Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Dallas community leader defied gender and racial barriers

(NDG Wire) On a recent day, longtime community leader and former Dallas ISD school board member Kathlyn Gilliam meticulously reviewed architectural plans for a new school to be named in her honor, punctuating almost every page turn with a small phrase of approval.

“How neat. Mmm-hmmm. This is really going to be something,” said the 79-year-old Gilliam as the architect explained the vision for the $23-million campus and the principal discussed the academic plan.

Pleased as she was, Gilliam was not just looking at the attractive drawings, even the ones detailing innovative education features like dual-use common spaces, an observation deck and a tiered lecture pavilion. After all, she had reviewed and approved lots of building plans for new schools in her 23-year career as a Dallas ISD board member. 

So, she had a few questions about the Kathlyn J. Gilliam Collegiate Academy.

“What’s the timeline for construction? This is a two-story building. Where’s the elevator,” asked Gilliam, making it easy to picture her with a gavel leading district board meetings. “We have to involve the parents. Do we have plans for that? What’s the student capacity?” 

Pleased with the answers she got, Gilliam smiled. “It’s an humbling experience,” she said. “It’s a long way from being a student at (Dallas ISD) Lincoln High School to having a school named after you.”

When Gilliam began her journey, schools were still segregated by race and women were barred from many careers. Gilliam joined and eventually became President of the Dallas Council of the Colored Parents and Teachers, an organization that existed in 19 states and the District of Columbia to accommodate the segregated system.

“It was a time when we were told and believed we could only do certain things,” she said.

Faced with barriers others might have viewed as insurmountable, Gilliam saw them as challenges to overcome. The first African-American woman elected to the Dallas ISD Board of Trustees, she later became the first African American to serve as president of the board.

“It was an exciting moment, and I remember it reverberated across the area,” said Gilliam. “One day I looked up, and I was mentioned in Jet Magazine. There were a lot of firsts in my life. It was hard work, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

During her career, Gilliam insisted on greater ethnic minority representation throughout the district, championed an affirmative action plan to increase the number of ethnic minority teachers, and played a pivotal role in school desegregation. She also assisted in hiring four Dallas ISD superintendents, including the district’s first African-American superintendent.

“Kathlyn Gilliam saw where the district needed to go and how it needed to grow long before many people were even thinking of concepts like diversity. And then, she helped us get there,” said Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa. “Her efforts to improve education through community inclusion still have a positive impact on our district today.”

The Kathlyn J. Gilliam Collegiate Academy, scheduled to open in fall 2011, is one of 14 new schools to be built with funds from a $1.35 billion 2008 Bond Program approved in May. The groundbreaking is expected this spring.

In collaboration with the nearby University of North Texas, the high school will accommodate 500 students feeding in from seven district middle schools and feature a college-preparatory curriculum. The Academy also will encourage community members to take college classes after hours and make full use of the recreational spaces, an aspect of community involvement Gilliam strongly supports.

“During these times, we must reconnect the schools with the community and education, the parents as well as the students,” she said. “We must develop parental leadership.”

Folding her reading glasses as she completed the review of the building plans, Gilliam had a message for the two Academy students who were witnesses to her first glimpse of building plans for the new school.

 “You are going to have struggles,” she said, “but remember strength comes from struggle. We are depending on you. There are people you don’t even know depending on you. Make us proud,” Gilliam said.

 In May 2008, Dallas voters strongly supported a $1.35 billion bond program, paving the way for the district to build eight elementary schools, four middle schools and two high schools, and construct 177 new classrooms on 12 existing campuses. In addition, the bond program will provide roughly $521 million to renovate more than 200 schools, add 19 new science labs at six secondary schools and updates to 16 school kitchens and 22 lunchrooms.

Information on the allocation of bond funds can be found at www.dallasisd.org/bond2008.


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