Since she was 9 years old, Kashawndra Wilson had her career all planned. She would attend Spelman College, study biology and become a pediatric cardiologist. Fast forward about a decade, and Wilson is 2 for 3.
Biology major? Check.
But she never became a doctor. Instead, she’s changing kids’ lives in a different way—through education.
Wilson is the principal of Hansberry College Prep, a member of the Noble Network of Charter Schools located in Chicago’s Auburn-Gresham neighborhood on the South Side. Currently, more than 700 students attend Hansberry, 97 percent of whom are African American.
Some students choose Hansberry because they know it has the proper resources to help them get to college. Others are attracted to the school’s International Baccalaureate (IB) program. Either way, these kids have big dreams. And Wilson has developed a school powerfully positioned to shape their futures.
Recently, Wilson sat down to talk about how she shifted her career focus from medicine to teaching, her commitment to great schools of all kinds and her passion for helping young people of color pursue STEM careers.
How did you decide to become a teacher?
“When it came time for the MCAT [Medical College Admission Test] everyone was telling me how difficult it was,” she says. “I said, ‘Let me take a year off and do something that’s easy where I can still remember my [science] content.’ I came into teaching with that thought.”
Soon afterwards, Wilson was accepted to the Inner City Teaching Corps (ICTC) and spent the next two years teaching science at a Catholic high school in Chicago while earning a master’s in secondary education from Northwestern University. The experience sparked her curiosity and determination to stick with teaching for the long haul.
“I realized I felt a calling to it,” she says. “I loved it, I loved my kids, and I was good at it.”
Why Noble? And what are your thoughts on the district-run vs. charter school debate?
When Wilson decided to teach somewhere new after wrapping up her Catholic school experience, she just wanted to find a school that was “about what was best for kids.”
She didn’t know anything about Noble until she met representatives at a school fair.
“I went home and researched and I’m seeing how they’re doing all these great things in the city of Chicago for our kids. So I was like this is the place I need to be.”
Of course, it wasn’t easy. During the subsequent “crazy” application and interview process, Wilson remembers thinking they’d never hire her. “But I got a call,” she says. “And I’ve been here—next year will be my eighth year.”
Wilson says she’s not interested in debating the merits of charters versus other types of schools. “I’m a person who believes in quality education for our kids— specifically, kids of color, kids who come from the background I come from.”
What was your journey like, transitioning from teacher to principal?
Wilson started her Noble journey as the founding 10th-grade chemistry teacher at Bulls College Prep on Chicago’s West Side.
“I didn’t know anything about standards-based teaching,” she says. “I was very nervous.”
She pushed herself to succeed and it paid off.
“Fortunately, since I’ve been at Noble, I’ve been able to have some of the top science results in the network,” she says. “What’s more important is I’ve been able to do that while building a culture of love and accountability.”
Wilson became a busy bee while at Bulls, teaching science for two years. Soon, she wanted to pursue leadership roles so she could be a champion for students’ success. She spent a year helping other teachers improve their instruction before taking on the dual roles of 11th-grade biology teacher and freshman dean of students.
Late in 2016, she started as principal of Hansberry. Wilson believes the culture of love and accountability she built as a teacher gave her the opportunity to do the work she does today as a principal.
“I get results for kids because I believe in high expectations,” she says. “But I believe we can do it by loving on our kids and showing them what they truly can do, even though they might think it’s impossible.”
Why is it important for you to expose kids of color to STEM careers and interests?
“I believe in mirrors and windows,” she says. “It’s so incredibly important for our kids to see people who look like them—who’ve had the experience of their pasts—and go off and do great things.”
As a woman of color, Wilson also believes in the importance of encouraging these kids of color to aspire for careers related to math, technology and science—just like how she was motivated to pursue biology during her youth.
“Being able to get our kids invested in science, and excited about the way in which the world works—and I’m doing it as a woman of color—it’s just powerful imagery for them. They can buy into it because it’s a little bit more authentic for them.”
Education Post (educationpost.org) is a nonprofit, non-partisan communications organization dedicated to building support for student-focused improvements in public education.