Q&A: Pamela Brown
Controversy swirled around the appointment of Dr. Pamela Brown as superintendent of the Buffalo public schools last June. To the allegations that race played a part in her selection, add a gracious but bitter acceptance of that final decision by Amber Dixon, the hometown favorite she succeeded, and a lawsuit filed by perennially disgruntled political gadfly Carl Paladino, who questioned whether the board had broken any laws in the way it voted to hire her. It would not have been surprising if Brown had chosen not to sign the contract on offer. Sign it she did, though, and now she must take on the near mythic challenges of Buffalo’s faltering school system.
Road Trip USA could be the title of your memoirs—you’ve logged in time as an educator in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Phoenix, Charlotte, and Philadelphia. Buffalo is your first superintendency. Where did this all begin?
Pamela Brown: I was born in Liberty, Mississippi, where my family owned a farm. My mother was a teacher for forty years, and a principal for the last few years of her career. I’m the youngest of eight, and she actually taught all seven of my siblings in a one-room schoolhouse—until a new school was built there. My father was a farmer, and a horse trainer, and he also advised other farmers on things like what crops to plant. When I was nine, my mother moved us all to Los Angeles, where I lived until the end of high school. My oldest sister taught at the college level; the rest of the family went into other professions. But I had aunts and other relatives who taught, so I come from a long line of educators. When I graduated from Compton High School, I was offered a full academic scholarship to Stanford, and that’s where I got my undergraduate degree, as a Spanish major who also studied French and political science. I was actually in pre-law until my senior year, which I spent in Salamanca, Spain. I so loved that experience that I decided against law school. A professor from USC encouraged me to go on for a master’s degree in Spanish and Portuguese, and I became a teaching assistant there, teaching Spanish to university students. I learned there was a shortage of bilingual teachers in Los Angeles, and that’s where I really began my teaching career, first as a Spanish reading teacher for kindergarten and first grade. Then, for six years, I taught all subjects, in both Spanish and English, a real exchange of cultures and languages.
So your path was set, but it looks like there was a little meandering here and there. How did you find yourself in so many different parts of the country?
I got married, and my husband, who was with Citibank, was relocated to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. There was no demand for teachers there, so I finally settled on the investment industry. A brokerage firm sent me to Minneapolis for four months’ training, and I went to work as a securities broker. I did not like it nearly as much as I liked teaching—I found that out pretty early on! Two years later, my husband was with Bank of America, and we moved to Las Vegas, where our daughter was born. There was a need for bilingual teachers there, and so I found work. Then my spouse was transferred to San Francisco, where I became a bilingual cross-cultural specialist. I worked with twelve schools, ensuring quality and compliance in their programs, which included Chinese/English as well as Spanish/English learning. We were there for four years. By the time our daughter entered kindergarten, we had settled in Phoenix, where I became that district’s director of second language acquisition programs, responsible for the bilingual, English as a second language, and multicultural programs, as well as recruiting, providing professional development, etc. In February 1994, we moved to Charlotte, where I was appointed principal of a new countywide magnet school, Reid Park International, with pre-international baccalaureate and French immersion for grades K through five. I had to recruit all of the students for the school and design the curriculum. We were very successful, opening with 525 students, and within two years we were at our capacity of 700, with a waiting list! We had such an innovative program: educators came to visit from around the world—from Japan, Pakistan, Sweden, France, and Canada.
A real utopian school. But you seem to like challenges—where did you go next?
After six years at Reid, I was hired as principal of another countywide magnet in Charlotte, the Oaklawn School of Math, Science, and Technology. My task was to turn around the downward trend of student achievement there, and, within two years, we had eighty-plus percent of students performing at or above grade level. When that school closed for renovation, I moved to a different facility, a school in a neighborhood where ninety-nine percent of the students qualified for free lunch, and the population was almost entirely African-American. In my four years there, we saw significant student progress on state math and reading tests. We focused on the theme Academy of Creative Learning, and developed partnerships with the local philharmonic orchestra, dance companies, and other organizations as well as enriched academics.
We had a family tragedy during my time there. Our second child, our son, was killed in a bus accident along with another student-athlete—they were in France, participants in an Olympic development program. He was thirteen, had gone through the French immersion program at an early age, and was a very talented soccer player. What that led me to was making a decision that there was more I could do in education. I could help hundreds of children a year. My husband and I were now empty-nesters; our daughter had graduated high school and was about to enter Duke University.
I decided to apply to the urban superintendents doctoral program at Harvard, a program that admits no more than six students annually. I was honored to be chosen, and, in 2006, took an educational leave. I spent twelve months on campus, completing the two-year course load in that time. It was more intense than I’d expected, but it added a stronger theoretical foundation to my practical experience. For a six-month internship as part of the program, we were required to work side-by-side with a successful superintendent, and I went to work in Richmond, where I soon became chief of staff, leading the initiative from competency to excellence—bringing eighty-eight percent of the schools up to state standards, launching two new Spanish initiatives, and greatly increasing the academic rigor. I went to Philadelphia from 2008 to 2011 as assistant superintendent, and then chief academic officer. From there I became a senior research and planning associate with a consulting firm in Massachusetts, helping schools in five states (including New York) to use technology to adapt to common core state standards.
So, next stop, Buffalo.
My goal when I got my doctorate was to get experience that would prepare me well to be a superintendent, and I really wanted to get back into administration, from pre-K to grade twelve. That is really where my heart is, and frankly, where my skills and talent lie.
I had been chosen as a finalist in several other districts before this, and then I was fortunately offered the position in Buffalo. Though I’d never been here before, I did a lot of research and talked to a lot of people about the challenges and strengths of the district. A very big part of my first impression is that there are a lot of stakeholder groups who really care and want to make a positive change in education, from the parents to area houses of worship to the board members. I also visited schools, and saw the renovations. I toured Makowski, Visual and Performing Arts, and Herman Badillo—their program is close to my heart.
What’s your strategy for the Buffalo system?
My number one priority now is to engage all the stakeholders and to bring together a broad representation of the community, including teachers, teacher assistants, principals, bus drivers, food service workers, parents, foundations, unions—because everybody in this community has a stake in the future of our children. We must ask what it means to prepare children for the current century, for their education and careers. What skills, competencies, and dispositions are required for a global workforce? I want to see our graduates performing well in all subject areas; I want them to be arts-educated and skilled in athletics, where you learn so much about teamwork. We need to turn out individuals who demonstrate independence, creativity, and ability, to significantly improve student achievement overall, and to improve the learning experience for children. My plan is to work with the staff and the community to prepare students to do at least as well as the state standards—and to excel, and go beyond. It is our job to make sure that every school represents a great choice. Every child deserves to attend a school that is an effective learning environment for that child.
THRIVING ON CHALLENGE
What’s it like to come in with such controversy—as you know, some say you were finally chosen because of your race?
I would like to think I was chosen based on my educational background; my experience based on the skills and competencies I bring to this position. Anyone can see I am prepared for this job. It’s unfortunate that [race] has even been a topic of discussion in this community. My focus is on doing the job I have been selected to do. As people begin to know more about me, and my approach, they will see I am very inclusive. And I am not going to allow myself to be distracted!
Ever crave some quiet time?
I love this work! Look, I am a lifelong learner; I love learning, and I am open to learning from anyone who can share insight into how to do a better job. When I need to relax, I travel, and enjoy speaking different languages. I also like to read, and I love watching soccer, basketball, and other sports on TV.
Maria Scrivani is a Buffalo-based writer who likes to report on local history and people who make a difference