Achievement Gap

Coffee Break: Meredith Anderson on Teacher Diversity, Empowering Young Women and ‘Ubuntu’

Meredith Anderson is principal of Excellence Girls Middle Academy, one of 49 schools in the Uncommon Schools network. She has taught first- through eighth-grade science, and she joined Uncommon Schools in 2010 as a founding science teacher and instructional leader at Brooklyn East Collegiate. Anderson opened Excellence Girls Middle Academy in 2013 with a class of 83 fifth-graders and the school has grown to serve 350 young women in fifth through eighth grades. Her experience in education also extends beyond the classroom, having previously worked in Bolivia and Ecuador, where she was a part of a grassroots initiative to develop a regional diabetes education program. Anderson also spent time in Ghana, where she worked in the village of Adaklu-Waya and helped to create a technology program in its secondary school. Do you rely on coffee or tea to get yourself powered up in the morning? Yes, I make coffee at home, or I get it from the Pulp and Bean on Franklin Avenue in Brooklyn on my way to school. You started out your teaching career with Teach for America, which has evolved into a far more diverse teaching corps than traditional teacher college graduates. Do you think it’s important, especially in a school that almost exclusively serves girls of color, to have diversity among your staff? Or is that a secondary consideration? It’s absolutely a primary consideration. We want our girls to have the richest middle school experience and education possible and so much of that richness comes from the many experiences that our wonderfully diverse staff brings to the table. The more and diverse backgrounds we have among adults in our school, the more sophisticated our young women will be because they are tapping into those varied experiences every day. Excellence Girls Charter School was just awarded a Blue Ribbon by the U.S. Department of Education for its success in closing the achievement gap and maintaining high standards. What’s in your secret sauce? I don’t think it’s a secret. We are incredibly focused on student achievement and empowering our young women. Those two things drive all the decisions I make as a principal and all the decisions our teachers make in their classrooms. We focus on what we know will make them successful not only in high school, but to and through college. The key ingredient is our teachers. We have an incredibly talented staff who bring 1,000 percent of their best selves to this community both inside and outside of the school. We know that without teachers who feel supported, who feel like they can collaborate with each other, and who are given the tools and resources to teach at the highest level—nothing else would matter. So we created a culture around supporting our teachers to be their best so that they in turn can best serve our students. You’ve been in leadership positions in both co-ed and now single-gender schools. How does the all-girls concept affect school climate? At the middle school [pullquote position="left"]our guiding belief is called Ubuntu, or the idea that “I am because we are.” It means that we believe in our own strength as young women as well as the strength of our sisters. At an all-girls school we can really drive home that message—that our girls are powerful, that they can break stereotypes and that they can and will redefine the role people might have previously set for them. We focus on women through history and in the present who have overcome adversity—to show many models of strong females who are changing the game for themselves and for others because we want to inspire our girls to do and be these changemakers now and when they are adults. What’s your favorite part of the school day? There are so many parts. I absolutely love when we come together as a community and I see our eighth grade girls model leadership for the fifth, sixth and seventh graders. I love arrival in the morning. I love greeting 350 girls in the morning, shaking their hands. It’s those little moments that help set the tone for a positive day of learning.
Photo of Meredith Anderson and student.
Laura Waters
Laura Waters is the founder and managing editor of New Jersey Education Report, formerly a senior writer/editor with brightbeam. Laura writes about New Jersey and New York education policy and politics. As the daughter of New York City educators and parent of a son with special needs, she writes frequently about the need to listen to families and ensure access to good public school options for ...

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