By Jean M. Wallace, MAEd
CEO, Green Woods Charter School, Philadelphia
As a young girl, I spent every summer at the Jersey shore. I loved the beach! I’d stand by the water’s edge and simply marvel at the vastness of the ocean. With my red plastic bucket in hand, I would spend countless hours exploring the small tide pools and discovering the diversity of life that lived within the ocean current. It was fascinating to me and, looking out over the horizon I always imagined to myself, “What is out there?”
When I went to high school, I had to meet with my high school counselor to help chart my course through high school and beyond. The defining moment for me was when my counselor asked me, “What do you want to do in life?” My response was clear and direct, “I want to be a marine biologist!” I said. The counselor then asked, “Can your parents afford to send you to college?” “No” I replied. “Then I will put you in the Commercial Course track so that you can learn something productive and get a job.”
I spent the next three years learning how to cook, sew, do bookkeeping and stenography, be a salesperson in a “Retail Selling” course for which I received an F. Best of all I learned how to work a keypunch machine. Not one of these courses interested me. I hated high school and I missed more than 30 days of my senior year. I graduated in June of 1970 with all As and Bs as an unmotivated, miserable, but “productive” member of society.
Getting past the obstacles
I always knew that I wanted to work with animals. But not living near a coastal environment, I decided that the next best thing to working with marine animals, would be working at the Philadelphia Zoo. After graduating from high school I landed a summer job as the Children’s Zoo and spent the next two summers educating the public about the animals under my care. I searched for full-time work at the Zoo and learned of an opening as a Zoo Keeper. I went to apply for the position, but was told that I was a “woman” and the job of Zoo Keeper was a job for a man.
My family was a family of very proud blue collar workers. My father and mother, as well as my brother, grandmother and grandfather all worked for the City of Philadelphia. One day my mom came home and told me that the City was looking to hire women as police officers. This came as a result of a court order to settle a gender discrimination suit. I applied, took the test, and was accepted as one of the first 100 women on the police force in Philadelphia.
The next 18 years were spent working in a job that was very exciting and, in many ways, extremely rewarding. Most of my work was undercover and I enjoyed the many roles I got to play. It also gave me the job security I needed and, as a result, I was able to help provide for my daughter so that she could attend some of the best private schools in the city where I knew there would be no barriers placed on her dreams or her opportunities. She is now exploring a master’s degree in “green” architecture.
After almost 18 years with the City, I was retired from the Police Department due to an injury. But I was too young to simply do nothing. Although my dream of a career in science wasn’t realized after high school, my love of animals and the environment never faded. I set out on a new course and took my first class in college when I was forty years old.
After many years of taking courses, I now hold a Bachelor’s Degree, Master’s Degree, and four Pennsylvania Certifications in education. The one that allows me to have the most influence on young women, and all of my students, is my Principal’s Certification. With this certification, I now have the ability to successfully and enthusiastically mentor and motivate an entire generation of young women to go into the field of environmental science. My girls – and all of my students – can be anything they want!
Taking steps toward a greener planet and a relevant education
I joined Green Woods Charter School in 2004 as the person responsible for guiding the development of, what is now, our award-winning curriculum. After many years of hard work and the opportunity to work with a talented and dedicated team of educators, our school now enjoys both a local and statewide reputation for excellence in teaching environmental science. Our students (boys and girls) outscore their peers in state-wide science exams. As a result, they are recruited from 8th grade into some of the top high schools in the city.
What is most exciting for me, however, is that my girls actively seek the opportunity to apply to the Science Leadership Academy (SLA), an amazing high school in Philadelphia that operates in partnership with the Franklin Institute. SLA is operated by Chris Lehmann, a progressive leader in education who believes, as I do, that all children should be given an opportunity to learn in a challenging environment and that girls and boys should be encouraged and motivated to follow their dreams. My girls and boys both go on to high school learning about how the environment works, as well as their place in it and their responsibility to it.
Through our actions, as well as our words, we should never stop challenging children to excel in school. But, we also have to change the way that education is delivered so that children find meaning in school and understand that high school, in particular, is another step on the road to what they will be in their life as an adult. Too many children see no point in high school as they aren’t able to see that they have any future beyond the high school years. Believe me, I understand that feeling. Not only was my dream of becoming a marine biologist not encouraged, it was crushed by a system of education, and a society as a whole, that either tracked my academic ability based on my financial status or decided my professional ability to do a job based on my gender.
This may sound simple, but I believe that we can all be mentors to both young women and young men. As adults, we need to be sure that no doors are ever closed on children that will create barriers to their education or their dreams. More importantly, as adults, we need to ensure that a quality education, for all children, remains a civil right that should not be taken away from any child.
(The Green Woods Charter School offers a K-8th grade curriculum that emphasizes interconnectedness among people and the natural environment. Learn more at its website.)