On December 9, Joyce Wilkerson, School Board President of the School District of Philadelphia, received the 2022 Benjamin Elijah Mays Lifetime Achievement Award, which recognizes individuals who have demonstrated a long-standing commitment to representing the educational needs of urban schoolchildren through their service as a local school board member.
Additionally, Seattle Public Schools (SPS) received the 2022 Award for Urban School Excellence, which considers four core areas of governance: School Board Performance; Academic Improvement; Educational Equity; and Community Engagement.
The awards were presented before an audience of nearly 1,000 urban school board members at the Annual Conference of the National School Boards Association’s Council of Urban Boards of Education (CUBE).
“Over her 40-year career, at every level of public education, Joyce Wilkerson has championed the education and uplift of students in urban schools,” said Micah Ali, chair of the CUBE Steering Committee and chair emeritus of California’s Compton Unified School District School Board. “She has dedicated herself to improving the welfare and opportunities for students and the communities where they live. The future success of the children of Philadelphia is brighter as a result of the foundation Ms. Wilkerson has laid and the legacy she’s established.”
In her service to the School District of Philadelphia, Ms. Wilkerson helped to restore local control of the school district in 2017 and evolve the district from a state of fiscal crisis to a strong financial position with an investment grade rating from Moody’s Investor Services for the first time since 1977. She also helped to led new investments in students by raising the level of teachers and support staff to the highest level in more than a decade and increasing the number of career and technical education, Advanced Placement, and dual enrollment courses. She also oversaw the opening Pennsylvania’s first middle college program, which permits high school students to simultaneously earn a high school diploma and an associate’s degree at no charge to the student.
“Joyce Wilkerson is an extraordinary public servant who has dedicated her life’s work to making Philadelphia and, most noticeably, the School District of Philadelphia, better for the nearly 200,000 students we serve,” said Dr. Tony Watlington, Superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia. Calling her the “best board president anywhere in America,” Watlington praised Wilkerson for establishing the district’s first-ever “Goals & Guardrails,” which guide the district's strategic path forward by more clearly defining what all Philadelphia students need to know and be able to accomplish, as well as the conditions needed in every school to empower all students to succeed in and beyond the classroom.
Calling the award a “tremendous honor,” Ms. Wilkerson thanked Dr. Watlington and her colleagues on the school board. “It takes a lot of people to move public education,” Wilkerson said while noting several challenges facing the city of Philadelphia, including its status as the poorest city in the country and gun violence that has claimed the lives of students and impacted countless others.
Wilkerson noted that, traditionally, the school board had only spent about 10 percent of its time on student achievement. Upon becoming school board president, Wilkerson vowed to change that, shifting the board to a student-outcome-focused frame of governance that put a much greater focus on educating kids and lifting student achievement.
“If we are going to change the trajectory of our district and change the outcomes for the children of Philadelphia, the adults in the room have to change,” Wilkerson said. “We can no longer do business as usual. Our children deserve more than that.”
“Like the namesake of the Benjamin Elijah Mays Award, Joyce Wilkerson exemplifies the highest level of integrity and carries the mantle of a true servant leader,” said Dr. John Heim, NSBA’s executive director and CEO.
The 2022 Award for Urban School Excellence was presented by Ali to Brandon K. Hersey, chair of SPS’s seven-member elected school board, at the 2022 CUBE Annual Conference.
“One thing that unites us all is that we care about our children,” Hersey told the audience. “We care about our communities, and we are trying our best to leave them better than we found them. We represent community. That means communicating with, listening to, and insisting on transparent communications with the staff, students, and families our schools serve.”
A majority of SPS’s more than 50,000 students are students of color. In total, SPS students speak more than 140 languages or dialects. Among the many accolades cited during the award presentation were the district’s decision to adopt a “targeted universalism” approach that emphasizes high-quality instruction and learning environments to change outcomes for Black boys and teens.
“We have a greater level of clarity and focus, which now empowers and guides our work,” said Superintendent Brent Jones. “We’ve outlined specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely goals that align with the healthy learning environments that we want to see in our schools and classrooms, so that these results can truly take hold. Then we can have the outcomes we’re looking for.”
As a result of these changes, graduation rates for all students have increased more than 10 percentage points over three years. The district has also seen increases in student attendance and advanced coursework at the secondary level, alongside a reduction in disciplinary incidents.
Additionally, SPS’s Seattle Promise program, which is conducted in partnership with the City of Seattle and Seattle Colleges and guarantees tuition and access into three local Seattle Colleges, has resulted in a tripling in the number of SPS graduates enrolling in the colleges since 2018. Of those enrolled, 65 percent are students of color and more than 30 percent are first-generation college students.
“The district leadership team for Seattle Public Schools represents an outstanding example of the impact that school leaders can have in advancing access and educational equity,” says John Heim, NSBA’s executive director and CEO.
Both award winners were featured in NSBA’s American School Board Journal: