DR. THOMAS MARIDADA II
TEDx Cleveland State University 2016
FORMER NATIONAL DIRECTOR OF EDUCATION POLICY, PRACTICE AND STRATEGIC INITIATIVES FOR THE CHILDREN'S DEFENSE FUND IN WASHINGTON, D.C. - CURRENTLY PRESIDENT & CEO OF BRIGHT NEW LEADERS FOR STATE OF OHIO SCHOOLS - EXECUTIVE COACH TO KDR GLOBAL EDUCATION SOLUTIONS
DR. THOMAS MARIDADA II
FEBRUARY 21, 2013
Interviewer: Karen Reed President KDR Global Education Solutions
Dr. Thomas Maridada is a renowned transformation leader in education. Not only has he lead reform in some of the most challenging districts in the country, he was named Michigan Superintendent of the Year in 2008 and has been a forerunner in establishing a number of initiatives that are now being spearheaded currently in the Obama Administration. Let’s welcome Dr. Maridada.
Reed: Dr. Maridada please share with our audience a brief overview of your career.
Maridada: Good Evening. I have had an interesting career trajectory. I began my career being professionally developed by Marva Collins. She personifies what it means to be a renowned educator. Under her tutelage, I learned how to raise student achievement. She has made such an indelible mark on my life. I taught for 10 years. I was asked to be an instructional leader at the building level both as an assistant principal and principal. I was then asked to move to the county level and craft a plan, in partnership with Dr. Lorraine Monroe, to raise student achievement for schools that were in corrective action. Those schools saw incredible gains in both reading and math. Several years later, I was asked to work with two districts which had quite a number of challenges but we were able to not only see monumental gains in student achievement but we were also able to create many innovative programs that gave access to unprecedented opportunities for our students.
Reed: You mentioned the innovative programs. One of the reasons that you have received acclaimed is for creating partnerships and using innovation to drive reform. Share with us - what are some of those innovations that you have put in place as a superintendent.
Maridada: Let me start by saying that I have always believed that our children do not have as much of an achievement gap as they do an opportunity gap. There is nothing wrong with the synapses of their brains. We know that demography does not determine destiny. However, dearth of opportunity can be crippling. If we are to create rigorously intellectually invigorating and internationally competitive schools, we cannot achieve that alone, we must partner with others that do it well and bring those opportunities to scale for our children. For example, I wanted our children to have greater access and exposure to science and math, so I created an Applied Science Academy and partnered with science museums, medical schools and hospitals. We had those students shadow surgeons, engineers and scientists and have experiential opportunities that made them see careers in science and math as both tangible and possible. I wanted young people to understand the achievements in the African-American Diaspora and the impact that those achievements have had across the globe, so we flew students to Paris, France and London, England to re-trace the steps of Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, James Baldwin and students stayed in Josephine Baler’s chateau in the South of France. Another huge initiative that I have been fortunate to create is a cohort-driven early college program where students earn their Associates degree and high school diploma concomitantly. I have always asked, “Why not?”
Reed: That is impressive. I can only imagine how students felt when they came back from Europe. How did that experience change many of their perspectives about what is possible?
Maridada: Just imagine that so many of the students that went to Europe not only had never been out of the country, but many, if not most of them, had never been on a plane or traveled out of the state. Just think how your mind expands. Yesterday your world was limited only to the 6.2 miles of your neighborhood, and today your world includes another continent. I think the most amazing thing for most of the students was to see people who looked like them, and who were very accomplished and celebrated, 7,000 miles away from their place of origin. They returned to their community ready to take on the world. These were some of our first Early College students.
Reed: Speaking of the Early College Initiative, I know that you were one of the first to pilot an early college cohort program. Recently, President Obama came out in support of expanding early college initiatives throughout the country. Why did you start the program? What was the initial reaction? What has been the success of that program?
Maridada: Well, I started the program, quite frankly, because I was horrified at the lack of rigor that existed initially at the high school in the district where I was appointed as the reform superintendent. I knew that we had to have a more challenging curriculum but I was impatient. Sure I knew that we had to increase teacher effectiveness, re-align the curriculum, accelerate learning for those that were not on grade level, and rapidly increase the rigor. I knew all those things but my frustration was what do you do for the children in the meantime while you are doing all those other things? We have children here now who have an immediate need that no one is attending to and we don’t have time to wait while we go through our 3-5 year transformation process. So I reached out to the closest entity that already had those things in place, colleges and universities. When I first suggested the partnership people told me that I was nuts, they believed that there was no way that our children would be able to handle the work load. However, I have never been one to be swayed by disbelief or the chatter of naysayers. Not only did our students complete the Associates degree along with their high school diploma, many of them completed the Associates of Arts degree two months prior to their high school graduation! Those students all entered college as juniors, more than half of them went on to graduate school, including medical and law schools across the country. I am humbled when I think that this one opportunity changed the trajectory from poverty to abundance in opportunity. Some of their parents had not graduated from high school and here their children are now in medical school because of access to this opportunity. What can you say?
Reed: I read the Education Trust’s report which identified that one of the districts where you served as reform superintendent had the highest K-8 academic achievement for African-American students in the state of Michigan during your last year there as superintendent. With all of your success in the field of education, why do you think, even for you, there is such resistance to transformation work even when your resistors know that it will clearly benefit students?
Maridada: That’s a good question (he laughs). Both of my experiences as a reform superintendent were appointments where I was charged specifically with stabilizing the district. I had a specific mission and charge which was to raise student achievement. The unfortunate piece is that this is not everyone’s shared mission in a school district. There are a lot of competing interests in education; but I am very intentional in my focus, I want children to grow academically and to acquire a skill set in reading, mathematics, and writing to the level of mastery. When you have to re-organize an organization to achieve that goal, you often tear down turfs which have been protected for decades. Schools, to me, are not employment agencies; they must serve the interests of children and not just adults. Children must be, “literate lifters of the world”, as Mrs. Collins often proclaimed.
Reed: Many people have called you courageous. I know that although everyone knew you were capable of doing turn-around work, some discouraged you from taking on such challenging districts because of the often turbulent nature of their boards and the politics involved. Do you think that most people understand the context or nature of that work? Do you have any regrets for taking on those challenges?
Maridada: No, I don’t think that most people understand the context of districts that have experienced great turbulence. In the first district, I was there for five years, but there had been 12 superintendents in 10 years prior to me and the district had just come out of state takeover. In the second, there had been 6 superintendents in 6 years prior to me. I was a proven leader before going to either of these districts and I did not have to go, but I believe that it was important for me to go. Children everywhere, no matter where they live deserve an opportunity at the American dream. Their zip codes, the melanin in their skins or how astute their political representatives or board members are have nothing to do with whether they should have access to a great education. I detest the notion that I would allow myself to be punished for doing good. I will not accept that. You take hits when you uncover corruption. Not everyone is going to applaud you or love you, but you must know that integrity of purpose will win every time. I make decisions that I believe are right for children. Academic achievement is my north star.
Reed: Before we leave, I must commend you again for the incredible work that you have done in education. Since transitioning from the work that you have done as a reform superintendent, what are you doing now?