I met Kim Dacres ’08 on a rainy afternoon at the Democracy Prep Middle School in East Harlem. As we climbed the four flights of stairs to her office, one thing became very clear: Dacres has a lot of energy. While I labored up the narrow stairwell, Dacres was bounding ahead, taking the steps two or three at a time. When we reached the landing, she gave me a chair and hurried into a classroom to finish instructing the teaching staff in a step dance routine for their upcoming back-to-school assembly.
In many respects Dacres 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.
Her style of leadership is also unique. Rather than hide away in an office, Dacres is a mainstay in the classroom. “I’m never in my office. My job is to be in the classroom and give feedback on how teachers can manage the class better – how they can structure lessons better and frame questions in a way that will spark students.”
Dacres’ life revolves around the school. Even when she’s not in the building, she’s thinking about ways to better serve the students. Last year she worked with friends in the city to introduce rugby as an activity at recess. The year before, she organized an afterschool step dance program.
With students, Dacres takes it upon herself to develop meaningful relationships and draws energy from her ability to be a consistent figure in their lives. “Every time a student calls me after hours and asks me for help – knowing that I can be a trusted advisor for students – I live for that.”
Six years removed from graduation, it seems like a career in education would have been an easy decision for Dacres, but that’s not the case. Like other Ephs, she struggled to find a job that matched her interests. “I really had no idea what I was going to do… It was a big conflict for me because I didn’t have the financial flexibility to take a year off to explore.”
A studio art and political science double major, Dacres spent the two summers prior to graduation interning at art museums. She harbored dreams of traveling the world creating art, but lacked the financial means to do so. Despite the knowledge that she wasn’t built for an office job, Dacres began the process of applying for consulting jobs. Eventually, a friend pushed her to consider Teach for America. “Before that, teaching had never really occurred to me as option.”
Dacres applied to Teach for America, received an offer, and was placed back in her hometown in the Bronx to work with fifth-graders teaching English as a second language. During her tenure at the school, she became aware of a wide range of problems in the school system. “Leaving Williams, I had the theoretical mindset of how I should view the world and question how systems are set up. Now, I was asking ‘what does that look like in practice?’”
After three years in the Bronx, Dacres discovered the Democracy Prep program. At the time, the organization was in the midst of undergoing a one-year turnaround with one of the lowest-performing charter schools in the city. Dacres joined the team as a reading and art teacher. By the end of the year, the school had transformed into one of the highest-performing schools.
“During that year, 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.”
From there, Dacres began to take on more and more responsibility – her enthusiasm driving her to do better and work harder. She quickly became the lead reading teacher. Then, as the school continued to add new grades, she became an assistant principal. In 2012, at the age of twenty-six, she was asked to become the principal for the new middle school.
While there were tough aspects to transitioning away from the classroom, Dacres found her new role ultimately rewarding. “I’m driven by being a part of a team and that’s what I have here… I didn’t get a lot of sleep [the first year], but I think it was a great learning experience in terms of ‘how can I be better in order to help everyone else?’”
Unlike other schools, which focus solely on preparation for college, Democracy Prep’s mission of “Work hard. Go to college. Change the world!” places a heavy emphasis on active citizenship. For Dacres that emphasis is key.
“I want students to be literate members of the community so that they can make it better. We’re not just working hard so they can get into college and choose whatever profession they want… I plan on being a lifelong Harlem resident. I want my students to be the figures that come back and change this city.”
Dacres has firsthand experience with working to change communities. At Williams, she led a variety of organizations, including serving as the student body President. During her tenure, a racist message left on a dorm room prompted a large student protest known as Stand With Us. As a prominent figure on campus, Dacres was thrust to the forefront of the movement.
“I was a JA, and I remember having entry conversations about the incident 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 idea turned into Claiming Williams Day, an annual event where the community comes together to talk about a variety of social issues on campus. “Claiming Williams began as a group of students and faculty sitting around in Paresky. [The experience] instilled a belief that change starts with us… I try to instill that message of overcoming differences, respecting each other, and working together to my staff and my students.”
While Dacres doesn’t know exactly where she’ll be in five or ten years, she is certain that she will remain in schools. “Some people don’t like schools – they’re dirty, there are germs everywhere. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.” Dacres measures her success with two simple questions: “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.” Working in education, addressing the day-to-day challenges of her community, provides that sense of fulfillment and fuels her enthusiasm.
When asked what advice she would pass on to Williams students, Dacres emphasized the need to step outside your comfort zone and meet different types of people.
“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.”
She also stressed the power of teams to enact change. “My experiences at Williams 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.”
Those lessons of perseverance and teamwork are helping Dacres lead teachers, parents, and administrators as they prepare 280 students for lives of influence. In the coming years, Dacres’ enthusiasm and desire to help others will allow her to inspire change in Harlem and beyond.
Watch Dacres’ advice for Williams students: