Howard Fields still gets emotional remembering the day he lined up for commencement inside the Mark Twain Athletic Center at the University of Missouri–St. Louis in December 2007.
Having completed his associate degree at St. Louis Community College before transferring to UMSL for his bachelor’s degree in physical education, Fields – who grew up in the nearby Cool Valley Apartments – was excited to soon become the first college graduate in his family. But when he gave his name, he was told he was not on the list, and was instructed to get in a different line.
Frightened, he called his mother, who was on her way to the ceremony with the rest of his family, to tell her to wait. He assumed he must not have passed one of his finals and would not be graduating that day. But when he moved over to the other line and gave his name again, he not only found it on the list – he discovered that he had graduated with honors.
“I’ll never forget that,” he said. “I was just conditioned to think something was wrong. For a split second, I just didn’t have that level of confidence. And UMSL helped instill that confidence. Once I realized that I graduated with honors, I was like, ‘Hold on for a sec, what if I go 1,000% in with confidence?’”
Bolstered by his success in the College of Education, Fields – who also met his wife, Nancy, at UMSL – decided to pursue his master’s in education administration, hoping to land a position as an athletic director. He earned his master’s in 2009 and would go on to receive his EdS degree in 2012 and, later, his PhD in 2017.
During his time at UMSL, faculty including Associate Professor Natalie Bolton and the late Associate Professor Matthew Davis reshaped Fields’ understanding of education, encouraging him to get involved in discourse and showing him how to use statistics to make data-driven decisions in the classroom. Lynn Beckwith Jr., the former E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor of Urban Education at UMSL, served on Fields’ dissertation committee and also proved to be a pivotal mentor.
“His very high expectations and regard for students and supporting students – especially Black students – ended up having a fantastic impact on me and the work that I’ve done,” Fields said.
Fields had been working as a physical education teacher in the Riverview Gardens School District for four years when a couple of the administrators encouraged him to apply for a leadership position. He was initially hesitant – his sights were set firmly in athletics, and he didn’t want a job that would involve speaking or writing – but he was convinced to interview for the position and would up getting the job. After working as an assistant principal in the district, he started as principal of Koch Elementary in the 2014-15 school year, overseeing the school during the unrest in nearby Ferguson.
“Some of those battles and challenges I had from a leadership standpoint, I was equipped as one could have been given the circumstances because of all of the learning and all of the support that I was receiving at UMSL,” he said.
He spent nine years in the Riverview Gardens School District before serving as head principal in the Webster Groves School District for three years, overseeing both the Steger Sixth Grade Center and Dr. Henry Givens Jr. Elementary School. Currently, he serves as assistant superintendent of human resources in the Kirkwood School District, and is now in his fourth year in the position.
Although Fields initially did not want to become an administrator because he disliked speaking and writing, he has gone on to write several books and speak at events across the globe, focusing on topics including inclusion, student performance disparities, diversity and systemic racism. His first book, “How to Achieve Educational Equity,” was published in 2021, and his second, “Transfers & Open Enrollment: The Denigration of Black School Communities,” was published this past June.
The latter builds on research Fields conducted during his dissertation and reflects back on the decade since the Breitenfeld vs. School District of Clayton decision in June 2013, which allowed students from unaccredited school districts to transfer to accredited school districts at the expense of the unaccredited school district. The book examines the impact of these educational policies on Black schools and communities, and Fields said it’s receiving a lot of interest from school districts from a policy standpoint.
“Some of the feedback I’ve received from my book is that it humanizes the individuals who are nameless, in terms of the impact,” he said. “It’s relatively easy for us to say, ‘Okay, we’re going to enact this policy, we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do that.’ But how do those policies impact school districts? How do those policies impact families? How do those policies impact our educators and our students? These are the questions and the pieces of research we have to look into as we look at the unintended consequences of some of these decisions. We have to continue to look for opportunities to increase learner outcomes for all of our kids, regardless of their ZIP code or their socio-economic status.”
Fields is also passionate about recruiting, developing, supporting and mentoring Black educators. He and fellow UMSL alum Darryl Diggs Jr. launched the State of Black Educators Symposium in 2020 and also run Black Males in Education St. Louis, a platform designed to foster connections and offer mentorship for Black men in the classroom. Fields is also a co-founder of Edu Openings, which aims to drive interest in education and help fill the teacher shortage.
Looking back on his decision to continue furthering his education at UMSL, he remembers Davis telling him that doors would open “immensely” for him after receiving his doctoral degree from the university.
“Immensely was an understatement,” he said. “He was absolutely correct. As someone who likes to pour into others, as someone who likes to always learn, as someone who likes to problem-solve, I’m able to do all of that, not just in my work that I do, but in my consulting and writing and essentially, me just leveraging things that I’ve learned from UMSL.
“UMSL is by far one of the more fascinating institutions I’ve had a chance to be a part of. I’ve been in programs at Harvard for negotiation and leadership and I’ve recently completed the superintendent preparation course through Howard University. From an academic standpoint, I believe I continue to shine because of the relationships and experiences I’ve had at UMSL. UMSL is the institution, from my experiences, where they’re going to push you. It’s not going to be easy, but it is going to be a space where you are going to be supported. You’re going to meet some fantastic people. UMSL was absolutely phenomenal for me.”
The 2024 State of Black Educators Symposium will be held at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center on Feb. 23. Tickets are available here.