Mona Ford Walker and Brian Gaston, students in HGSE's doctor of education leadership (Ed.L.D.) program.
Called the Oscars of education by U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, the Department of Education’s Blue Ribbon Schools Program recognizes a select group of educators for the work it takes to build an outstanding school and close achievement gaps. This year, two students in HGSE's Doctor of Education Leadership (Ed.L.D.) program, Mona Ford Walker and Brian Gaston, were recognized for their roles in leading transformation while working as principals of Winship Elementary School in Boston and North Houston Early College High School in Houston, respectively — both selected as Blue Ribbon Schools for 2021.
“It’s, of course, an honor for our school community to have the opportunity to be recognized,” says Gaston, noting that he was honored alongside North Houston Early College High School’s current principal, as well as the principal who preceded him because “[the work] was a legacy effort — we’ve built off one another.”
Ford Walker, who attended the award ceremony in Washington, DC, with a teacher leader who has been at the school for over 30 years, notes that the recognition acknowledges the hard work of the Winship School’s team of dedicated educators, including HGSE alum and current Winship principal Brian Radley. As school leader, Ford Walker drew on a model of teacher leadership that gave every adult in the building a chance to make an impact in a child’s life.
“No matter [their] role or responsibility, every adult, every day, played a role in how successful a student could be,” says Ford Walker. “At our school, which is one of the most racially and ethnically diverse schools in the city, creating an environment where all students, staff, and families are welcomed and encouraged to bring their unique selves to the community was foundational to our work.” This connectedness, she notes, led to increased student achievement, a focus on student-centered learning, and stronger partnerships with families and community organizations. Through rich, student-centered learning experiences, the whole community was engaged, and students could equitably access the opportunity to contribute and learn.
In his work at North Houston Early College High School, Gaston focused on creating structures, systems, and processes that empowered both teachers and students, increased attendance rates, reduced discipline rates, improved test performance, and increased the number of students who graduated from the school with an associates degree.
“In our school community, 90% of students are economically disadvantaged, 99% of students identify as Latinx or Black. We have a significant amount of English language learners and students with disabilities, and we’ve shown that great teaching and learning and accessing opportunity can be done in a way where you honor those students, their identities, and culture,” says Gaston.
As full-time Ed.L.D. students, both Gaston and Ford Walker are building on these prior leadership experiences. Inspired by the tremendous impact that the early college experience has had on his school community, Gaston hopes to build and scale an early college system focused on high school students who want to enter the teaching profession. Ford Walker, too, is focused on how she can continue to scale improvements public education.
“My intention is to bring my learning back to schools and communities in order to build off of what is working in those settings and to help improve in areas needed,” she says. “The responsibility I have to help others is palpable, so I will continue to serve, and fight for equity, quality resources for schools, equitable funding for districts in most need, student-centered learning experiences for all students and for those in most need.”
"We’re proud of Mona and Brian for the important teaching and learning transformations they led prior to becoming Ed.L.D. doctoral students. Both of them are so knowledgeable, compassionate, committed and courageous, which are among the leadership traits they’re enhancing while they’re here with us in the EdLD program,” says Professor Deborah Jewell-Sherman, acting director of the Ed.L.D. Program. “Mona and Brian are emblematic of everything we’re doing at HGSE to support the growth of transformational education leaders who can meet the challenges of this moment.”