Coming Full Circle

By L'Oreal Payton
November 7, 2019

Principals are the backbone of their schools — oftentimes filling in as teachers, counselors and janitors at a moment’s notice. No task is too big or too small when it comes to their students’ success. In this interview, we chat with Mandele Davis, the first-year principal at Houston’s Eisenhower High School. She shares her family history with education, her path to becoming a principal, and how she’s working to improve the college-going culture for the next generation.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

OneGoal: I understand you come from a family of educators … what is your first memory of learning?

Mandelé Davis: When I was a toddler, my mom owned a daycare attached to our church. I didn’t attend that one, but I went to one in our neighborhood. I had such fun learning all kinds of new things. Once my mom sold the daycare, she brought all these things home and I played school with my dolls. Everyone had enrollment folders and I borrowed names from the Sunday funnies … Miss Piggy, Kermit and Brooke Shields, they all had their folders.

That is awesome. So was becoming a principal always in the cards for you?
I fought it at first. But there were all these opportunities that drew me to education. In elementary school, I was the kid who was put in charge of the computer lab when the teacher was on vacation.

Later, I was part of TAFE — the Texas Association for Future Educators. I earned a teaching certificate, but thought I wouldn’t use it. But in college, I had a work-study job where I served as a tutor for my peers and later as an academic coordinator for the athletic department. Eventually my mom convinced me becoming a teacher was a good idea, so I got into a program that had a student teaching component and absolutely loved it.

What did the path from teacher to principal look like for you?
During my second year of teaching, I went to grad school for my principal certification. In my fifth year of teaching, I started applying for leadership roles. I interviewed for an assistant principal position at a Baptist school, but ended up being named principal after the principal resigned. Unfortunately, the church sold the school shortly thereafter. I only spent a semester there, but I had an amazing time and learned a lot about working with communities. We persisted through challenges and turned obstacles into opportunities.

And I knew from that moment on I had to help families secure educational opportunities for their children.

But it was emotionally taxing, so I became an auditor with a consulting firm around the time of Hurricane Katrina; however, it wasn’t satisfying to me … I was missing the students. So I applied to the Houston A+ Challenge program and began working for YES Prep Public Schools and later Spring Branch ISD before I became principal at Eisenhower.

If you look at our schools, the demographics have shifted from White to a largely Hispanic. What we’ve noticed is that the community has not kept up, per se, with needs for postsecondary education. We need to start changing the narrative about the accessibility of a college education. Some of our kids don’t believe they’re college material. We need programs such as OneGoal to understand that you are worthy, you are capable and you can definitely do this work.

How has OneGoal helped improve the college-going culture at your school?
It’s more prevalent in the students. We’re announcing their scholarship and acceptance letters. They’re coming up to me and saying “Ms. Davis, let me show you my latest letter.” OneGoal has helped us change the narrative that college is unattainable and the students are celebrating that.

The kids are the best part, every single day.

What’s been the most rewarding and challenging part of being a principal?
The kids are the best part, every single day. I love finding moments to connect with them and remind them they’re life beyond Antoine and Gulf Bank, which are the cross streets here. The highlight for me is anytime I get to be with the students. That’s my why. That’s where I want to be.

And the most challenging part is being a graduate of this school. It’s not the same place it was 27 years ago, because it’s changed and change is good. So it’s balancing the nostalgia with the reality of today and how we prepare students for 10 years down the road. I think about what I should be doing, how can we push instruction?

What’s it like to come full circle?
I still pinch myself. This school has a rich history and amazing culture. My mom served as assistant principal her for five years. When I was thinking about applying for this opportunity, she asked, “If not you, then who? Who better understands and knows the potential of these students and the community?”

She was really the driving force behind me throwing my name in the hat. If it wasn’t for her telling me to do this 20 years ago, I wouldn’t have done it. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for her.

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