Jennifer Wiley is a veteran educator who graduated from the Danforth Educational Leadership Program in 1995, as part of Cohort 7, and later went on to earn her doctorate in education from the University of Washington. She has served as principal of Seattle's Franklin High School for more than a decade.
In 2011 Wiley received a Washington State Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Education. In 2013 she was honored with the Thomas B. Foster Award for Excellence, which recognizes outstanding secondary school principals in the district – she shared the award with fellow Danforth member Mia Williams. In this interview, Wiley discusses her belief in the power of public education as a conduit for democracy and shares how the Danforth program had a powerful impact on her beliefs and her career path.
How did you decide to enter the education field, and why did you choose Danforth?
I was the product of private schools, and I was pretty astounded at the difference in education that the students in the public school where I taught were receiving relative to my own. So I started doing a lot of reading about education as a tool for social justice and the gross inequities [in society], and I was pretty fired up. I was trying to decide about either pursuing a career as a civil rights attorney or getting into school leadership when I came across the description of the Danforth program.
The pillars of the program at that time were deeply rooted in democracy and the schoolhouse as a conduit for democracy and, in particular, the moral dimension of teaching. Having the words moral and public school in the same mission was [appealing] to me, and I think unique. There seems to always be a strong push to keep words like morality out of public institutions, particularly public schoolhouses. So the courage for the Danforth leadership at the time to say, "This is a moral imperative, that we have good public schools; this is how we build a representative democracy," really tipped the scales for me. It just became clear that public education is the most active civil rights march that we currently have, and Danforth was it for me. The Danforth staff welcomed me without reservation and without any barriers.
How do you think the Danforth program instills those morals and values in its students?
The staff at the time absolutely walked the talk. With respect to really understanding the power of education, the power of language, the power of the curriculum, the power of being change agents, and what the public schoolhouse means, the [Danforth faculty] are second to none – my heroes to this day. And I was deeply grounded in those principles through my Danforth experience. I believe in mission-driven organizations, and I believe Danforth is a mission-driven program and that's how I model my work.
Your job as a principal is so varied and presents so many different challenges – how do you think your Danforth experience helps you with those challenges?
Danforth helped me operationalize my core values by equipping me with tools about what it means to build a mission-driven organization in all of its complexities. What does a schoolhouse or school district look like when we are rooted in serving children first and foremost? Whose interests are being served? That is the first question I ask before doing anything. And if the answer isn't kids at the other end of that, I take a different direction.
So what Danforth helps to do is operationalize my core values around democracy and social justice, which are also the core values of Danforth. The program gave me the tools organizationally and technically, but most importantly, it kindled the fierce fire in my belly for inclusion and justice and liberation through education.
How does your connection with Danforth and the University of Washington help you in your job today?
My connection to the UW itself, and particularly those I studied under, is very active and ongoing. When I get challenged and things don't make sense, I head over to the University of Washington and I'm talking to the researchers and folks who know this stuff. The UW is home base for me, [and] it all started with Danforth.
What I took out of Danforth, by and large, is my compass and how I go about my work. My core values have not changed. My strategies have changed tremendously to meet the demands of the current time, but what I believe in and how I prioritize my work – and what I believe matters most in a schoolhouse – has not changed. That was definitely, without reservation, cultivated in the Danforth program.