Carolyn Stanford Taylor knew how important education was to her future growing up in the town of Marks, Mississippi, in the very segregated 1960s Deep South.

“Our town was very segregated. We were divided by railroad tracks. You had the white side and the black side. You had the white schools and the black schools. Everything was decided by race,” Stanford Taylor remembers. “My grandmother was a domestic and we could see, as we traveled through the white side of town, that their schools were in much better condition than our schools. They had a swimming pool. We didn’t have a swimming pool. They had a great athletic field with green grass and bleachers. They had all of those things we didn’t have.”

As young and impressionable kids, Stanford Taylor and her siblings wanted to attend those schools. They wanted to have that opportunity to access the superior amenities. They wanted to swim in the pool.

“On one particular day, we were headed to Westside Elementary, the black school, and my mom said, ‘You know, they passed a desegregation act which means you can go to any school you choose,'” Stanford Taylor says. “We wanted to go to the white school. I mean, they had a pool! My mom turned us around and enrolled us.”

Stanford Taylor, along with her siblings, became one of a few African-American families to integrate the schools in Marks, Mississippi, in 1966.

“I just want you to know, that we never got to swim in that pool,” Stanford Taylor says. “They filled it with cement. They would have nobody swim in that pool rather than to swim with us.”

That early experience with pursuing education started Stanford Taylor’s lifelong journey that led to a distinguished career in higher education. Stanford Taylor, who now serves as the assistant superintendent of the Division for Learning Support at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, was honored for her lifetime achievements with the prestigious 2018 Virginia Hart Special Recognition during a ceremony May 31 at the Wisconsin State Capitol.

Carolyn Stanford Taylor celebrates her 2018 Virginia Hart Special Recognition Award with family and friends at the Wisconsin State Capitol.

“Carolyn is a compassionate and impactful leader who is integral in our agency’s efforts to educate and serve all kids,” said State Superintendent Tony Evers in a statement. “Her life-long commitment to advancing equity by increasing educational opportunity for all of our students has long served as a model for other employees of the department. Our agency and Wisconsin’s schools are blessed on a daily basis to have her 38 years of educational experience.”

Stanford Taylor is one of Wisconsin’s longest-serving assistant state superintendents. She oversees the Special Education Team and one of the agency’s largest teams – the Student Services/Prevention and Wellness Team. Stanford Taylor tells Madison365 that she was overjoyed with the award.

“Wow. I tell you that I was honored and humbled to be at this stage in my life to get an award like this,” Stanford Taylor says. “I don’t do it for the recognition, but it’s always nice when your work is recognized.

“This was a surprise for me. I didn’t know it was in the works,” she adds. “It was very cool. There were so many other deserving women who have done great things in state service who were also honored at the ceremony. Just to be in the company of those folks was an honor, as well.”

Stanford Taylor became the first female, African-American appointed to serve as an assistant state superintendent back in 2001. She also became the first African-American president of the local teachers union. In a lot of ways, Stanford Taylor has been a trailblazer.

“What is so interesting is that I never set out to be a first. It was never really a part of why I did any of the things that I did. I have been in the company of other women – especially women of color – who have been role models to me who have helped to guide my career,” she says. “Geraldine Bernard, Tina Stoval – those folks who saw something in me that perhaps I didn’t even see in myself at that time and they helped coach and mentor and guide me and I ended up in these incredible places.”

Stanford Taylor says that her mom was actually the ultimate trailblazer.

“I grew up during the civil rights era in the south and I witnessed my mom taking all of these leadership roles and doing it because it was the right thing to do. I just grew up in that environment and it was just instilled in me: you see something that needs to be done and you did it. You didn’t question your ability,” she says. “My mom was always somebody who affirmed you and who told you that all things are possible and that you could do whatever you set your mind to. Especially, when you grew up in the segregated south when you had people trying to define you, trying to tell you what things you could and couldn’t do.”

Carolyn Stanford Taylor is the the assistant superintendent of the Division for Learning Support at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

Stanford Taylor would eventually make her way to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to pursue a degree in elementary education. She was a classroom teacher for 10 years at Gompers Middle School and Allis Elementary before serving as principal of Marquette and Lincoln Elementary Schools in the Madison Metropolitan School District. In 2001, she came to the Department of Public Instruction to join the Cabinet of then-state superintendent Elizabeth Burmaster.

The Virginia Hart Special Recognition Award is administered by the Department of Administration, Division of Personnel Management. The award is named for Virginia Hart, Wisconsin’s first woman cabinet secretary and is awarded annually to female state employees who are making a difference through their service to Wisconsin.

“I’m very familiar with Virginia Hart. In the past, we had nominated someone for the award. I never imagined that somebody was planning to nominate me for the award,” Stanford Taylor says. “To be recognized at the state level as a state leader, this is amazing. I’m very humbled.

“When I first came to this office, I just thought what a great opportunity to help create policy and to shed some light on the need of our kids in our classrooms today. I came up through the ranks as a teacher, a principal … each different portion of that journey I hoped to make a difference and hoped to be able to impact more people, more kids, more families,” she adds. “To me, being in this position was the ultimate position to talk about my experiences and to help others understand what I and other kids like me have experienced and talk about what are some of those things that can help change the trajectory for a lot of our kids and families.”