Over 15 years ago, a desire to see all children succeed inspired Lajuan Sylvester to leave her role as an operations manager in the private sector and pursue a career in public education. As a parent of a child with a learning disability, she was driven to advocate for her child and other children with similar challenges. She sought out resources and worked tirelessly to get the necessary services and supports for her son. Even then she knew that all students can learn at high levels if provided with high quality instruction and support services. “One day my husband told me, ‘Lajuan you can’t just cheerlead from the sidelines,’” recalled Lajuan Sylvester, new Principal at Fairley High School. She knew then that she had to get in the game.
Sylvester’s career in education began in the classroom as a teacher. “As an educator you try and figure out where you're going to have the most impact on student achievement. So at the teacher level I knew I could impact those students I directly came in contact with,” said Sylvester. She eventually made the transition into curriculum coaching and later pursued a Master’s in Educational Leadership to move into school administration. Though she loved being in the classroom, she knew she wanted to expand her impact.
A Refined Vision
In 2014, Green Dot Public Schools was invited by the Achievement School District to adapt and replicate its proven model and lead Fairley High School in Memphis, Tennessee. At the time, Fairley was one of the lowest-performing schools in the state.
Under Green Dot’s leadership, Fairley’s student outcomes have significantly improved, driven by the structural support systems that Green Dot implements on its campuses. Rigorous college-prep focused academic programs, small class sizes combined with an investment in socioemotional support has resulted in accelerated learning, stronger academic performances, and higher graduation rates.
Sylvester joined Green Dot in 2019 after witnessing the positive impact the organization has made at Fairley. Despite the challenges of school transformation, she saw the urgency of this work and knew she needed to be involved. “At Fairley, there's a history of greatness and excellence in these halls and that needs to be brought back to the forefront,” said Sylvester. One of her goals for this school year has been to empower students to own their learning. While Fairley teachers have tailored instruction to meet students’ needs, Sylvester is supporting teachers in helping their students understand how they best learn. This will allow students to better advocate for themselves, monitor their own progress, and take a more active role in their learning. “Education is an equalizer, it is the key to the American dream. It’s why we’re teaching our students to dream again and understand that they can change their narrative.”
To successfully put students on a path to college, leadership, and life, educators must feel encouraged to innovate and shape the success of their school. “Leadership is about relationships and helping people see the vision and understand the purpose,” reflected Sylvester. “A school turnaround has to be a group effort and making sure my teachers and staff feel that they have a voice and are just as vital as the leader in this process is critical.”
On the Road to Student Success
While Fairley has seen significant improvement, the school’s transformation efforts ever evolving. “We are not where we need to be yet, but we’re getting there,” said Sylvester. In her first year at Fairley, Sylvester has put renewed focus on socioemotional learning and addressing student trauma. “We are making sure that Fairley is supporting the whole child and making sure that all students feel that support. As a result, I believe students will become more trusting and then I think we will see a higher level of academic performance.”
Sylvester has also introduced a higher level of accountability and expectations. To address academic barriers and increase academic ownership, students have biweekly, one-on-one academic consultations. In these meetings students review their current grades, exam results, and set academic goals. To better engage with their community, students must complete community service hours each year and participate in a research project on a key community issue.
As Fairley’s new school leader, Sylvester recognizes that change can be difficult. It is why she has ensured that students, teachers, and parents believe in Fairley’s vision and are prepared to do the work required to achieve long-term student success. Students know that Sylvester is holding them to high expectations, but they understand that it is on account of their potential for success. “I want everyone to see the power in our students. But most importantly, I want our students to see the power within themselves,” said Sylvester. With a strong leader at the helm, effective teachers in the classroom, a multi-tiered system of support, and a strong belief in the potential of all students, Fairley is equipped to ensure that all students are prepared for college, leadership, and life.