Dr. Bonita Jamison is a standout St. Louis education leader who has dedicated her 20-year career to centering the needs of the region’s most marginalized students. In January, she was announced as the next Superintendent of the Maplewood Richmond Heights School District. She is also a current Catalyst Fellow with the Opportunity Trust working to forge the next frontier of learning environments in St. Louis. Read our interview with Dr. Jamison to learn more about her vision for reimagining education for St. Louis students.
Why did you get involved in education? What drew you to the profession?
I would say failure. Typically most people will say that failure is not an option, but I think failure is critical to growth. I completed my undergraduate work at St. Louis University and was a pre-med major. I took organic chemistry three times and could not successfully get through it. My advisor at the time asked what it is I wanted to do, and I said, “help people.” She suggested that I think about a career in education. That was the best failure I’ve had; now I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Here I am 20 years later, still enjoying what I do and impacting districts that support a large number of Brown and Black students.
What brought you to apply to Catalyst Fellowship?
My “why” underpins all the decisions that I make. My “why” is to reimagine how we typically do things in education. In the St. Louis region, we too often work in isolation and there is very little collaboration. Many school districts share the same kids – we should be working together and sharing and pooling resources to be more effective and more fiscally sound. The Catalyst Fellowship was designed to innovate new approaches to disrupt the current education system and impact outcomes for children in our region, which completely aligns with my “why.” I submitted my application and was excited to be accepted.
What did you find most helpful about the Catalyst Fellowship?
First, I would say the thoughtful selection of the participants in the fellowship. The ability to collaborate, network, and be thought partners around the varying ideas that we have. The thinking is divergent, but the end goal is the same. When you’re in a fellowship program, you can develop relationships with people that go beyond what you’d be able to do in a work environment.
The second piece would be the thoughtful planning by the team around content. I was familiar with some of the content, but the fellowship pushed us to apply it in novel ways. And we had the opportunity to learn from others pursuing similar strategies and goals in different contexts. We know that our education system has been doing things the same way for decades, so through the program, we look at research that shows what is possible and begin doing something different for kids. We’re looking at it through the lens of disruption.
The third piece is the ability to be available. The team leading the Catalyst Fellowship embodies the idea of servant leadership. It is a community that asks, “how can I help you?” That’s how I lead, so to be with individuals who believe in the work, who model and embody servant leadership is refreshing. The support that The Opportunity Trust provides goes beyond the surface. Being part of this fellowship community is not just for the moment; it’s for the long haul.
Tell us about the pilot program you’re developing through the fellowship. What reflections do you have?
Students, their families, staff, and our communities have experienced significant trauma due to the pandemic, coupled with the racial injustices currently occurring. The value of social-emotional health is heightened now because we see the impact of inequities across all sectors – we’re talking healthcare, economics, education, etc.
My pilot will host a mini-conference where mental health professionals, counselors, and partnering organizations will lead sessions for students around identity, empowerment, self-management, and other topics addressing social-emotional learning. We are focusing on secondary students because our engagement data shows us this is where there is the greatest need. Each high school site in the Ferguson Florissant school district has identified ten students who will attend. After the conference, we will collect feedback to understand whether they walked away with tools they can use to manage their social-emotional well-being better.
Through the Catalyst Fellowship, I was able to apply for a mini-grant to support my plan that will help make the conference feel like a memorable experience for students. They’ll get lunch and mini swag bags with stress balls and journals to go along with the theme. The pilot will happen in April. While I won’t be in this role next year, this pilot will help us understand what strategies worked and what students need. I will be able to leave these key lessons for my predecessor and it’s my hope they will be able to build on the mini-conference to strengthen social-emotional support for students in the district. I will also take these lessons with me as I embark on my next role as Superintendent of the Maplewood Richmond Heights School District.
As you prepare to transition to your next role, what are the biggest challenges or opportunities that you see right now?
The Maplewood Richmond Heights district is amazing. I’m grateful to the board for giving me this opportunity to serve. They could have picked anybody, but they chose me to serve and to lead. I don’t take the responsibility lightly because we have the ability to make and break outcomes for students, their families, and the community. It’s a heavy load to carry, but I’m ready. I don’t see challenges, I see opportunities. The community wraps itself around the school district, there is longevity with an invested staff, they have strong systems in place, and are currently innovative in their thoughts around supporting students. They are already thinking outside the box, so there’s a great deal to build upon.
My entry plan is focusing primarily on a listening and learning tour. Starting a new role, it’s always about relationship building and allowing people to gain insight into who you are as a leader and for them to see your why. When you’re able to lay that out for a person, they have an opportunity to see how it aligns with their personal philosophy, and together we can build upon the successes that MRH has already had.