KIPP Alum Returns As Director for Middle School

ByRichard Holm
Shawna Mayo, Director of KIPP Gaston College Preparatory Middle School

Shawna Mayo returns to her pride as the first alum to lead a KIPP school as director at KIPP Gaston College Preparatory Middle School.

At 26 years old, she will take on her new position July 1, when she plans to bring back that feeling she had felt, being seen and valued when she attended the school, Mayo said.

“It was definitely a space as a student where I felt that I had the autonomy to find my identity,” she said.

Mayo graduated from KIPP in 2012 and went on to attend Elon University, where she received her degree in psychology and minor in literature, she said. Studying abroad for eight weeks in Malawi in East Africa, she had the chance to work at one of the schools and to volunteer.

Mayo said her experience in Malawi is what sparked her interest in education.

“That kind of got me on the train of wanting to pursue something in education, but all of that started during my time at Elon,” she said.

Mayo’s mother was caught off guard by her interest in becoming an educator.

“She was just super surprised because she never thought that I wanted to go this far in education,” she said. “It was exciting to tell her and my family about the transition.”

KIPP Pride School Leader Shanae McWhite said they are elated to have Mayo serve as the KIPP Gaston College Prep Middle School director.

“We believe her leadership is crucial for this moment in time because of her genuine desire to achieve excellent student outcomes and deep care for our community,” McWhite said. “She understands the intersectionality between others’ identities and her own while also constantly reflecting on her practices to improve. Shawna is a humble leader with a fierce desire to continue proving the possible through students, reminding each of us that demography never defines destiny. Watching her journey from student to school leader makes us proud.”

Mayo said she never thought she would be where she is right now, even when she wanted to pursue something in college admissions.

“I’ve never seen myself in school leadership, let alone being a middle school principal,” she said. “I’m just thankful for all the mentors I’ve had a long the way.”

One of those mentors is Janice Smith, her eighth-grade technology teacher, who transitioned with the class into their high school years, Mayo said.

“I enjoyed her because as a woman of a different race, she didn’t allow that to keep barriers between she and I,” she said.

Mayo said Smith would immerse herself into her home environment, where there were plenty of times the two had conversations about life or finding ways to navigate being a teenager as a student.

When asked where her favorite spot to be at in the school, she said the annex, which is a corridor of rooms that is attached behind the school gym. Having school basketball games in the gym was a great feeling when walking through the gym and getting a glimpse of what the high school experience would be like when going to their eighth-grade classes in the Annex, Mayo said.

“It’s all on that same hallway like walking to our classes,” she said, reminiscing about her walks to the annex. “It’s also where I started to feel a level of maturity because it was the halfway point between our middle school and our high school.”

Revisiting the annex and stepping inside what was her English Language Arts classroom during eighth grade, Mayo looked around the room where desks were traditionally formed. She pointed out the bookshelf that still had the “Animal Farm” book they read in class and “Romeo and Juliet” that she said she remembered vividly because the class watched a film after reading the book.

Looking around the classroom, Mayo said the room looked smaller than it appeared when she was a student in the class, and the walls were painted with the same purple color.

“It looks terrible,” she said, laughing about the color.

Mayo recalled a memorable moment when her class took a trip to Chicago, which was her first time flying on an airplane.

“It was the epitome of my time here,” she said. “But I think that level of maturity from being a seventh-grade student to then matriculating to eighth grade and how the locations of our classrooms solidify us being true ninth graders about to transition to high school. That was my favorite place, the annex.”

Now that she has returned to her pride at KIPP Middle School, and with COVID-19 hindering school systems, it will be a process to get children reacclimated to the daily routines of school, Mayo said.

“But I’m keeping them in mind in how the routines and procedures need to allow and encourage students to step into who their authentic selves,” she said. “I want to be a constant reminder for students what is possible in the area. Representation is very dear to me. I think students deserve to see diversity in their school environment and just other models of what is possible at their fingertips as long as they strive for academic excellence and their authentic selves.”

Mayo said the community expects the school to deliver on promises to provide a sound education. Staff from the school conduct home visits and tell families how the school is going to support their child throughout the duration at KIPP.

“I like that parents hold us accountable for fulfilling those expectations,” Mayo said. “I think now we just have to deliver. We have been in a place of change so much where I think oftentimes we forgot some of the foundational pieces that have allowed us to be sustained in this community, and one of those is academic excellence and fulfilling our commitments to families.”

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