Sunday, June 24, 2018
Education

Former Brooksville resident LaKimbre Brown is an education superstar

When we talk about Brooksvillians who have gone on to do great things — Jerome Brown and Paul Farmer and the rest — maybe we need to start including LaKimbre Brown.

Brown, 36, moved away from Brooksville during elementary school, but returned every summer to stay with her grandmother, Emma Johnson.

Her parents, Lester and Deneece Brown, have come back to live here after long stints in other states and overseas. And LaKimbre, an instructional superintendent with the Washington, D.C., public schools, visited last week to speak at a scholarship banquet held by the Black Educators Caucus of Hernando County.

Besides her current job — supervising 13 principals in one of the biggest, most-scrutinized school districts in the country — she's a two-time Fulbright scholar. She also has won an America Achieves Fellowship for Teachers and Principals.

And in California, where she spent most of her career, she was named her district's principal of the year for turning around an elementary school near Oakland.

You can learn all about it online, because her work there has been featured in a promotional video for Teach for America, which is no surprise, given Brown's story and how neatly it meshes with what the organization is all about.

That includes promoting the idea that education is a worthy profession for elite students, which Brown was.

In 1999, she graduated from the University of Illinois with a bachelor's degree in chemistry, but also with growing doubts about her plans to become a researcher or a doctor.

She saw a poster for Teach for America, asked a career counselor about the program and eventually was assigned to a middle school in Phoenix.

An impoverished school, of course, and one in which many students didn't speak English at home, because the organization's goal — which Brown quickly adopted as her own — is to fulfill public education's true promise: giving a fair shot at learning to every child, no matter how disadvantaged.

"Once I got into the classroom, I fell in love with it," she said. "I fell in love with the mission. I fell in love with the kids."

She got her master's degree in education at Arizona State University and, after moving to Oakland, her doctorate from Mills College. In 2008, she became principal of Milani Elementary School in nearby Newark, Calif.

If that school were in Florida, it would be labeled "failing." And though Brown said she hates that term, the school certainly was failing many of its students, three-fourths of whom qualified for free or reduced-price lunches, and 67 percent of whom were not native English speakers.

Only slightly more than 30 percent of them could read at grade level when she arrived. After five years, the school had climbed from the bottom of the state's rankings to the middle. It wasn't fully turned around, not by Brown's standards, but it had shown enough improvement to get the attention of D.C. schools, which hired her last year.

That's the district once run by Michelle Rhee, who was known for abruptly firing teachers and principals who didn't meet her requirements.

High standards are necessary, of course, Brown said. So is discipline. But she's more likely to nurture teachers and principals than cut them loose.

Teachers are the ones who do the real work in education, she said. "They are the agents of change."

When she was a principal, she said, her job was to "give them what they need to succeed and get out of their way." Now she does the same for principals.

And she can't know what the people she works with need without listening.

As a principal, she said, "you build relationships with staff, and tell them they have to build relationships with kids," she said.

The idea, she said, is to promote the idea that children, parents, teachers and administrators are working as a team.

And that means, even in this era of non-stop preparation for standardized tests, setting aside time for children to talk about what they want to do and what might be holding them back.

It means calling homes, to see what parents need to help them help their kids. And at Milani, she not only encouraged teachers to visit struggling students' homes, she often did it herself.

"There have been plenty of times, if a kid didn't show up for class, I went over there and said, 'Get your clothes on. Get to school,' " she said.

If parents see attendance is that important to the principal, it usually becomes more important to them, Brown said.

In Washington, the teachers at the schools she supervises are able to meet with even more parents with the help of a nonprofit educational organization, the Flamboyan Foundation.

She is in these schools almost every day of the week, she said, which it what she likes most about the job.

"I love the energy of schools," she said.

What else Brown likes is the importance of this work that she had done so successfully — trying to make sure that needy students get the same opportunities as richer ones. "It should be a national priority," she said.

And that's one reason she deserves to be mentioned with any other Brooksville star.

She's absolutely right.

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