In many respects Kim Dacres ’08 does not fit the mold of the traditional principal. Growing up, Dacres remembers all of her principals as old, white men. She’s a twenty-eight-year-old, black woman from the Bronx.
In four years at Williams, Dacres served as a JA, student body president, and a leader of the BSU and Sankofa. Despite these accomplishments, she entered senior year unsure of her path. On a suggestion from a friend she applied to Teach for America and ended up returning to her hometown of the Bronx.
Six years later, she is at the helm of a charter school in Harlem that is dedicated to empowering students to be active citizens. She spends her days participating in sixth grade classroom discussions, leading meetings with teachers and parents, and answering phone calls from students seeking advice. Last year, she was able to bring two of her favorite pastimes from Williams to the school: step dancing and rugby. I met Dacres a few days before the start of the school year to learn about her journey into the world of education.
How did you end up at Williams?
My family has always been very big on education. Neither of my parents finished college. It was impressed upon us that we need to succeed in life and that the first step is education because nobody can take that away from you.
I grew up in the Bronx. I entered a college prep program that placed me at Lawrenceville – a big, fancy prep school.
When it came to college, my counselor said, “Why don’t you consider Williams?”
I thought she was misleading me because I’d never heard of it. Then I went and visited and fell in love. I decided it would be a great fit because it would allow me to be a part of a community that I could change.
How did you get started working in education?
I wasn’t sure what I was going to do after Williams, but I knew that I wasn’t built for an office job. Even still, I started the process of applying for a consulting job. A senior reached out and suggested I apply for Teach for America. It never occurred to me to think of teaching. I applied, got in, and got placed back in my hometown in the Bronx.
I spent three years as a fifth grade English as a Second Language teacher. I loved the kids and the school, but ultimately I didn’t get along with the principal.
What came next?
I started to look for other civically minded organizations helping to work with kids. That’s when I stumbled upon Democracy Prep. It was a place that reminded me of Williams in the sense that, if you’re good at what you do, people will give you more to do. At Williams you find that a lot of people wear different hats. For example, I played rugby, but I was also on Sankofa and was the CC President and was on BSU.
Democracy Prep was doing a turnaround of the worst performing charter school in Harlem. Over the course of the year we turned it around into one of the highest performing schools. I drew a lot on the experiences I had at Williams with Sankofa and the rugby team. There was a sense of: “we just have to get this done.”
That experience solidified in me the idea that I love students, but I also love working with a team of adults who have the same positive mindset as me. I started off as a reading teacher and an art teacher. Then they asked if I wanted to be the lead reading teacher. Then I was asked to be the assistant principal as the charter school expanded. Then we were growing and adding a middle school, and I was asked to be the principal.
The face of educational leadership is changing. It’s starting to look more like me – not only in the age sense, but also in the race and gender sense. It’s not just old, white men who are principals.
Education is a place where you can move up quickly. It can be difficult and you don’t make as much money as people in the financial sector, but I love my job, and I can’t imagine doing anything else.
How was the adjustment last year when you became the head of the school?
That was tough. I was used to managing my classroom, but managing and inspiring a team of adults is not easy work. You have to be a people person on multiple levels in order to get the respect of the students, parents, and teachers. I’m driven by being a part of a team and that’s what I have here. Teams tell each other tough things, but teams also have your back and are there to pick you up.
I didn’t get a lot of sleep, but I think it was a great learning experience in terms of “how can I be better in order to help everyone else?”
What’s the mission of the school at a high level?
Our mission is to educate responsible citizen-scholars for success in the college of the their choice and a life of active citizenship. The piece about active citizenship of empowering students to be the change they want to see in their community is what drives me. The students can see the world around them, evaluate what they want to change, and then take the steps to do that.
One of the stories I tell the students is about change at Williams. I say, “I went to Williams and there were things I didn’t like, so I worked to change them.” Even just by saying, “this isn’t right, I don’t agree with this,” you never know how many people you might inspire.
What were some of the changes you worked on at Williams?
I helped to start Claiming Williams Day, which began as Stand With Us. It was born from an incident where someone had written something offensive on a door. Morgan Goodwin ’09 and I were CC Presidents at the time, and I remember being very infuriated. I was a JA, and I remember having entry conversations about it and going to other entries and talking about it. Still, people were saying that it wasn’t enough because issues like this happen every year. I thought, “we need to have a day where we just stop and talk.”
That instilled a belief that change starts with us. Claiming Williams began as a group of students and faculty sitting around in Paresky. We brainstormed what we wanted the day to look like so that we could create something just as annual as Mountain Day.
I wasn’t at the first Claiming Williams Day, but I went back for the second one, and I was amazed. We were able to get people to come together who normally would not come together.
I try to instill that message of overcoming differences, respecting each other, and working together to my staff and my students.
When you were at Williams, what were some of the other paths you thought about outside of teaching?
I interned for two summers at an Art Institute in college. My senior year I kept saying, “I don’t know what I want to do.” It was a big conflict for me because I didn’t have the financial flexibility to take a year off to explore the world or start an art studio. Art was always a passion for me, but now it’s turned into more of a hobby. It’s not as serious as my original dreams of showing work around the world.
Before your friend mentioned Teach for America, were you applying for other teaching jobs?
I really had no idea what I was going to do. I knew I couldn’t sit behind a desk, and I knew I wanted to work with people in a real way. I’m a very energetic person. I like to be moving around working on different things. A school is very active – there are always 90,000 things going on at any one time. So it’s perfect for me.
I know Teach for America can be tough. Were there any moments where you questioned teaching as a path for you?
There weren’t moments where I questioned teaching, but there were moments where I questioned why other people were teachers. Sometimes there can be a savior complex in teaching. A sense of “these kids” instead of “our kids.” In my mind, the kids were mine. Some people struggle because they think of them as somebody else’s children.
Are there stories that stand out from your time as a principal?
Every time a student calls me after hours and asks me for help on homework or on something else – knowing that I can be a trusted advisor for students – I live for that moment. I had a student call me the other day to ask for help getting a work permit.
Do you still spend time in the classroom?
I live in the classroom. I’m never in my office. My role is to be the instructional leader of the school so my job is to be in the classroom and give feedback on how they can manage the class better – how they can structure lessons better and frame questions in a way that will spark students.
Do you have a sense of where you’d like to be 5-10 years from now?
I know I want to be in a school. Some people don’t like schools – they’re dirty, there are germs everywhere. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
What do you see as the activism and change you’re bringing to Harlem now?
My job is to make sure that the adults are as civically minded as they need to be in order to teach students. I want students to be literate members of the community to make it better. We’re not just working hard so they can get into college and choose whatever profession they want. It’s work hard, go to college, change the world.
I plan on being a lifelong Harlem resident. I want my students to be the figures that come back and change this city. They can do it. They’re smart and talented.
How have you come to define success?
Part of it is that I need to be able to make money. I want to be able to provide for my family because they’ve been there for me. But that’s not all of it. The need for money is the smallest component. The other factors are whether I’m happy when I wake up and whether I’m exhausted when I go to bed because I had such a fulfilling day.
What advice would you give a Williams student preparing for the real world?
Before you leave Williams, you need to make sure you step outside of your comfort zone in terms of people who you’ve interacted with. Some people spend all their time with their entry or their team or an interest group. Spend time getting to know people outside of those groups. Being able to talk to different people and hold a conversation about different things is critical – no one asks about your GPA. It’s not about what you can do on paper – it’s the interpersonal skills. Williams is the best place to learn those.
My experiences at Williams have taught me that if I really want to get something done, I can do that, but I need to be prepared to work with others and rely on them to help see it through. It’s a good place to learn teamwork.