Spelman College student Carlettra Stanford had already decided not to become a teacher.

Even though her mother was a teacher, and even though she had always been involved in anything to do with children, and even though she had always organized other kids into playing school and had always assumed the role of the teacher … she knew her real-life career was headed in a different direction.

“Teachers don’t make enough money. I’m not going to do that,” she recalls thinking. “I decided to be a pediatrician. If I were a pediatrician, I could still work with kids, still make change and everything.”

But then, like many Spelman students, she joined a volunteer program, helping to mentor 15 middle-school girls, all African American from a high-poverty school.

“It was supposed to be a twice a week kind of thing for an hour at a time,” she recalls. “But I found myself going back for longer periods of time and then adding additional days, getting to know their families, going that extra mile to really understand them and how I could work with them. That was probably when it really clicked that I like this.”

She earned the school’s Coretta Scott King award for her work with those girls, and her childhood dream to become an educator was back on track.

“I wanted them to see the strength that they brought,” she says of those girls she mentored. “They had been pretty beaten down, told things that they couldn’t do. We really worked with them, helping them to realize the gifts that they really had. That was really fulfilling, to see how they transformed and how they started believing in themselves and how that impacted their self-image and how that then impacted the work they were doing in school.”

After graduating from Spelman, she returned to her native Madison to join the first class of the University of Wisconsin’s Grow Your Own program, under the direction of Gloria Ladsen-Billings, where she earned her master’s degree in education. She then took her first teaching job as a fourth- and fifth-grade multi-age teacher at Glendale Elementary.

After five years there, she moved to Allis, where she was the Title I schoolwide facilitator, working closely with principal Chris Hodge, who encouraged her to pursue a career in administration. After earning the proper certifications in 2006, she took over as principal at Gompers for two years and then spent one year as principal of both Gompers Elementary and Blackhawk Middle School before landing at Mendota, where she serves today.

mendota“I was drawn to this school,” she says, in part because she felt up to the challenge of leading a school where 80 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches, the second-highest rate of poverty in the district. “I felt as though I could help make those connections with families and with students here.”

Parents of Mendota students say those connections have lasting impact.

Terri Hatchett has had several children and grandchildren pass through Mendota, and has referred other community children to enroll there. “I have nothing but great things to say about what Carlettra is doing over there,” she says, noting that her daughter, now in a high school sophomore, still visits Mendota for encouragement.

Hatchett, who struggled with drugs and alcohol in the past, says Stanford impacted her life as much as the lives of her children.

“I’m a college student and an advocate, and that all goes back to what she did for me as the kind-hearted professional that she is,” Hatchett says. “She would just come talk to me, not judging me, not talking about my personal problems. Just being there for me as a person.”

“She’s very family-oriented,” says Jennah Sanders, whose son Keyonta attended Mendota all the way through 5th grade, and whose daughter attended through second grade. “She allows parents to express their ideas about how she runs the school. She did a really good job with making sure Mendota was safe. I love that school. I wish my children could stay.”

Those connections are paying off, as the Madison Metropolitan School District named Mendota and Leopold as “Community Schools,” which will become what Stanford calls “a hub of support for families and the community.” Open hours will be extended and the school will work with community organizations to provide a wide range of services to students and their families, well beyond what an elementary school normally provides.

Stanford says she wants to send students to middle school with a firm knowledge of their own capabilities. “If they have a strong sense of self, I think that we have done our job,” she says.

“She’s very big on the kids having self-esteem,” says Hatchett. “She gets it through to you.”

It’s a quality Stanford learned from her high school principal, Milt McPike.

Milt McPike
Milt McPike

“He wasn’t all about words. He was about actions,” she says. “You knew exactly what he expected from you. And you knew that he believed in you as a student. Some friends of mine and I were really interested in HBCUs, so he was like, ‘Go make it happen.’ So we got all the information and created this HBCU Connect network in the counselling department so people could have that information. I just remember him as this powerhouse of positivity. He knew your name, he knew your family. He’s one of those people i aspire to be like. I want to know my families. I want to know all of my kids in the building because that makes a difference, day to day.”

Stanford is committed to the elementary age because at that age, children still love to learn.

“They want to be here. They want to learn every day,” she says. “I think one of my big goals is, how do I help them to keep that all the way through? How to I help them hold on to that wonder and that curiosity? How do we help them keep that, and how do we figure out where they lose it?

“I think — I don’t think, I know — that’s why I love elementary school. We’re setting the foundation for them. If we do it right, then they can leave us knowing they can soar.”

For setting such a strong foundation for thousands of children — most of them children of color —  and helping them know they can soar, Madison365 proudly honors Carlettra Stanford with the first-ever Milt McPike Education Award.