As this school year comes to a close in Tennessee, Rocketship Nashville Northeast (RNNE) continues to welcome new students. Anyone who has ever worked in a similar urban environment knows that relatively high student mobility is par for the course. Even at this late stage of the school year, when students join RNNE, they are greeted immediately by Principal Christa Thomas. She is one of the first people new Rocketeers meet and, with a mixture of sincere care and stern expectations, she welcomes them into the Rocketship family. Her blend of care and high expectations comes as a direct result of her own past and recent history.
Though Christa is a sweet southern girl, hailing from Statesboro, GA, she came to Rocketship after spending several years working in south Chicago. In her brief time as leader of Rocketship’s first Nashville school, it’s clear her drive to eliminate the achievement gap is not just a matter of professional pride, it’s a part of her personal, and even spiritual, journey. I had the opportunity to sit down with Ms. Thomas to learn more about her path to Nashville and what “Rethinking elementary school from the ground up” means to her.
[Lilli Jackson] Who or what inspired you to have a career in education?
[Christa Thomas] My mother’s care and authenticity with others inspired me to go into education. I can recall every interaction with her being a learning experience – even when she was lecturing me! I also watched how passionate she was – and still is – in the way she engages others by encouraging, supporting and uplifting them to always reach their greatest potential and to walk into their life’s purpose. Even at a young age, I can remember “teaching lessons” to my imaginary students and making sure that I was imitating the love and care with my “students” that I saw my mother exude in her interactions and connections with others. Moreover, I have always strived to follow her example of creating authentic connections with others in order to impact their life trajectories.
My grandfather would always tell me “you’re going to be a teacher when you grow up.” I never put much thought into it though until my senior year of high school when I had Dr. Mosely, one of only seven black women educators in my hometown to hold a doctorate degree, as my senior literature teacher. She became a mirror for what it looked like to be an African American woman in education while also reflecting the same values and passion that my mom had instilled within me. She was courageous in her leadership as an educator and relentless in her pursuit to invest knowledge into our souls. After having her as teacher and a major influence in my life, I knew I wanted to become an educator who went beyond the curriculum to make an impact; I wanted to become an educator who was invested in the “soul” work of education by making an impact on my students that can be felt for years to come.
[LJ] If you could have one principal superpower, what would it be?
[CT] If I could have one principal superpower, it would be to instill lifelong confidence in the heart and soul of each of my students. So often, the barriers of learning for students in the classroom and thriving in society are present due to a lack of confidence in who they are and the power that they possess. I fervently want each of our students to know, without a doubt, that they have been “fearfully and wonderfully made” and that they were all placed here on Earth with great purpose. I want them to always operate with the knowledge that there is nothing in this world that they are unable to overcome and that they hold infinite power within their minds to be able to accomplish anything they set their minds to do.
[LJ] What are your dreams for your students?
[CT] My dream for our students is for them to be able to walk into the purpose that they were placed on our Earth to fulfill. I want them to be able to leave Rocketship with the knowledge that they are capable of moving mountains, bridging societal gaps and accomplishing what no other before them has been able to do. I want our Rocketeers to know they are loved and that they are capable of giving unconditional love to others. My ultimate dream is for them to be able to be equipped with the knowledge and skills to be able to excel academically in life so that they have wild success in middle school, high school, college and beyond. I want what we instill in them – both academically and character-wise – to become the blueprint for how they choose to lead their own lives as well as the foundation for their own families years from now.
[LJ] What does “rethinking elementary school from the ground up” mean to you?
[CT] “Rethinking elementary school from the ground up” means choosing to engage in courageous leadership. It means choosing to be lead when the outcome seems dim and the outlook is bleak. It means that we choose to lead courageously and not give up because we are fighting for the students, families and communities that are depending on us to create a better today and an even better tomorrow. Rethinking means that we lead with a “by any means necessary” mindset because we know that waiting on someone else to do it may end up being too late for our students and families. At its core, rethinking from the ground up, to me, means that we are not afraid to proclaim and fight for educational justice in the lowest of valleys and on the highest of mountains. Rethinking means that we are not afraid to get in the arena, try new approaches and to blaze new paths because we know that in the end, our goal is to the fight passionately and relentlessly for the students and families that we are partnering alongside in the arena each day.
[LJ] What legacy would you like to leave behind at Rocketship Nashville Northeast?
[CT] The legacy that I would like to leave behind at Nashville Northeast Elementary is one that every person – student, family member, faculty and staff member, and community member – who walks through our doors feels loved unconditionally, heard and valued as well as the undeniable feeling of belonging in our space. I want RNNE to become a rite of passage for families – where there is no doubt or hesitation on where younger siblings and family members will choose to attend elementary school because our staff members are truly an extension of their immediate family structure. I want our school to be just that – “ours”. Every person who walks through our doors should feel as though they have walked into their second home.
As Rocketship Nashville’s Manager of Community Development, Lilli partners with parents and community organizations throughout Nashville. Before joining the Rocketship team in the summer of 2013, Lilli taught Kindergarten and Third grade as a corps member for Teach for America Memphis. She attended Savannah State University in Georgia where she studied Public Relations.