The Bigger Picture

In It to Win It: Affecting Change Right Where You Are

Image by Tamarcus Brown,

A lot people say they want change, but a lot more people aren’t willing to do what it takes to bring about that change. I’ve seen this play out in a reality TV show and in my own community over the last week, each with markedly different results.

Reality TV Imitating Life

From “Married at First Sight: Second Chances.”

I confess, I have a guilty pleasure: live-tweeting a TV show or two. My current indulgence is the FYI spin-off reality show, Married At First Sight: Second Chances. (Do not judge me.) The premise of the original “Married at First Sight” franchise was that three couples marry complete strangers, chosen by a panel of relationship experts, and as the title of the show implies, they don’t see or meet their new spouse-to-be until they’re at the altar. It’s exactly what you think it would be. And more.

So with Married at First Sight: Second Chances, two affable fan favorites from the second season whose marriages didn’t quite work out, Vanessa and David, are brought back on this new show for an experience that looks a lot like ABC’s The Bachelor/Bachelorette. Vanessa and David weed out hopefuls in search of the future Mr. Vanessa and Mrs. Watching the divorcees interact with the hopefuls is at times funny, sometimes maddening, but always entertaining.

One disturbing trend I noticed on the show last week was that a male hopeful Vanessa was interested in and a female hopeful David found promising either no-showed or showed up late for the date. Who does that? Who auditions for a reality show, jumps through all sorts of flaming hoops, makes it through two rounds of cuts, and then no-shows? Who?!

And they had the nerve to wonder why they got cut? That’s pathetic—wait, that’s apathy.

In My Own Backyard

I see that happen in real life as well. A lot of people want change in their lives in any number of areas, but they’re not willing to at least show up. In order to win it, you have to be in it.

I live in close proximity to a predominantly black elementary school. This is the same school I attended in grades 1-6, which also happens to be the same school where my mother taught for thirty-eight years. I have two great-nieces who currently attend the same school. Many of the original principals, faculty, and students over the decades have either been personal friends of my parents or classmates of mine. Even now, when I’m out and about in town, some of my mom’s former students fondly ask about her. As you can guess, my ties to the school are personal.

Over the past decade or so, the school has had a number of ill-suited principals—none truly vested in the students’ education as evidenced by the school’s F rating. The worst in the county.

Summer 2015

The Orange County School Board (OCPS) tore down the original 50+ year-old school, cleared the lot, and built a brand new, state of the art school. They also brought in a new black principal, a former resident of the neighborhood and graduate of the school. In his two years at the school, this new principal made unprecedented accomplishments in the students’ academics, morale, and community involvement, which include—

2015-2016 School Year

  • School grade jumped two letter grades from F to C
  • Prior to the new principal’s arrival the school was the lowest performing school in the entire district
  • The school previously received back-to-back F ratings and three consecutive D ratings before that
  • Recognized by Governor Scott for math rankings on the 2016 Florida Student Assessment (186/3,197 ranking among all schools, 138/1,796 ranking among all elementary schools, 127/1,781 ranking among all Title 1 schools

2016-2017 School Year

  • School grade predicted to be a high C or low B rating
  • Exemplary stakeholder satisfaction ratings as evidenced by AdvancEd surveys
  • In-school and out-of-school suspension rates below 1.5%
  • Increased number of community partners over two years (highlight: support of a silent business council that provided $21k last year and $23k for the school’s 5th grade trip to Washington, DC)
  • School now has multiple student clubs and parent outreach projects. Most notable SECME, Golf, Karate, All Pro Dads, All Pro Moms, implementing Academic Parent Teach Teams–a Harvard initiative.
  • Implemented school’s first Beta Club
  • Next year the principal will implement the National Elementary School Honor Society


There was a “rumor” going around that OCPS had plans of transferring the principal to another school. I didn’t expect to have as visceral reaction to the news as I did, but it infuriated me. The community couldn’t afford to let that happen. The school had a more-than-capable principal who had begun to move an at-risk school in a different direction.

I couldn’t sit by and do nothing. I’m not one for demonstrating, but I’m one for writing. After speaking with a few people, I decided to write a letter to the school board.

I recalled an article I read in The New York Times about the positive impact of black educators have on same-race students. The article mentioned a recent study by the IZA Institute of Labor Economics (initiated by Deutsche Post Foundation) that documented the impact black educators and have on same-race student. With the presence of same-race educators—

  • black students are less likely to drop out of high school
  • their grades improve exponentially
  • and they’re more like to aspire to graduate from college

In short, they have a brighter future. As someone who has benefited from having same-race principals and educators, and a varied career in entertainment, design, and writing, I am well-acquainted with the challenges these students will face in life and what they need to become productive members of society: a good foundation in elementary education and a principal who understands society’s quickly changing professional landscape, grasps the role technology plays, and has the knowledge and skills to help them reach their fullest potential. Without a firm foundation in elementary school, those kids would fall further behind in junior high school and high school, and potentially become another statistic on the evening news.

Note: I’m not advocating a return to the separate but equal lie. What I am advocating is giving black and brown kids every advantage possible in order for them to have the same opportunities to succeed as other kids.

The Scarlet Letter 

A week ago Sunday, I emailed a letter to the key decision makers and explained that to transfer this fantastic new principal to another school when he’s hardly had time to bring the school to its full stature as a place of learning would be detrimental to the students and diametrically oppose the school board’s stated mission “to be the top producer of successful students in nation and to lead students to success with the support and involvement of families and the community.”

The letter also included a request not to supplant the principal’s progress by replacing him with a new principal who would have to start from ground zero with the faculty and student body. I also requested to meet with the school board superintendent.

The Waiting Is the Hardest Part 

I knew the folks downtown were swamped with responsibilities and I might not get a reply straightaway, so I impatiently wait a few days.

Five days later I hadn’t heard a thing. So around noon I called the superintendent’s office to follow-up with her, but I had a nice “conversation” with her pleasant secretary/assistant instead. She found my letter and explained that an assistant superintendent was responsible for making recommendations based on all sorts of data to the superintendent regarding principal assignments, but the superintendent made the final decision.

The secretary said that as far as she knew there we no plans to transfer our principal. She also said she would forward the letter to the assistant superintendent and began to rush me off the phone; but not before I stressed that I looked forward to a response from someone acknowledging receipt of the letter, at the very least in the near future.

An hour and a half later, I received a reply from the assistant superintendent stating they were happy with Dr. Stephens’ work, he’d done a fantastic job, and they had no plans of transferring him.

The Wrap-Up

So again, this is not about what a fantastic writer I am. That’s not the case at all. I’m recounting this story as an example of what can happen when you show up and take an active role in getting the results you seek. When you accept the status quo because you think there’s no use in trying or you have no right to expect the situation to change. If it’s a matter of not knowing what to do, you do your research and go for it.

Sometimes affecting change demands a huge amount of time, energy, and boldly stepping out of your comfort zone in faith. Other times, all that’s required is simply being present and doing what you were created to do. But you’ll never know if you don’t try.

And if you like, I’ll keep you posted on how Vanessa and David do on Married at First Sight: Second Chances.

Love one another.