Editor’s note: This is Part I of a two-part series about EP Alumna Paris Woods. In Part I, we dive into her unique educational experience and how it shaped her career path. Next week, we’ll share Part II of Paris’ story and her work to transform opportunities and outcomes for students from low-income families. (The author, Tiffanie Woods, is not related to Paris Woods.)
Paris Woods didn’t have a typical education. To let her tell it, “I experienced an interesting series of events growing up,” and that would be saying the least.
The journey from kindergarten to high school graduation in St. Louis, Missouri was not a smooth one for Paris. But despite all of the struggles she had to overcome, Paris never let her dream waiver to succeed and to start a nonprofit focused on low-income students.
Because she’d dropped out of college, Paris’ mother wanted the best for her kids academically and so enrolled them in St. Roch’s, a private Catholic school for kindergarten.
“We probably could never afford it,” says Paris. Unfortunately, she was right. After that year she had to transfer to a local public school.
When Paris spoke to me about her time as a first-grader at a St. Louis public school, I was surprised that she could recall such details and be so self-reflective about her early childhood. But that’s just what she does.
In her first-grade class, Paris was one of the only students reading at grade level, and thus spent the entire year teaching the majority of other students instead of learning herself. “It was a real lost opportunity for me,” Paris recalls. It’s also the reason why that next year, her mom enrolled her in a desegregation program. In second grade, through this program, Paris was bused 45 minutes each way to attend school in Chesterfield, a suburb outside of St. Louis.
Like so many students of the last few decades, Paris reaped the negative effects of “white flight.” The best schools in the state were those in the suburbs and only accessible to those students who lived in the neighborhoods, which were predominantly, if not exclusively, white. Low-income students like Paris were only able to access the schools through special circumstances (like busing).
In the beginning of our talk, Paris asks if I’d heard the This American Life piece, “The Problem We All Live With,” about segregation and racism in St. Louis schools (including the Normandy School District where Michael Brown attended school). I had. I just didn’t realize at the moment how much context it would give me into the environment Paris grew up in.
The powerful This American Life piece gives listeners a front-row seat into the current state of the Normandy School District. In it, the author and families who participate via interviews and public forums call for an end to the educational inequities the students face. Through busing and other desegregation methods, they knew the only way to stop this ever-growing divide is to confront the opportunity gap head-on.
For Paris, she says being a part of a similar desegregation program “was a double-edged sword. I was getting a good education, but then had the added racism that was bad.”
Due to the racism and long commute, in fifth grade moving to sixth grade, her mom didn’t want her to be a part of the desegregation program, and she enrolled Paris in that same Catholic school she had attended for kindergarten. Again, her family couldn’t afford the school, and she and her sister were kicked out. They had to attend the local public school once again.
It was then that Paris’ eyes were really opened to the level of concern, or lack thereof, that schools had regarding the success of low-income public school kids.
“I was very aware of how little learning and teaching was going on,” Paris says. “Teachers would sit at their desks reading magazines all day.”
In seventh grade Paris was lucky enough to be moved to a higher track—something that she attributes to getting her to the place she is today. Being on that higher track allowed Paris to apply for the one gifted middle school in St. Louis, where she was lotteried into. Once enrolled, Paris thrived and matriculated to the gifted high school, where she would stay for the next four years.
The higher track, the lottery for the gifted middle school, and her success at the gifted high school are how Paris would get to Harvard University and become a local celebrity in her hometown. News articles, radio station interviews—Paris’ story was told across the city. It was such an anomaly for someone from a local St. Louis public school to attend an Ivy League school, let alone the symbol of the Ivy League, Harvard University.
The more Paris shared about her education experience, the more I understood the first thing she said to me. Yes, she had definitely had an interesting series of events growing up.
“That experience of having gone to so many different schools and seeing what goes on in these school systems laid the foundation for my interest in education,” Paris says. “I saw firsthand the disparities in education based on how much money students’ parents made and where they lived.”
The reality is that Paris’ story isn’t unique. The lack of opportunities and resources she experienced is the truth for too many low-income students around the country. While the individual details may vary, too many students face below standard educational opportunities, uninterested teachers, and unsafe classrooms and hallways.
When Paris went to Harvard on a full scholarship, she didn’t waste any of the opportunities afforded to her. At Harvard, Paris received an undergraduate degree in African American Studies and a master’s degree in Education Policy and Management, all while being involved in the local community through various volunteering and tutoring experiences. She became an Education Pioneers Fellow in 2012, and was determined to help students who wouldn’t usually have the opportunity to get to college.
Fast forward to fall 2015. It’s the week before Thanksgiving break and Paris is fulfilling her lifelong goal and dream of launching her own nonprofit. Talking to me on her drive home from a meeting for her soon-to-be-launched nonprofit, College Bridge, Paris lists off some of the many accomplishment she’s had in the last year. Paris and her co-founder spent last summer being a part of the 4.0 Schools hub for nonprofits and tied for first place at the PitchNOLA: Education competition in November.
When asked how she feels about all of this, the one word Paris repeats is excited.
Paris was given opportunity—in the form of being accepted into that middle school gifted program—to overcome her circumstances, and is now in the position to advocate for others from similar backgrounds.
This sentiment made me recall Viola Davis’ iconic 2015 Emmy Award speech, in which she remarks on women of color's position in Hollywood, stating, “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.”
That’s where this conversation should begin and end. It’s about opportunities, and making sure they’re available to everyone. It shouldn’t matter what neighborhood you’re from, how much money your parents make, or if you’re a native English speaker. To quote Paris, “We all need to make a commitment to education.”
Tune in next week for Part II of Paris’ story as she prepares to launch College Bridge and transform opportunities for low-income students.
Tiffanie Woods is the Associate, Learning Programs for Education Pioneers, where she works on logistics and communications. Previously, Tiffanie served EP as a recruiting specialist, where she recruited top analytical talent for the Education Pioneers Fellowship. Tiffanie’s passion for education stems from both her parents and the strong support system of teachers and advisors she had surrounding her throughout her time in Buffalo Public Schools.