Tony Dugas has spent much of his career in education championing for marginalized youth and families.
Before becoming the principal of O’Keeffe Middle School, Dugas spent time working with students and their families throughout the country.
Born in California and raised in Lafayette, Louisiana, Dugas says his own experiences in school first piqued his interest in becoming an educator.
“There were a lot of educators who cared about me and did what they could, but I just think I came out of high school not fully prepared and that’s why I actually went into education,” he said. “My goal was to not let what happened to me happen to other kids. I think too many kids walk across the stage and yet they walk out of school without the skills they need.”
Following his K-12 experience, Dugas went to play football at Southern University as the first person in his family to go to college.
Throughout college he continued to volunteer in summer programs in Lafayette and stopped playing football his junior year to focus entirely on his studies. He also began working with single mothers and kids in a rapid rehousing program on the north side of Baton Rouge.
“We did some magical things with kids and it was really powerful,” said Dugas.
He began teaching history and language in Baton Rouge public schools and eventually moved to D.C. to teach at the Maya Angelou Public Charter School where he eventually got his first administrative role as Dean of Students and, later, vice principal.
“The Maya Angelou school was for students who, many of them, had challenges in the traditional public school system and they were being given a chance to redefine who they were,” said Dugas.
When his wife got accepted into Harvard for graduate school he moved again to Boston, where he directed a program called Eighth-Grade Academy under Citizen Schools, a program that focuses on education and community engagement.
“We began really tapping into the idea of, how do kids take control of their own education and their own lived experiences,” Dugas said. “They begin to develop social capital where they didn’t even know they had social capital. In Boston what I learned is that the power really lived with the kids and families that we serve.”
After Boston, Dugas relocated to Madison to attend graduate school and began working at Northside Elementary school in Sun Prairie after receiving his Master’s degree in education.
Dugas is now approaching his fourth year at O’Keeffe and despite his extensive career thus far, he says he’s just getting started.
“I think that a city can’t thrive, it can’t become better without the public schools and without schools being a major factor in that equation,” he said. “This is considered a very liberal and diverse place, yet we still haven’t, and I put myself in that equation, we still haven’t figured out how to serve our most challenged and needy families.”
Though he first came to Wisconsin working in the suburbs, Dugas says he’s always lived in Madison and when the opportunity came to work in the city’s public schools he wanted to be apart of the solution.
“Madison has been a really great place if you are white and middle class, but if you are financially challenged and you happen to be brown, that combination has not been good,” he said. “I want all schools to thrive and all kids to thrive and I think Superintendent Jen Cheatham and our district leaders are doing a good job of pushing us administrators to achieve that.”
Although his K-12 experience left much to be desired, Dugas did appreciate how growing up in cultural-rich Louisiana as a Black and Mexican man affirmed his identity and made school a safe space, a type of affirmation he doesn’t see in schools here in Madison.
“Our kids don’t always get a sense of cultural connection and pride unless they come from a family who does that,” Dugas said. “There’s just not an authentic cultural wisdom that exists in the schools, it has to be engineered.”
He believes though, that diversifying teaching staff will create an authentically rich cultural environment, but first education has to be an appealing career for students of color and Madison has to be a place where teachers of color want to be.
“We need more brown people going into education, but a lot of times people aren’t doing education because it doesn’t pay well and it is a job that isn’t always so appealing,” said Dugas. “You could be a superstar teacher in a building and do amazing work and put in tons and tons of hours and somebody right down the hall may not be putting as much work as you and the only thing that you know is that you’ll be touching kids, but in terms of how you survive you’re not going to get paid anymore so it becomes not enough incentive for some.”
Dugas believed this is especially true for people who are first generation college students and come from financially disadvantaged backgrounds.
“When people come from disadvantaged backgrounds and go to college, they want to go for something that shows that ‘I made it’ and unfortunately education isn’t always that,” he said.
But even when people of color do choose education, they aren’t very likely to choose Madison.
“The question is, is Madison the kind of city that when you come and visit you’re going to feel like you fit in and belong here. And unfortunately, that simply isn’t the case,” Dugas said. “When you move to a place to stay you want to be comfortable and here you may be the only person of color in a room and it can take a toll on you. It is not the most inviting particularly for black people in the city and it’s not to bash it, it’s just the reality.”
Dugas hopes to increase diversity at O’Keeffe, having only two other faculty of color, but in the meantime, he’s focusing on how he can more immediately strengthen family and community involvement and promote equity.
This year students will be getting Chromebooks and teachers are working to create Chrome classrooms as a way to engage families in their child’s learning process.
“We’re asking our staff to proactively communicate with our students and families and use technology to do so,” Dugas said.
“We are committed to ensuring that our kids find relevancy when they walk in the building,” he said. “Regardless of where they are we want to be partners in learning with our kids and set goals together so they know where they want to be and what they have to do.”
But Dugas also just wants to have fun.
“Throughout my career I’ve always had fun,” he said. “We want to have fun, because I want to increase our school pride and identity and we want to have fun doing this important work.”
Though there are several ways Dugas feels Madison schools can improve he believes that the work is steadily being done.
“Madison public schools under Dr. Cheatham is working extremely hard and I have faith that we have a lot of the right tools here in this city to get it right because this is a city issue, not a school issue and we all have to be working together,” Dugas said.