Deitra Colquitt

Deitra Colquitt, a four-time graduate of the UMSL College of Education and co-principal at Pershing Elementary School, is one of eight educators in the United States to take part in the paid fellowship. EdSurge is matching Colquitt with an editor to chronicle her experiences as a school leader at Pershing during the 2021-22 school year. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Over the course of her professional and academic career, Deitra Colquitt has mastered the art of writing research papers, emails and staff and parent communications. However, in Colquitt’s book, that doesn’t necessarily make her a writer.

The challenge of crafting a narrative and finding a way to tell her story is what attracted her to EdSurge’s inaugural Voices of Change Writing Fellowship.

“I was scrolling through Twitter, and I had always followed and read articles through EdSurge,” Colquitt said. “When I was scrolling one day, I saw their advertisement for Voices of Change. When I was reading through the goals of the program and what they were trying to do, it was something that I felt like would complement the work that I’m trying to do as a school leader.”

For not considering herself a writer, Colquitt, the co-principal at Pershing Elementary School in University City, Missouri, and a University of Missouri–St. Louis College of Education graduate, still beat out more than 300 other applicants to become one of eight educators in the United States to take part in the paid fellowship.

“For some reason, I’ve told myself I’m not a good writer, but I write all the time,” she said. “As a principal, you have to write all the time. It’s going to help me challenge the thoughts that I have about myself as a writer, and I just think it’s a good opportunity to explore the great stories that are happening in University City.”

To do so, EdSurge is matching Colquitt with an editor to chronicle her experiences at Pershing during the 2021-22 school year.

A commitment to highlighting underrepresented identities among educators and students is central to the Voices of Change Writing Fellowship, and the fellows will explore how school communities are adapting to meet the needs of all learners – especially in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the broader national conversation about structural and systemic racism.

“We are excited to welcome this amazing class of Voices of Change writing fellows,” said Stephen Noonoo, a K-12 editor at EdSurge said in announcing the class June 15. “Each and every one of them are superlative educators — the kind whose students will remember for the rest of their lives. It is not lost on us that we are inaugurating this cohort at the tail end of one of the most difficult years imaginable in education. The indomitable will of educators to persevere — and to pass that invaluable skill along to their students — leaves us in awe. And it’s these stories that we’re excited to begin sharing with EdSurge readers and the world.”

Colquitt is still shocked that she was selected.

“I think that’s still settling in,” she said. “I don’t think I really have let that sink in – how many people were interested in getting their stories out and to have somebody believe that the story I have to tell is one that a lot of people should hear.”

Her story begins in the School District of University City, the very school system she attended as a child and where she is now an administrator, and runs through UMSL.

Upon graduation, she pursued post graduate studies at UMSL. Colquitt is certified in middle school (5-9) language arts in 2003, K-12 special reading in 2015 and K-8 school leadership (2019). Colquitt’s degrees range from a bachelor of science to an educational specialist degree.

Her experience at UMSL kept getting better and better as she returned for subsequent degrees. She credits her success as an educator and student to her cohorts and experienced faculty members such as Tom Hoerr, scholar in residence in the Department of Educator Preparation and Leadership.

During the 19-20 school year, as Colquitt was completing her EdS, an opportunity presented itself at Pershing. The previous principal retired at the end of the school year, and the search for a new school leader was starting.

Colquitt and her colleague Jessica Hawkins had an idea – something outside of the box.

“We knew that our school district would be looking for his successor,” she said. “We just thought it would be a great example to model what distributive leadership could look like, what shared leadership could look like as we followed the vision created for our school district under the leadership of Dr. Sharonica Hardin Bartley.”

“We started doing some research on principal burnout and different modes of leadership. We’re trying to rethink school as a whole. Not only did we rethink the principalship with a co-leadership model, we began our journey on community-based redesign to redesign what a public school can look like.”

The community-based redesign is modeled on Stanford University’s Design Thinking methodology, and the goal is to give community members what they want and need in a school.

Colquitt and Hawkins noticed that charter schools have become alluring to many families for a variety of reasons. Some charter schools offer an alternative to the traditional school model and they often solicit feedback from parents on a variety of topics while creating the school. In an effort to reach parents and community members, the Pershing staff has conducted empathy interviews to find out what people like and dislike about the school.

Thus far, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

“We started having what we call community listening sessions with our parents, and that went over very well,” Colquitt said. “They were like, ‘Oh, you really want to know what I have to say? Nobody has ever asked me.’”

It’s one of the many things Colquitt will document during the Voices of Change Writing Fellowship. She has several narrative ideas, but the one she’s most excited about is examining what it means to be a Black Missourian living and working in University City. In particular, she’s interested in exploring her history as a student in the School District of University City and what it’s like to return to the district as an administrator.

Colquitt hopes that writing about her experiences can offer a different perspective on education, particularly for parents who often don’t get to see the work that goes on behind the scenes at schools.

That’s how she intends to make change this school year – one story at a time.

“I think that is what I’m trying to do, highlight the great things that are happening in one elementary school in one district,” she said, “because I’m pretty sure there’s somebody in another place who will have a similar story.”

Burk Krohe

Burk Krohe