Angela Nikki Romans works relentlessly in actualizing the promise and possibilities of historically underserved young people. She invests in proliferating pathways of success traveling from cradle to classroom to college. Dismantling policies and disrupting practices that inhibit access, opportunity and resources, she is a catalyst for change on multiple fronts, spanning classrooms, school districts, municipal agencies and non-profit organizations.
Change as Groundswell
Angela’s commitment to educational reform evolved from over two decades working in myriad educational and political settings, first as a high school math and science teacher, then university admissions officer, school network manager, senior education advisor for the mayor’s office in Providence, Rhode Island, and her current position as principal associate. Each experience has made her ask of herself progressively tougher questions about her advocacy work. “Where do you start at the individual teacher level, the structural and policy level, to make sure that kids have the right opportunities to be able to succeed, and with the right support to be able to succeed?”
As a principal associate at The Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, Angela’s work centers on national policy research and reform initiatives to improve public education. Under the umbrella of school district redesign and leadership, Angela’s energies centralize around understanding “How districts shape themselves,” then involving diverse stakeholders willing to collaborate in creating “the right policies, supports and structures for students to have equitable opportunities and equitable outcomes.” To Angela, partnerships provide “the strongest and most sustainable way to support school districts” because “school districts can’t do it alone.” They need a web of “community-based organizations, higher education institutions, public agencies, all [working] together to support student outcomes of success.”
Angela’s current projects are a nationwide study of college readiness involving several urban school districts, improving disciplinary practices within and across schools, and increasing the number of college graduates. She is the Annenberg Institute lead on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s College Readiness Indicators Systems (CRIS) Project, a multi-year collaborative project with four major urban school districts and an educational management organization aimed to generate and systematize indicators of college readiness. Its goal is to identify indicators of and replicate effective practices and policies in measuring college readiness at the student, school, and system levels, culminating in “the right policies and practices and support for individual students.” Another national project is building learning networks between school districts and CBOs (community based organizations) “to look at school district disparities constructively and look at alternatives to harmful school discipline practices.” In partnership with the Providence Children and Youth Cabinet (CYC), Angela is working to increase the number of local college graduates. Recently the CYC obtained a significant grant from Lumina Foundation (under the auspice of the Community Partnership for Attainment) to assist efforts in helping adults achieve high-quality post-secondary degrees.
Prior to her position as principal associate, Angela was the senior education advisor for the Mayor of Providence, RI, Angel Taveras. Working as a cabinet member of the mayor’s office afforded Angela an advantageous position to cultivate systemic change. “I took the job because with a mayor who has that type of governmental influence over schools [the mayor’s office appoints the school board and hires the school superintendent with approval from city council], there is a real opportunity for change-making…opportunities that are under-utilized and under-tapped.” As senior education advisor, Angela’s work gravitated around “being involved in and shaping a larger citywide conversation and notion of community accountability around education.” Her primary focus was on creating sustainable support systems for young people, doing so through assembling and aligning willing partners.
To initiate this change, Angela implemented a collective impact model (CMI), “a social change movement that is focused on community-wide, cross-sector engagement,” to generate “collective common goals that everyone agrees on, common metrics, and the notion of shared accountability.” Under Angela’s leadership, the existing Children’s and Youth Cabinet (CYC) was restructured, populating it with stakeholders representing diverse perspectives and resources. With over 120 individuals and 70 organizations brought together, she convened parents, residents, businesses, non-profit organizations, municipal and state agencies to champion their local schools. Angela deems CMI as an effective framework because it moves us “away from the notion that just the superintendent is accountable, or just the schools are accountable, or just the mayor is accountable. It is collective accountability across all the different stakeholders.”
During her first summer of employment in the mayor’s office, Angela convened a small workgroup from the CYC charged with collecting and examining previous reports and data, generating a set of citywide goals to move forward. For Angela, this collaborative approach to effecting change is “great work because it is changing the way we think about whose responsibility it is to improve outcomes for children and youth, helping organizations and institutions move away from a ‘siloed’ way of thinking to a collaborative way of thinking that is really trying to align our resources in ways that haven’t been done before.” This concerted approach to change “is an intentional and difficult shift, but one I believe we have to fundamentally make to move the needle considering we are failing thousands, millions of young people every year.” Further restructuring included creating small workgroups, an executive committee, and hiring a director.
Changing Possibilities through Changing Paradigms
Angela’s work to reform how historically underserved youth are serviced and supported is shared by her work in redefining them. To Angela, defining young people as “at risk” emphasizes the notion of problems prevailing over their potential, harbors negative social implications, and perpetuates detrimental political repercussions. For Angela, “It’s about what is at the forefront of your mind,” whether “you focus on the challenges young people face, or the assets that young people and communities have and how you build on those assets to make sure that young people reach their promise.” She contends that “What people tend to do when defining ‘at risk’ is to think about what are the factors that make students most likely to fail. To fail in their educational pursuits in being productive members of society in terms of economic outcomes, social outcomes, indicators around marriage and stability…And those are [typically attributed to] race, class, gender, parents’ educational background, contact with the justice system, use of drugs and alcohol…and tons of social behaviors…statistics correlated with students not doing well. If students have these factors, [the argument is] that these students are at risk to fail.”
In place of labeling students “at risk,” Angela articulates “a more proactive approach in saying that all students are ‘at promise.’” If “we really think about the notion of equity and the fact that we want strong opportunities and strong outcomes for all young people, then some young people need more support to get there. Because they have had fewer opportunities or different personalities or are in different environments, that just shows that they need more support to reach their promise. That’s the way I approach my work as an educator. In speaking about research and policy and working with school districts, and working with institutions, as well as individual young people, it’s how I define the dichotomy between ‘at risk’ and ‘at promise.’”
When the Personal Becomes Professional: Subjective Experience as Impetus for Social Change
Angela’s own academic experiences sensitized her to the challenges students “at promise” face, and the transformative difference that can be realized with help from committed stakeholders. Growing up in a single parent household, she credits good math and science teachers, some who were “particularly thoughtful women of color” for recognizing her interests and acuity, inspiring her and pushing her toward excellence. By attending a magnet high school specializing in math and science (in Atlanta, Ga) her senior year, she became a member of a thriving community of scholars of color, studying under “teachers who were pushing kids to do amazing research” in local universities. Angela regards this educational opportunity and setting as impactful. “My classmates were such an inspiration to me because, oh, you’re supposed to be this way. You’re supposed to be smart, accomplished, and competitive in a generative way.”
From an early age, Angela wanted to be an educator. An avid reader and enthusiastic student who was involved in engineering, science and math camps most summers, Angela was excited about learning new things, and the prospects of igniting students’ learning too. However, given the lackluster reception of the idea from her family, she felt the best decision was to channel her alacrity in math and science in pursuit of an engineering degree. “There were not that many engineers of color in the profession and that there were not a lot of women of color.” So “Being a woman of color going into engineering would be something that was a challenge, but also something that would be sought after…[I was told] you should be an engineer.” It was the career path advocated by her family. Fascinated by nature, biology, and physiology, she sought a way to merge these two interests, and decided to pursue a career in biomedical engineering. After talking with a student of color attending Harvard University, she applied and enrolled.
Attending Harvard University proved informative, both as a place to be tooled with means for professional success, and a place where she began her political and social awakening. Being in a competitive engineering program with fewer than thirty students, one of the few women and women of color in particular, and at times having professors of patriarchal orientation, made for a confluence of variables that at times made the pursuit of personal and professional success difficult and challenging.
Yet her experiences at Harvard yielded valuable lessons about paving, preparing and participating within a supportive village. Paying it forward, she worked in the admissions office as a way to continue increasing the number of students of color attending the university. “It’s important to be available to the young folks who are the first, or one of the first of their family, to aspire to a strong education, and get there, and how to get there.” She also learned the value and impact of supporting one another. Facing a dilemma of completing difficult cumulative projects to obtain the professionally advantageous BSc degree, or take an “easier” route and graduate with a BA, Angela had a hard decision to make. Then a classmate, a fellow senior and woman of color, implored her to choose the former when saying, “Angela, don’t leave me.” Her peer’s beseeching did more than influence her to complete the more challenging degree. Angela has been since impacted to invest in supporting students facing challenging intersections, especially those with few resources.
After obtaining a BS in biomedical engineering from Harvard University, the calling to teach resurrected with a strengthened volume, compelling Angela to return to Harvard and now obtain a Masters of Education. There she learned of education as a means to empower both individuals and communities, learning about educator Ted Sizer, the Coalition of Essential Schools, and the constructivist approach to learning and education. The program advocated and promoted a “real inquiry based education for young people, that empower[s] young people, [one] that is relevant and creative, and generative, and really empower[s] teachers and educators to design schools in ways that are best for the community.” This epiphany fueled both her want to empower others and to be empowered as a teacher. Participating in such an educational program “started me thinking about what I really wanted to do and what really meant a lot to me.” It “really pushed me to think about [how to make to] a choice with my feet.”
Making a Difference in Urban Classrooms
Immediately after graduation, Angela sought opportunities to teach in urban high school settings. “I really wanted to teach Black kids. That was something that, graduating from a high school that was all Black, having lots of Black role models and mentors, it was really important to me to become a mentor and role model for Black kids. And to be a mentor and role model to kids who did not have a mentor or role model. That was critical for me.” She sought employment in schools that “availed teachers the power to create curriculum, and create school culture, and strong cultures of inquiry-based teaching.” One such school was Urban Academy in NYC, which she describes as “just an amazing place.” “Everything there was about students discovering their own knowledge and learning, shaped in a very strong Socratic way.” Her instructional facilitation supported students finding trends and patterns within the process of problem solving, such that “Once you see patterns, we can then create our own rules, or we can articulate what the rules are.” She did this in lieu of conventional direct transmission where a teacher may relay “this is how I solved the problem, now you solve fifteen more like it.” Consequently, “students understood a lot more math.” Science classes were thematic. Compared to just covering a textbook from cover to cover, Angela and colleagues taught courses in animal behavior, research methods, and the science of food, involving students in actual research. “I never gave a lecture.” After a year she returned to Boston and taught at Fenway High School, another small high school. Angela “focused on teachers and teacher-driven curriculum, culture, and more project-based learning, more than the traditional high school.” She situated teaching within a workshop model, and began a new venture in advising and mentoring students.
But after three years of teaching Angela felt incomplete because her support of students was primarily confined to classrooms. “I love being an educator and working with young people, but wasn’t sure the best way for me to do that was through running a classroom.” She explored harnessing her support on larger scales. Brown University afforded her a platform to do professional outreach and support of “at promise” students within post-secondary institutions.
Building Post-Secondary Bridges
For eleven years Angela worked as Associate Director of Admissions and Director of Minority Recruitment within the Office of Admissions at Brown University. Working in this office particularly allowed her to serve students “standing in the intersection between high school and college,” helping them navigate that transition, especially “for those who don’t have in their friends, families, and communities, a lot of people that have [previously] navigated that transition successfully.” Within her numerous positions, she targeted her work around recruitment and retention of underserved young people. Young people “who could, and should be succeeding in places like Brown, that would never have found them, if not for that person who either came to their high school, or emailed them, or encouraged their counselor to recommend people like them, or all those serendipitous things.” Angela forged “a culture in the admissions office of trying to look beyond some of the traditional markers for underrepresented students, looking to how we could really capture extraordinary potential, in ways that are measured beyond just test scores. Students who have been extraordinary leaders, students who have gone above and beyond their school community such as seeking out summer programs.” She helped to shift orientations toward assessing the potential success of underrepresented students. What resulted was an increased enrollment of students of color, particularly first-generation students.
Angela began to miss working within urban schools, and left Brown University to return working in them, this time as Network Manager for Diploma Plus. Diploma Plus is a non-profit organization which provides a competency-based education model focused on college and career readiness, targeting high school populations of predominantly over-aged and under-credited students. As Network Manager of schools in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, Angela’s work on the frontline spanned (1) providing professional development to principals, teachers and staff, (2) forging and sustaining collaborations between schools and community based organizations and higher education institutions, (3) mentoring students directly, (4) advocating for policy reform and educational initiatives in support of these schools both at municipal and national levels, as well as (5) supporting the national organization on myriad educational and political fronts. “It really gave me an opportunity to return back to the small schools where I got my start as an educator, really thinking about creating small schools that were supportive of students, with a culture where teachers had an opportunity to shape the instruction and the design of the school, AND working with students who were the opposite in terms of the academic achievement spectrum to those I worked with at Brown, for whom school had not been a good experience and had not been successful, but were still seeking it out, sticking it out even though school had not served them well for many years.” Angela’s work also culminated in the opening of a new and successful DP high school in Boston.
Advocacy Beyond Office Hours
Angela’s work to make a difference extends beyond the office or work hours. “So much of the personal is professional for me.” She is involved and invested in several volunteer initiatives. For the past four years, Angela has chaired the board of a local non-profit organization, College Visions, which mentors and supports first generation high school students in their post-secondary pursuits. Its mission is “providing individualized support so students get into and through college.” In addition, Angela serves on the board of the Harvard Alumni Association, through which she interviews perspective students, and is a past board member of the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island. She does volunteer work for the Rhode Island Black Storytellers. She is also called to speak at many functions and for numerous organizations. Angela has also received awards of recognition. The YWCA recognized her in 2013 as a Woman of Achievement. She also an Annie E. Casey Foundation Children and Family Fellow. Angela continues to contribute to the educational field by writing articles. Recent articles include one she co-authored for The New Educator titled, “Engaging City Hall: Children as Citizens,” and the Atlantic’s Quartz online publication titled “Americans Who Say ‘College isn’t for Everyone’ Never Mean Their Own Kids.”
Looking back on her career, Angela shares the following reflection. “I continue to be both exhausted and inspired by the work that I do to try as much as I can to improve the lives of young people in this society because so much of what we are doing is not working…and have been really focused on the systems, the ‘unsexy thing’ that we have to think about in making sure that there are big sweeping institutional changes because there are many things moving in directions that are not good for young people.”
Angela Nikki Romans is on a mission. It extends before attaining elaborate trappings or award-garnering recognition under bright stage lights. Where Angela lends her talents is in the junctions of neighborhoods and crevices of school systems where ostracized and high needs students are falling between the cracks, fading to black. It is within these obscure and unpopular yet over-populated spaces you will find Angela digging to make a difference. With her soul’s sleeves rolled up, Angela thatches hope, aerates opportunities, stakes possibilities, prunes budding talent. In all, she is working to harvest underserved young people’s academic, economic, and personal success.
(This article is also in digital and print format at http://www.magzter.com/US/Bronze-Magazine/Bronze-Magazine/Women’s-Interest/)