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On 11-city tour, U.S. secretary of education talks about how education saved his life

John B. King Jr. explains his platform and how he overcame his own obstacles in a family of firsts

U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. set out by bus from Sept. 12-16, heading to six states to discuss education. He visited 11 cities and towns. It was the final Obama administration Back to School Bus tour, but King’s first. The tour began in Virginia then headed to Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas before ending in New Orleans.

“We really wanted to use this as an opportunity to reflect on the last eight years and the legacy of the administration,” King said. “The fact that we now have the highest high school graduation rate we’ve ever had in the country at 82 percent; the fact that we’ve got a million more African-American and Latino students in college today than when the president began; the fact that we’ve got thousands more students who are getting access to quality early-learning opportunities, college investments that the president made.”

With each city, spending time with teachers, principals, families and city leaders he had a chance to reflect on his own life: a life of overcoming odds that led him on his journey to become the first principal to lead the Education Department in President Barack Obama’s Cabinet and the first black and Latino U.S. secretary of education.

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King often says, “School saved my life.” He comes from a family of historymakers who broke barriers, created legacies and served their communities with dignity and passion. He continues that legacy with a passion to ensure every child can have a chance to reach his or her full potential because he knows firsthand that beating the odds is possible.

Both of his parents were career New York City public school educators. His mother died when he was just 8 years old, after which King lived alone with his ailing father, who had undiagnosed Alzheimer’s disease. Home during that period was scary and unpredictable. Four years later, his father died. At 12, King struggled to cope with the loss, moving between family members and different schools.

“The period when I was with my dad and after my mom had passed … That period was really hard,” King said. “My father was just very sick. I didn’t know why. I didn’t know why he was acting the way he was acting. His moods were very different one night to the next. I recall one night where he woke me up at 2 a.m. and said it was time to go to school. I was saying, ‘No, no. It’s not time to go to school.’ I remember clinging to the banister on the stairwell at our house saying, ‘No, Daddy. No, Daddy. It’s not time to go to school.’ He still insisted that it was. I didn’t know what was wrong. That period was very, very hard. Again, school is the thing that helped me make it through.”

King was a talented student in high school, but he got kicked out his junior year for disciplinary issues.

“I’ve been like many teenagers who struggled. I was mad about a lot of things,” he said. “I was angry about the experiences I didn’t have as a kid. I was frustrated with adults. I always did well academically and enjoyed my classes, but I had a lot of difficulty with adults.”

King’s aunt and uncle, educators and mentors gave him a second chance. After the death of his father, he went to live with his aunt and uncle, Jean and Lt. Col. Handane King.

“My uncle who is career Air Force really challenged me to take responsibility for my life. He said to me, ‘Look. You know I can’t do anything about what’s happened to you, what you went through as a kid, but you are a man now. You got to decide how you want your life to be and what kind of man you want to be.’ That was a powerful conversation.”

Handane King was one of the Tuskegee Airmen and among the nation’s first black military airmen. He talked openly about the perils of racism — once recounting how he worried if people were going to pour water in his fuel tank. After serving in the military, he was among the first black members of the New York Fire Department.

As a young black and Latino man with his family in crisis, King’s teachers could have turned their backs on him — but they didn’t. Instead, they helped to make school a safe place and pushed him to learn and achieve. He often credits his teachers with making school a refuge for him. He later graduated from Harvard, Yale and Columbia universities, then found his passion as a teacher and education leader.

King comes from a family of firsts. His father, John B. King Sr., was a career educator of 40 years and the first black principal in Brooklyn, New York, who later served for eight years as assistant superintendent of schools for New York City — the first African-American to move up the ranks in the system. He never missed a day of work. He believed that education could save lives, and that being at the helm of the classroom was the most important thing he could do for his family and his students.

William “Dolly” King – another one of King’s uncles – played for the National Basketball League’s Rochester Royals in 1946, and was among the first black players to integrate a professional basketball league. An outstanding athlete, “Dolly” also played professional football and baseball. He was the first black player in the National Baseball League, playing with the Homestead Group of the Negro National League for three years and the world champion Lichtman Bears for two years. He later became a celebrated basketball referee, a baseball umpire and community leader in Harlem, New York.

King’s grandmother, Estelle Livingston Stansberry King, was a descendent of slaves. She attended Princess Anne Academy (which would later become the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore) and graduated in 1894, standing among the first women of color to graduate college in the 1800s. She worked as a nurse at Philadelphia’s Mercy-Douglass Hospital. She encouraged her sons, King’s father and uncles, to attend college in the 1930s at a time when college was often inaccessible for young black men. Although he never met her, King inherited his grandmother’s passion for education.

“I particularly feel a responsibility as the first principal to make sure that we are lifting up and celebrating the work that principals do. Principals are the folks who are leading change efforts in schools,” King said. “Principals are often ones who are organizing those kinds of school change efforts.

“Certainly, I take very seriously the responsibility as a man of color, as an African-American and Puerto Rican leader, to say to folks, ‘It is so important that we have a diverse education workforce.’ Today, a majority of the kids in our public schools are kids of color, but only 18 percent of our teachers are teachers of color; only 2 percent of our teachers are African-American men. As a black and Latino teacher and principal, I think it’s important for me to make sure that states and districts are thinking about how they ensure a diverse teacher workforce. It’s important for kids of color. Those kids of color need to see great role models that’s in front of the classroom and school leadership roles. It’s also important for white students to see folks of color in leadership roles in their schools and communities.”

King said the hardest part of his professional life is just knowing that even with all the Obama administration is doing and trying to do in education, there are kids who aren’t getting what they need.

“As secretary, I try to spend time, lots of time meeting with students and teachers. I hear from students who are experiencing bullying in school, students who are in schools where they’re not getting access to all the academic experiences. They’re not getting access to advanced courses that most of their peers are getting. I speak to young people who are in juvenile justice facilities who aren’t getting the educational opportunities that they should. I give them the support around transitioning back to their home and their home school.

“The hardest thing of my job now, and really my job as an educator, has been just feeling like there’s so much more that needs to be done to make sure that schools are serving all kids well.”

King said the president has proposed the Stronger Together Grants program, a $120 million investment in supporting and accelerating voluntary efforts to improve socioeconomic diversity in schools.

“He’s leaving an incredible legacy of progress, not just in education but in terms of where the country’s economy is and in terms of expanding opportunity,” King said.

Kelley Evans is a general editor at The Undefeated. She is a food passionista, helicopter mom and an unapologetic southerner who spends every night with the cast of The Young and the Restless by way of her couch.