Wanda Brown, who led Hickman, Smithton, retires as assistant superintendent

Thursday, May 24, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:23 p.m. CDT, Thursday, May 24, 2012
Wanda Brown, who has been a teacher, assistant principal, principal and assistant superintendent in the district, will retire at the end of this school year after 34 years with Columbia Public Schools.

COLUMBIA — From the time she was a girl, Wanda Brown knew she was going to be a teacher.

"I used to play school all the time and, of course, I had to be the teacher all the time," she said. "I used to alienate a lot of friends, too, because they wanted to be the teacher some time, but I wouldn’t let them."

After 34 years with Columbia Public Schools as a teacher, assistant principal, principal and, most recently, assistant superintendent for secondary education, Brown will retire at the end of this school year.

Brown started with the district in the late 1970s teaching at Hickman High School. She was an assistant principal there before leaving to open Smithton Middle School as principal. She returned to Hickman as the school’s first African-American principal before moving into district administration.

Brown has seen the district grow from about 11,000 students in the late 1970s and early 1980s to almost 18,000 students and 2,610 employees this year. During the past five years, she has played a major role in planning the district’s revamping of secondary education, which she sees as one of her biggest accomplishments.

In fall 2013, schools will change to a grade-level configuration in which students in grades six through eight will attend intermediate schools and students in grades nine through 12 will attend high schools. Battle High School is set to open then.

To accommodate the changes, the district has redrawn school attendance boundaries, reworked its transfer policy, reallocated staff and more.

"We have done some huge projects this year that will be really good things for kids," Brown said.

She said she is happy to have had a hand in forming Battle, which was named for Muriel Battle, who helped integrate Columbia's schools and whom Brown called a mentor.

"It's a really special place to have been involved in the opening of that high school," Brown said.

A life in education

While growing up in Fulton, Brown attended George Washington Carver Elementary, a segregated school. She called it a good experience; all of her teachers were African-American, and she said she saw them as amazing people and role models with extremely high expectations.

In seventh grade, the transition to an integrated school, where all teachers were white, was not difficult, she said.

A first-generation college student, Brown attended what is now William Woods University but at the time was William Woods College and all female. She completed her master's and doctoral degrees at MU.

Brown started teaching English at Hickman almost straight out of college. Because she taught juniors and seniors, some of her students were only about three years younger than she was. To set herself apart, she began a lifelong habit of dressing professionally, trying to wear suits and heels despite Hickman's lack of air conditioning then.

She said her favorite class to teach was American Culture, a combination of American literature and American history that she team-taught for about five years with Hank Landry, a former Hickman social studies teacher.

"We both wanted to excel in our teaching, but there was no ego that got in the way when we planned," Landry said. 

Landry said Brown was good at breaking down information so students could understand it no matter what learning level. She had high expectations of students, but they tried to meet them, trusting that what she was giving them to do would make them better, Landry said.

He also said it was good for their students to see an African-American woman and a white man working together.

When teaching American Culture, Brown most enjoyed teaching the Romantic movement, especially the work of Edgar Allan Poe.

"Kids would come from miles around to see me read 'The Raven,' I used to joke with Hank," she said.

At William Woods, she minored in speech and theater, so she has some knowledge of acting, which pays off as a teacher, she said.

Brown said she likes her current position in administration because it allows her to make a difference on a larger scale. However, she does miss being closer to students and faculty.

"I miss the fact that right before school starts, there's no one knocking on my door needing something," she said.

Meeting needs of students, schools

Brown said her favorite memories with the district come from her years as a school principal.

While she was principal at Hickman, the football team won the state championship at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. Brown said, as a Rams fan, she thought it was cool to stand on the field where the team plays, but she also enjoyed seeing older men wearing Hickman jackets from their high school days.

"To see the pride that people had about being a Kewpie and being involved in a football state championship, that was pretty cool," she said.

At Smithton, when the school's opening was delayed, students were spread among several schools. Thanks to a student-centered staff, she said, they were able to survive that year and create a school culture and tradition she thinks are still there.

Brown is proud of having helped the district start the Minority Achievement Committee Scholars program in 2001. The program, modeled after one in Shaker Heights, Ohio, creates a safe space to celebrate academic achievement for minority students and increase the number of minority students in Advanced Placement and honors courses, Brown said.

MAC Scholars started in Columbia with about 10 students; today, there are hundreds.

"The most intriguing thing about Wanda is that there's never a time that she won't go above and beyond to help service a student or a group of students or faculty members who have expressed needs or whose needs that she recognizes as being unmet," said Jan Mees, a Columbia School Board member and former president.

Mees recalled a time when Brown's understanding of human nature helped her at a critical juncture. When Mees decided to retire as Hickman’s school library media specialist in 2005, she gave her resignation letter to Brown.

Mees was upset and crying. Brown handed the letter back and told her to take another year to think about retiring and decide whether it was really what she wanted to do. Mees took her advice and stayed one more year.

Finding the best solutions

Tracey Conrad, the current principal at Hickman, said Brown is a collaborative leader — unafraid to make decisions but appreciative of other points of view. She also knows the benefits of empowering teachers, Conrad said.

"The thing about Dr. Brown is that if she had a concern, she would address it with you, but she would do it in such a way that it was evident that she respected your opinion," Conrad said.

Superintendent Chris Belcher said that when he thinks of Brown, he pictures her laughing and smiling. She looks at the positive opportunities that come out of topics that are not necessarily positive, such as student behavior, teacher issues and budgets, he said.

He acknowledged that Brown's job can draw criticism because she deals with topics in which people sometimes don’t think they get their "fair shake." He said he doesn't hear much of that, though; people are comfortable enough with Brown to talk to her directly.

Brown said that while working as an administrator, there have been times when people weren't happy.

She recalled one situation that followed the state's decision to stop funding its half of Career Ladder, a program that rewarded teachers for additional activities and responsibilities and for meeting certain criteria.

The school board decided to continue funding the district's portion of the former Career Ladder program. The district worked with a committee of teachers to develop a program called Supplemental Pay, with new criteria and activities based on student achievement. Brown said she hopes people felt they were heard in that discussion.

Brown said she is upfront that not everyone will get what they want, but the bottom line in any decision is what is best for students. If you live your life that way, she said, people will understand.

At Hickman, in dealing with a large building, Brown had to weigh the needs of small groups against those of larger groups and sometimes had to say no to people, said Doug Mirts, assistant principal in charge of activities and athletics. Still, she was generally successful in explaining why decisions were made, he said.

Mirts, who was a student when Brown taught at Hickman, said she has been a great role model, not only for African-American and female students but also to him as an administrator.

"She's touched a lot of groups," he said.

Conrad said she has gone to Brown for advice in situations in which she was dealing with someone with whom she didn't agree. Brown helped her see the issue through the other person's eyes.

"She wouldn't always give you the answer you wanted, but you understood the reasoning behind a decision," Conrad said.

Belcher said he and Brown make a good team because she's blunt and honest with him — he knows there's a big discussion coming when she comes into his office and calls him "Christopher."

If they disagree on an issue, they discuss it and figure out what they need to do, compromising in ways that are more successful than their individual plans, he said.

"We've been able to manage things in a very effective manner, and manage change with a staff of 2,600 employees, multiple buildings, a very involved community, because multiple viewpoints coming to a problem sort of protect us from taking that step that just blows up in your face," Belcher said.

The district took actions that could have been more controversial this year, such as redrawing the school attendance areas, but the bond issue and tax levy increase still passed the April 3 election. Brown said that shows that parents put their children first.

She doesn't think the recent district projects she has worked on will ever be quite out of her hands, because she will think about them next year, no matter what she’s doing.

The only plan Brown, 57, has for after she retires is a trip to the Caribbean with a group of friends, a trip to "celebrate life," she said.

After that, she's ready for a new adventure. She would love to work with first-generation college students or with students in Kansas City or St. Louis, she said.

Brown plans to stay in Columbia for at least the first year after she retires, possibly for the rest of her life, but she also said she is interested in Atlanta, where her son, George Galbreath, is a high school art teacher. 

Brown said she will miss graduations. She enjoys watching students walking across the stage, especially students she knows have faced tremendous challenges in getting there.

"I love seeing kids throw those caps up in the air," she said, "and that sense of accomplishment that they have with the high school diploma." 

When Brown taught American Culture, she most enjoyed teaching the Romantic movement, especially the work of Edgar Allan Poe. The Missourian asked her to read Poe's "The Raven," which she did recently at Hickman High School.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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