A Conversation with Michele Pierce ’91
by Ciaran S. Escoffery ’00
“Michele Pierce is one woman with a dream making a million dreams come true.”
Makeda Mays Green ’98
Just 10 days after graduating from Wesleyan in 1991, Michele Pierce moved to
California to attend Stanford University. Michele was in pursuit of a dream.
Since the age of 15, she had been dreaming of starting her own school. That
dream became all the more heightened when she met Wesleyan Professor Bob O’Meally,
in her African American 101 course.
Prior to Wesleyan, Michele describes herself as not being academically involved in school; she remembers not feeling motivated to learn, and often, she did just enough work to get by. All of this would change, however, with O’Meally’s class. Michele recalls how she went from this sort of walk-by student, to someone who was completely in love with learning. “Professor O'Meally's love for learning was infectious. He had this way about how he would respond to your questions or opinions in class that just made you feel so smart. He inspired me to become a teacher. I wanted to share with other students the gift that he had given to me – making your student feel smart.”
On September 12, 2001, the Harriet Tubman Charter School (Bronx, NY) opened its doors to 120 students in grades K-3, with Michele as its founding director. At last, Michele had her very own school. This fall, along with the other teachers and administrators at HTCS, Michele will work to make 300 students, grades K-6, feel and realize just how smart they are. (Charter schools are public schools, financed by the same per-pupil funds that traditional public schools receive. Unlike traditional public schools, however, they are held accountable for achieving educational results. In return, they receive waivers that exempt them from many of the restrictions and bureaucratic rules that shape traditional public schools. See Charter Schools: Creating Hope and Opportunity for American Education by Joe Nathan, Jossey-Bass, 1996)
To learn more about the journey that brought her to where she is today, I talked with Michele recently at a Barnes & Noble Bookstore café on Broadway in New York City.
Ciaran: So how did you decide to attend Wesleyan?
Michele: It was because of Deirdre Davis ’88. Deirdre was like a big sister to me and from my trips to see her at Wes, I knew that’s where I wanted to go to school. In fact, I ONLY applied to Wesleyan – that’s how sure I was that that’s where I wanted to be. I had to go to Wesleyan. I was motivated by its dedication to diversity and its emphasis on self-driven education. (Years later, as a teacher, Michele would also encourage her students at the Hopkins School to attend Wesleyan; Makeda Mays Green ’98 and Angie Montgomery ’98 were two such students.)
C: Once you arrived at Wesleyan, was the experience what you were hoping for?
M: Wesleyan was like a second family to me. I never felt anonymous.
I made a diverse group of friends with whom I always felt cared for and about.
I felt that anything you wanted to do at Wes, there was an opportunity for you
to get it done. More than anything else, I was really empowered at Wesleyan. I
was encouraged to say my dreams out loud and to not be afraid to do so. It’s funny, because I see that sense of
empowerment in a lot of people I know from Wes. I am truly grateful for my
time there. I’m certain that it is the experience that I had at Wesleyan that
brought me to the place that I am today.
C: So in three words or less, how would you sum up Wesleyan?
M: Free-thinking. Alive. Loving. I know I’m cheating … Nurturing. An environment that motivates you to learn. As an educator, I’ve come to learn how important it is for a student’s educational environment to be a place where he/she feels loved, nurtured and motivated to learn.
C: You graduated from Wesleyan and a few days later you were off to Stanford; after Stanford, did you immediately set off for Harvard?
M: No. Actually, I left California and moved back to Connecticut specifically
to start and run a Summerbridge program at the Hopkins School (New Haven, CT).
(The Summerbridge program began in San Francisco and later became a national
program. The program provides experiences for college undergraduates and high
school students interested in teaching. In addition to running the
Summerbridge program, she also taught a literature and writing course. This
was Michele’s first teaching experience. During that first year at Hopkins,
Michele proposed an elective course entitled, African American and Latino
Literature. Her proposal was met by resistance and backlash from those at the
school who thought the course would cause others to feel alienated. However,
Michele was determined that the class would work and eventually the course was
approved. The first year the class was made available, the school was forced
to offer 3 sections of the course in order to accommodate the more than 60 students
who signed up for it. Just another battle won for Michele. That took place
almost 12 years ago. “And the course is still being taught there,” she says,
with a smile that quietly screams, “I told them so!”)
C: Even while you were at Hopkins you were still working towards your goal of someday opening your own school… what were people’s reactions like when you would share with them your dream?
M: As I mentioned before, I was really young when I decided that I wanted to open a school. So I think because of my age, people’s reactions tended to be dismissive. They would sort of pat me on the head and send me along, that kind of thing. Once I got a little older, and I was still expressing the idea and had even begun to expand on the idea, people were like, "Are you crazy? That’s not realistic… that’s not how these things work."
C: Despite all the doubt that you were confronted with – and probably some doubt of your own – you were still able to accomplish what you dreamed of doing. How did the Harriet Tubman Charter School come about?
M: The plan to build a charter school in the South Bronx was an idea that was
already in the works when the late Judge Hansel McGee and Cliff Frazier
invited me to be a part of the project.
C: What was Judge McGee and Mr. Frazier’s role in the project?
M: Well, this is how the story was told to me… Less than a week after retiring
from his role as New York State Supreme Court Judge, Judge McGee was sitting at
home reading the newspaper and came across an article that reported the
frightening low status of the reading scores for students in the South Bronx.
Apparently, the Judge was so appalled by what he read, he felt that something
had to be done to address the needs of these students, and address the reasons
why their academic scores were so low. Judge McGee partnered with Cliff
Frazier (an Emmy award-winning actor and producer),
to work together to do something. Once the decision was made that opening a
charter school was what needed to be done, this is where I came in. They were
aware of my background, knew that I had experience in writing a charter, and so
they invited me to join the board of founding members as a consultant.
(Michele had written the charter for another charter school while at Harvard.
She earned a Master of Education degree from Harvard in 1995.)
C: What’s the process of writing a charter proposal?
M: First you begin by working with people you believe in; that’s definite. Then there’s the actual writing of the charter proposal. Once that’s completed, the proposal is then submitted to your state’s Education Department or Board of Regents. After the charter has been submitted, you normally spend several months defending it and making extensive revisions. This is the process we went through.
C: From beginning to end, about how long did the process take?
M: The process usually takes about 6 months to a year; it took about 6 months for us. I started writing the charter in December 2000, and in May 2001, our charter was approved.
C: How did the board decide on what to name the school?
M: The board members admire Harriet Tubman’s fearlessness and courage and regard her as one of their heroes. They wanted this same fearlessness and courage for the students and so they thought it would be fitting to name the school after her.
C: This fall will mark Harriet Tubman’s fourth academic year. You had 500 families on the waiting list this year and some of your current students travel almost an hour on the train to get to school… Why do you think so many families want their children at HTCS?
M: For one thing, they know that their children are safe in our school; this is a priority for most parents. They also know that our teachers are
excellent and that they are all working to make sure that each child excels
academically. (In the three years that the school has been open, Harriet Tubman students have consistently exhibited stellar academic achievements. It
is commonplace to find students who are reading, writing, spelling and doing
arithmetic a grade and a half above their grade level – with some fifth graders
performing on a ninth grade level, and kindergartners who read more than 20 books.)
We also have an open door policy at the school which means that a parent may stop by at any point during the school day without an appointment. We recognize the importance of parent involvement in the success of a child’s learning process, so we enjoy when the parents show up unannounced – because we actually want them there. These are just some of the elements of our school that you may not find at other schools. I’m sure that plays a role in why we have so many families applying. (The school does not use any direct advertising initiatives; news about the school has been spread primarily by word of mouth.)
C: As the founding director, what are your priorities for the school and its students?
M: Sending our students to college is definitely one of our top priorities. We just started a college scholarship fund for our students. Reports show that there is a direct connection between those who go to college and those who grow up being told you will go to college. By establishing this scholarship fund, we are telling our students plainly, you will go to college. Furthermore, the scholarship not only lets them know that they will go to college, but it assures them that they won’t have a financial care in the world once they get there.
M: Does Wesleyan still offer need-blind admission?
C: Yes, they do. (When a student applies to a school that has a need-blind admission policy, it means that their ability to pay for their education will not be a factor in the admission decision. In other words, the student’s financial needs will not be taken into consideration when the decision to admit, wait list, or deny is being considered.)
M: See, that’s why I love Wesleyan. In fact, I’m just going to send all my
students there. (She makes this comment and we both laugh at the obvious
implausibility of the idea. When her laugh comes to a sudden pause, I know
that Michele has just added this new idea to her mental list of things-to-do.
C: It seems like your days are spent dedicating yourself to the school. Are you able to find time just for yourself outside of the school?
M: Not really… and it’s mainly because anywhere that I am or anything new that I see, I see my students or I’m thinking of my students and saying to myself, they need this! I tend to bring every positive thing I learn into the school. (For instance, after experiencing the calming benefits of yoga, Michele became certified to teach yoga to children with special needs. Now that she’s certified, she intends on finding a way to bring yoga into the school for her students. In the meantime, some of the other things that Michele has felt her students needed, included a visit from members of the prestigious Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and a surprise appearance by Elmo with puppeteer, Kevin Clash from Sesame Workshop.)
C: Your son, Danson, is now 5 years old. How has your role as a parent influenced your role as the school’s director?
M: Being Danson’s mother has taught me so many lessons. In being his mom, I’ve come to learn what really matters. I’ve learned how to love unconditionally. I think I’ve even become more human… I have new found humility – and it’s humility with benefits. As a mother, I look at the role of education through different eyes. I now find myself thinking about the child, the parent and the teacher on the level of mind, body and spirit. I look at all my students as if they’re my own… I feel like I have 300 children, and Danson is one of them.
C: What has been the most surprising aspect of being a part of Harriet Tubman?
M: I think I’m surprised on a daily basis… especially by all of the brilliant things that comes out of a student’s mouth. Their brilliance continuously blows me away.
C: Ten years from now, what is your wish list for the school?
M: I envision a true campus for the students, where they’ll have the finest of
everything those other schools have. They’ll have access to the latest
technology, exposure to arts and culture… it will be a school which provides
all the resources that each student will need in order to be successful.
In fact, we’ve already begun putting some of these resources in place. We recently established a list of 200 mentors to be role models for our students. In the coming year, we plan on building an outdoor greenhouse to help the students learn about science. We’re also beginning a healthy eating program to teach the kids about nutrition. I want to provide the best of everything to our students – for free! I want our kids in the South Bronx to have the things you find at Wesleyan, at Dalton. (“That’s what Michele promotes for her school… access and exposure that you might not get in other schools. She wants the best and above for her students,” says Makeda Mays Green '98.)
C: If there are alums in the New York area that would like to stop by and visit the school, would there an opportunity for them to do so?
M: Absolutely. Everyone is invited to come and visit the school or come be a volunteer. This would be an opportunity to really be involved and make a difference without giving a lot of your time. Come talk about your Wesleyan experience, your job, your interests. It’s a chance to expose the students to a variety of life experiences.
In 1993 when Judge McGee conceived the idea of opening a charter school, he did so with one basic belief and with one goal. The belief: All children are brilliant. All children can learn. The goal: to help each child develop to his/her full potential. Indicated by the work that she has done so far and the work that she continues to do, it is clear that Michele has fully embraced Judge McGee’s belief and goal for the students of the Harriet Tubman Charter School.
If you’re interested in supporting the school, inquiries about how you can volunteer for the school, become a mentor, and/or make a financial contribution can be forwarded to Michele Pierce at email@example.com. You may also contact Michele at:
Harriet Tubman Charter School
3565 3rd Avenue
Bronx, NY 10456