Hawks to Watch: Devon Cantwell, education reform champion

Devon Cantwell, Founding Computer Science and Science Teachers, Smilow Prep- RePublic Schools

Age: 25

KU Degree: Political Science (2012)

Why she’s a Hawk to Watch:

Devon is working to “flip the script on education.” She’s focused on rewriting policies and practices of traditional education to improve opportunities and success rates for students of color and low-income students. She traces her passion and spark for doing this work from Bob Antonio’s Honors Sociology class her senior year at KU. She’s dedicated to lifting and working to empower whole communities.

Sidebar button template 2016 2.0_smallerWhat do you feel is your biggest achievement so far?

Through my work of expanding access to opportunities and improving STEM instruction, I have impacted over 2,000 students and 150 teachers across Alabama and Mississippi to date. There have been two main initiatives I have been working on– improving math teaching practices, and expanding computer science access for underrepresented students. Math instruction, under my leadership, consulting and coaching, has made a significant shift in these two states from fluency and rote memorization, to rich, culturally responsive tasks where students are engaging in deep levels of learning and understanding of mathematical concepts. My work to expand access to computer science for classrooms across the south has lead to several teachers launching and imbedding computer science curriculum across Mississippi. For context of why this is important, in 2014, Mississippi had no students of color or women sit for the AP Computer Science exam. This year, over 100 girls and 300 students of color across Mississippi received access to computer science during Computer Science Education Week as a result of the training and work I facilitated. In the next phase of my work, I will be applying for rural development grants and developing a model for rural computer science programs in partnership with community development organizations and local activist organizations. If the model that we are creating is funded and implemented, it will revolutionize computer science education as we know it for rural communities and Mississippi would be the first to be a state-wide, high-speed, wireless hotspot. It’s a lofty goal, but something that could create huge economic and job infrastructure to rural communities and could be scaled to other states— including rural communities in Kansas. Additionally, my new role with RePublic Schools will allow me to collaborate with local school districts to expand CS training and host a series of 9 Hack-a-thons for Jackson area students.

What’s your lowest career moment and how did you pick yourself up and move on?

For a variety of reasons, I found myself without a job after my first six months. Having started my first job on very promising notes, and in a hyper-competitive environment, I felt like I had hit rock bottom. During the month I was unemployed, I did a few things. I did serious reflections about my strengths and my areas of growth. I sought out perspectives on these things from people I was close to, and also people I disagreed or didn’t have the greatest relationship with. I wrote a vision for myself, and I wrote clear benchmarks that I held myself accountable to meeting. I got involved in my new community. I asked for help– A LOT of help. Overall, these things allowed me to become more mature, more focused, and more successful in my work. It allowed me to work with grace, humility, and a sense of solidarity with those I engaged in work with. The toughest thing for any young professional to learn is the delicate balance between posturing yourself as capable and being humble.

Where do you hope to be in 10 years?

10 years from now, I hope to have helped states in the South– such as my most recent homes of Alabama and Mississippi– to be leaders in educational equity. Currently, these states rank 49th or 50th on nearly every education measure. 10 years from now, I want educational environments in these states to be learning labs for innovation and best practices. Ultimately, my success in the next 10 years is rooted in the success of the communities in which I serve and engage in partnerships.

What do you know now that you wish you could tell your 18-year-old self?

Listen. You don’t need to be the smartest person in the room, and you will rarely be the smartest person in the room. Had I taken that to heart much earlier in my career, I would have built stronger relationships with many more folks. I also would have gotten better ideas and been able to create more of an impact over the last seven years.

What’s your best career pro-tip?

Have humility and be flexible. If you would have told me at age 20 that I would be participating in a STEM and educational revolution in the Deep South, I would have fallen over laughing. The best decision of my life was selecting the box that said “Send me anywhere and I will teach anything” on my Teach for America application back in 2012. I had never considered myself a math person. I begged for other people to do my homework for me in high school, I struggle-bused Math 101 at KU. I went to the help center every. single. week. I had never been south of the Mason Dixon line before packing my life up for Alabama. Now, in 2016, I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. Allowing myself the flexibility to break out of my comfort zone for those first two years changed my life trajectory in ways I could never have imagined for myself. The humility will help you as you make these brave, flexible choices. Don’t walk in thinking you have all the answers. Ask for help early and often. Know that your way is seldom the right way and be flexible enough to make those changes.

What do you do after you’ve clocked out?

I am the Executive Director of a non-profit organization called Birmingham to Beijing. We provide Mandarin instruction after school for students in Title I schools in the Birmingham area. We have had huge success with our program. Over 90% of our students have passed the Level 1 exam for Mandarin proficiency, and 100% have passed the Level 2 exam.

What is a fun fact about you that no one knows?

I’ve listened to the full production of Hamilton 63 times (this is what my music player tells me).