is exciting. We are always looking for excellent staff who reflect our community. I’ve recently had to hire Russian, Romanian and Czech speakers because of our influx in the last two years. Our students on the autism spectrum have varying levels of mainstreaming into the larger educational environment. Their exposure coming in and out of the classroom is even richer because of the unique mix of cultures.
How has your school held a high-performance standard even with all the challenges?
Hiring and keeping quality teachers and non-instructional staff is critical. If you get into the spiral of not performing well, then it’s harder to get quality educators to want to come to your school. First, we try to determine if this person really cares about children. If that’s not clear, then there is no purpose in continuing the conversation. My task is to put a vision of high expectations out there and then lead to create that culture.
With the new state of our administration, what hopes do you have?
High-stakes accountability and underfunding are challenges for Florida’s public schools. I’m a supporter of parents having control over school choice. Therefore, I’m not so opposed to the existence of charter schools or privatization. But, I don’t like that we could lose funding in traditional public schools. I hate to see traditional public schools diminished in any way.
What I do thrive on is the challenge and competition that charter schools bring. Traditional public schools have to continually try to hone our practice and sharpen our saw by providing cutting edge innovative programs. That’s something we can build on. But, I hope our new secretary of education recognizes that you don’t have to tear down or underfund public education in order to create alternatives.