Equity

Education Pioneers of the Commit Office


9 March 2020

“I think the work that happens here in this building is going to be what helps young, hungry students like me get to do what I’m doing now.”

These were the words of Karla Garcia, a Dallas County Promise associate, the first Latina elected to the Dallas school board, and the newest namesake to a conference room in the Commit Partnership offices.

When Commit first began in 2012, the Dallas County Promise didn’t exist yet, and Karla was still in high school. We’ve been fortunate to grow in our mission, our scope, and our team since then. But each organizational decision we’ve made in that time has been driven by the same core values: Students First, Equity and Inclusion, Systemic Impact, Humility, Integrity, and Joy.

We wanted to see those values reflected in our physical office space. That’s why each of our conference rooms are named after education pioneers, advocates for excellence and equity in education through history. Each honoree was nominated and approved by Commit staff.

“I think each and every one of you deserves to have something like this,” Garcia said to co-workers at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for her conference room. Garcia exemplifies not only humility in moments like these, but an emphasis on inclusivity that centers the student experience above all others.

“I am leading a much different life than most of the people I grew up with. I have a ticket to social mobility, better health outcomes, better life outcomes, simply because of the school that I was afforded and other opportunities that I had. And that is unacceptable.”

Below, a list of educators, policymakers, and activists who refused to accept the unacceptable in their communities. We have named meeting rooms in our office after each.


Horace Mann was a major early proponent of taxpayer-supported public education. After serving as a Massachusetts state legislator for ten years, he became the first Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education in 1837. In this position, he created a statewide system of “normal schools” in order to provide “well-trained, professional teachers” to the state’s nascent public education system. He also advocated for quality facilities, the end of corporal punishment, and “schools that embrace children from a variety of backgrounds.” Later, as a US Congressman, he advocated for the expansion of public education to other states, as well as fighting against the expansion of slavery. He concluded his career by serving as the first president of Antioch College.

To learn more, see Perfecting Childhood: Horace Mann and the Origins of Public Education in the United States by Barbara Finkelstein


N. W. Harllee was born into slavery in 1852, to a Methodist preacher passionate about educating his fellow plantation workers. He taught himself to read and write and eventually put himself through school at Biddle University. In 1885, Harllee came to Dallas, where he was one of the first teachers hired for Colored Ward School No. 2, and when the Colored High School opened seven years later, he was the obvious choice for the principalship. He was also on the board of the Freedman’s Hospital, a writer for the Dallas Express, and the chair of the “Colored Department” at the Texas State Fair. Harllee was passionate about instructing his fellow teachers. He served as president and secretary for the Teachers State Association of Texas, and for decades, led a “Colored Teacher’s Normal” in different major cities across the state. He was the first person to have a Dallas school named for them while still living. That school is still in operation, among the top performing early childhood centers in the city and state.

To learn more, see Test Scores and Trampolines, a Commit podcast episode about Harllee and the school that bears his name


Booker T. Washington was born into slavery in 1856. After fleeing Virginia to secure an education, Washington co-founded and led the Tuskeegee Institute, a historically black college formed, in part, to prepare an African-American teaching corps. Washington then leveraged the newfound prominence the role afforded him to attract the support of philanthropists to build public schools for black students across the South. Rightly criticized in his day for publicly supporting segregation, Washington nonetheless privately financed early litigation pursued by the NAACP to secure black voting rights.

To learn more, see Booker T. Washington: Understanding the Wizard of Tuskeegee by Robert J. Norrell


Maria Montessori was the first woman to attend medical school in Italy. Upon graduating, she began working with children experiencing cognitive impairment. She quickly became an advocate for improved services for this heretofore overlooked group, and the strategies she identified to create a secure environment for these students evolved into the educational philosophy that today bears her name. An international advocate for peace across two world wars, Montessori was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize a total of six times.

To learn more, see The Montessori Method: The Origins of an Educational Innovation


Thelma Page Richardson was born and raised in Denver, Colorado, where she attended high-quality, integrated schools, including the Colorado State Teachers College. This proved important when, in 1942 at age 31, Thelma Page (not yet married) became the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against her employer, the Dallas school district. The district paid black educators significantly less than their white counterparts because they were presumed to have inferior educational backgrounds, an assumption Richardson’s sterling credentials belied. With the help of future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (who was the NAACP’s lead counsel on the case) and over the protestation of City of Dallas officials (who, at the time, still governed the district) Richardson secured equal pay for herself and her fellow black Dallas educators. She went on to teach in the Dallas school district for a total of 40 years.

To learn more, see Racial Discrimination and the Equalization of Negro and White Teachers' Salaries in the Dallas Public Schools by George W. Tompkins


Juanita J. Craft was born in Round Rock, Texas and attended Prairie View State Normal and Industrial College (now Prairie View A&M University) and Samuel Huston College (now Huston-Tillotson University). After settling in Dallas and becoming an organizer, she worked her way up the ranks of the Texas NAACP, ultimately assisting in the creation of a whopping 182 branches of the organization. In 1944, she became the first black woman to vote in Dallas County. She empowered Dallas youth to lead protests against segregated institutions like the State Fair of Texas. She helped to enroll a black student at North Texas State College (now the University of North Texas), an action that eventually led to the desegregation of the school, and served two terms on the Dallas City Council.

To learn more, see Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Juanita Craft versus the Dallas Elite by Stephanie Decker


Claiborne Pell was a World War II veteran and U.S. diplomat who became a U.S. Senator for the state of Rhode Island in 1960. In 1973, he helped to create the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant, later renamed in his honor, to provide access to postsecondary education to low-income students. He also sponsored the bill that created the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, and was an advocate for public transit and nuclear disarmament who wrote three books about transportation and foreign affairs.

To learn more, see An Uncommon Man: The Life & Times of Senator Claiborne Pell by G. Wayne Miller


Sam Tasby was born in 1921 in rural Arkansas, where he was denied the ability to attend school past the 7th grade. After serving in World War II, Tasby settled and began a family in the Dallas neighborhood of Arlington Park. Because of the school district’s segregationist policy (which survived well beyond Brown v. Board), Tasby had to bypass a well-kept white school in his own neighborhood to take his sons to a “colored” school on the other side of town. Refusing to allow his sons to suffer this “dual system” in the same way he had, Tasby filed suit against the district in 1970, precipitating a decades-long legal battle that eventually resulted in the district achieving ‘unitary’ status.

To learn more, listen to Tasby’s oral history


Jaime Escalante was born in La Paz, Bolivia in 1930. After teaching in his home country for 12 years, Escalante came to East Los Angeles in 1974 to teach at Garfield High School. The school was threatened with losing its accreditation after years of low performance. Escalante addressed this situation by raising expectations for his students, rather than lowering them. He fought administrators to offer more challenging, college-ready coursework, and in 1982, made national headlines when 18 of his students passed the Advanced Placement Calculus exam. These students were presumed to have cheated, only to re-take the exam and pass yet again. These events inspired the movie Stand and Deliver, released in 1988. In 2001, he returned to Bolivia to teach at the Universidad Privada del Valle.

To learn more, see The Jaime Escalante Math Program


Kathlyn Joy Gilliam was born in Campbell, Texas in 1930 and moved to Dallas as a teenager, where she graduated from Lincoln High School in 1948. Quickly becoming active in her new community, Gilliam became the president of the Dallas Council of Colored Parents and Teachers. In 1971, after losing an election for the Dallas school board, Gilliam served as a plaintiff on the Tasby desegregation lawsuit and served on its Tri-Ethnic Committee appointed by Judge William Taylor. In 1974, Gilliam was elected to the DISD board, becoming the first Black woman to do so. She served as the board’s president from 1980-82, and as a trustee until 1997. She was a founding member of the Political Congress of African-American Women, the Black Coalition to Maximize Education, and Clean South Dallas/Fair Park, Inc.

To learn more, visit the Kathlyn Joy Gilliam Museum


Trinidad “Trini” Garza was born in Stockdale, Texas, in 1931. Garza served in the U.S. Naval Reserves during the Korean War, primarily in order to access a postsecondary education through the GI Bill, which he used to attend Texas A&M for Electrical Engineering. This degree afforded him a career at manufacturing firm LTV, where he faced wage discrimination. In 1969, he became the first Latino to serve on the Dallas school board. He later served on the Tri-Ethnic Committee alongside Kathlyn Gilliam to desegregate Dallas schools, and advocated for single member Dallas city council districts. After again serving on the school board from 1991-94, Garza was appointed Deputy Regional Director of the U.S. Department of Education by President Bill Clinton. In 2001, he became executive director of La Voz del Anciano, an advocacy organization for elderly Latinx residents of Dallas County.

To learn more, watch Garza’s oral history


Irma Rangel was born in Kingsville, Texas in 1931. After helping to integrate her high school and formerly all-Anglo neighborhood, Rangel attended Texas College of Arts and Industries (Now Texas A&M University Kingsville). After teaching for fifteen years, Rangel attended law school, becoming one of the first Latina assistant district attorneys in Texas. In 1976, Rangel became the first Latina elected to the Texas State Legislature. She served as chair of the House Higher Education Committee from 1995 to 2003, and authored the bill creating the ‘Top Ten Percent Rule’ that increased diversity at Texas public universities. She refused to let a fierce battle with cancer keep her from her work in the Legislature, and served until her passing in 2003.

To learn more, see “Irma Rangel: The First Latina in the Texas Legislature” in Políticas: Latina Public Officials in Texas


Sylvia Mendez was born in Santa Ana, California in 1936. Moving to the suburb of Westminister, Mendez was forced to attend school in a two-room wooden shack due to de jure segregation against Latinx residents. Her father led a coalition of Latinx parents from across Orange County in a lawsuit against the district, and Sylvia, at eight years old, was named the lead plaintiff. The case was decided in Mendez’ favor in 1946, and upheld on appeal a year later. The case ultimately provided an important legal precedent for the Brown vs. Board desegregation decision, which was written by Chief Justice Earl Warren, who was California’s governor at the time of the Mendez suit. Mendez herself went on to work as a nurse for over thirty years and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.

To learn more, watch A Conversation with Sylvia Mendez


Geoffrey Canada was born in the South Bronx neighborhood of New York City in 1952. After receiving a Master’s in Education from Harvard, Canada began working with the Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families, eventually transforming it into the Harlem Children’s Zone to make a more systemic impact. In 2006, he co-chaired the Mayor of New York City’s Commission on Economic Opportunity. From 2008-2014, Canada served as chair of the board of directors for the Children’s Defense Fund.

To learn more, see Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America by Paul Tough


Salman “Sal” Khan was born in Metairie, Louisiana in 1976. Khan studied mathematics and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and received an MBA from Harvard. After spending years tutoring his cousin in math over the internet, Khan began uploading his tutorial to YouTube. These informal lectures quickly evolved into Khan Academy, an free online educational series that has now generated over 1.7 billion views across the globe. Khan’s videos are especially impactful in rural areas of Asia and Africa that otherwise lack educational infrastructure. Khan went on to found the Khan Lab School in 2014, a brick-and-mortar school in Mountain View, California.

To learn more, watch Sal Khan: Let’s Use Video to Reinvent Education


Karla Garcia was born and raised in the Pleasant Grove neighborhood of Dallas, Texas. Garcia attended the Irma Rangel Young Women’s Leadership School and became active in organizations like the League of United Latin American Citizens. She studied public policy at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and interned at the U.S. Department of Education in the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. Upon graduating, she returned to Pleasant Grove and ran to represent her community on the Dallas Independent School District board of trustees, becoming the first Latina and the youngest person ever to do so. Garcia is the College Readiness & Success Associate with the Dallas County Promise, working to make a college education possible for all students.

To learn more, listen to Access > Affordability, a Commit podcast about the Dallas County Promise featuring an interview with Garcia


Malala Yousafzai was born in 1997 in Pakistan to a family of educators and activists. By the time she was 11, she was a regular contributor to BBC Urdu, detailing the Taliban occupation of her region. After rising to prominence for her advocacy for peace and education, Yousafzai was targeted for assassination and narrowly survived a gunshot wound to the head. Undeterred, Yousafzai continues to advocate for equal access to education for girls around the world. In 2013, she co-founded the Malala Fund, which funds the creation of schools and educational resources for girls in underserved rural communities. In 2014, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the youngest Nobel laureate ever. She is currently a college student.

To learn more, watch Class Dismissed: Malala Yousafzai’s Story