Final Thoughts from An MCNC Legend

Chery Wagonlander

Chery Wagonlander

For over twentyfive years, Dr. Chery Wagonlander has been the principal of Mott Middle College in Flint, Michigan. Through disintegrating social and economic times, she has steadfastly led, challenged and brought passionate energy to young people who lived in urban communities beset by the hardships derived from a failing auto industry, a deteriorating infrastructure and families in crisis. Throughout these two plus decades, Chery continued to build the rigor, raise the standards while providing what she coined “wrap around services” to her fragile adolescent population. Chery worked successfully with college presidents and leaders at Flint and throughout the state to open more opportunities to youth and her efforts have paid off again and again. Today, with Chery’s decision to leave the role of principal, she can be proud of the huge strides her students have made in credit accumulation, transfer to Flint Community College and 4 year colleges and universities. She has been one of the leading forces in Michigan to establish a growing Middle and Early College movement and chairs the Michigan Early/Middle College Association (MEMCA). And this year she has joined forces with MCNC, NCREST, Jobs for the Future and Teachers College, Columbia University to lead a pilot STEM project in schools throughout Michigan under a Federal I3 (Innovation) Grant. As Chery Wagonlander leaves a role, that has, for much of her life, defined her and given her opportunities to demonstrate her imagination, intellectual curiosity and wisdom, and love for youth, she sat down a shared these thoughts:

You have been one of the longest serving MCNC Principals within the Consortium, what prompted your decision to leave at this moment?

Several years ago I had this opportunity to use the school (Mott Middle College HS) as a lab school and to develop Middle and Early Colleges across the state of Michigan and I just reached the point at work where I was overwhelmingly busy. I reached a point of knowing that I could not be the exemplar principal that I had always strived to be and also be an exemplar leader and coach of an organization to keep widening the number of students that could take advantage of this approach to education. There are only 24 hours in each day and it was wise for me to step down from the Principalship and mentor someone in that role while things were still going well. At this time, I could make an impact in this way, without doing too many things.
Then I had the opportunity to be the statewide coordinator for the Consortium and its role in this new I3 Grant opportunity. I absolutely would have been undertaking too much. But these new opportunities marry well with the coaching and I can continue to coach through the Middle College model because that supports what the I3 work is all about.

You have made powerful contributions to the Michigan educational community and the MCNC Community through your breakthrough work with Wrap Around Services and Critical Friends Review, what do you feel most proud of and hope to be your legacy?

I know what drove me was I don’t believe that there are throw away children. What drove me was the desire to provide equal access to a superior education for all. I believe that students can reinvent themselves. I believe that they deserve this opportunity.

I’m most proud of the actual hard core quantitative data that we now have that proves that with superior supports and with educators who believe that all students can become college ready and continue education beyond the twelfth grade. And I’m really, really proud of that because we still have policies, practices and traditions in place where some students are sorted out. And because of the sorting some students don’t get an equal education.

You are such an optimistic person and have always had such faith in your students, what surprises did you experience and what goals did you reach that you did not expect you would achieve during your tenure?

I think in surprises, I have been struck by how hard it has been to motivate, lead and sustain the adult leadership that you have to develop to sustain the types of schools that we’ve developed to serve the underserved, underprepared, under performing youth. We have to work as hard servicing the teachers and servicing the counselors and college instructors who are working with these youth as we work at servicing the youth. There is a balance. So my surprise is how much I’ve had to dig in and learn from other people and talk to other people about the type of leadership that it takes; which is distributed leadership which also means that everyone has to become a leader. There can’t be any slackers or people who say, “I’ll do what you tell me to do.” Or “explain it to me again, and I’ll try it again.” That energy that I feel it has taken to provide that leadership has been a surprise. What drove me to this work was the scholarliness, the intellectual scholarliness mixed with the passion of serving underrepresented children. I’ve had all that support from the Consortium and wonderful support from educational leaders in Michigan and my higher education work, which I continue to do. Without it, I couldn’t have done it. And that really has been my surprise.

I think how wide spread, even the Early College Movement with all of its models and all of its structures across the nation and in our state [has become]; I knew from my doctoral work in the 1990’s they said it takes fifty years to bring about a revolution in education. It is the slowest institution to have solid reform to become the model of the day. We’ve been in this for about 40 years and I had no idea that Michigan would, in just the last 10 years, just burst with the work of this reform movement. It’s permeated our entire state. One model to another, district by district are getting on board relooking at how they are and are not getting students work ready and college ready.

Over the years at Mott, how have things (students/policies/college/district mandates) changed and what do you take away from that experience? Are students better able to address their academic needs? Are they still caught in the same struggles?

I know that our students’ profiles are almost the same. We can go back 25 years and it’s almost the same: their GPA are higher, it’s higher in numbers who receive free lunch, numbers who come from families who are incarcerated, it’s higher on people who are involved in abuse of all kinds. We’re looking at a student body that is more fragile. Take that student body that is more fragile and yet our students are achieving more and more; career preparation wise and academically. They are doing that because we, all of us, secretaries, counselors, administrators, teachers, we have changed how we do our work. We can talk about that. We can articulate that. That’s the biggest situational change that I see in students. We have become wiser. We have created all kinds of interventions that we wish we had created earlier. We learn from them and they learn from us.

What advice or counsel do you have for those who will succeed you?

I feel I’ve come full circle. I wish more educators would think about the medical model for their career. That is based on the idea that you have a patient and you ask yourself: What are the strengths and what are the weaknesses? What is the symptom that’s going to be a disease if you don’t catch it and treat it. You would never do something that someone else could do better in another country or another state. No, you’d seek out the person who is doing it better. That’s what I want to leave, that I stood for servicing at risk youth. But servicing them well. Servicing them with dignity, with respect. To open up their lives so that their lives can be more fulfilled. I think I always, in my head, thought from a medical model. I know that the faculty and students say, “You always use those words,” but they just resonate with me. And lastly, there was a situation a few weeks ago where students were surprising me, and a former Assistant Principal (Lee Rossmaessler) came back and gave me a jar of honey. He said, what he learned from me was you truly can solve things with sweetness and kindness and I’m trying to do it all with kindness to everybody. I try to model that and expect that with everyone. It’s what you say, when you say it, how you say it and should you say it. That compassion and that kindness part, for me is important to me because I’m emotional, I hurt easily and I know how it’s effected me as a student and as a teacher, counselor, director, a principal, coach, all the way through. I hope that people will remember that and think about the impact their personal actions play. It doesn’t matter how good your interventions are, your control of the content, your plan on paper. If you push people away from you, if you interfere with their personal space nothing good is going to happen anyway. It’s going to be futile.

What’s your next move and how will you bring what you learned at Mott MCHS to that challenge?

We’re moving onto this wonderful opportunity, this wonderful collaboration with Teachers College, with NCREST, with Jobs for the Future, with the state of Connecticut. We’re trying to see if we can take what we’ve learned in our Early College work, with students being successful handling overlapping dual enrollment in their high school years. We’re going to try to take that at a smaller level, with a smaller expectation into the general education high schools, 9-12, and marry what we’ve learned from successful dual enrollment experiences for adolescents and increasing the number of students who are truly prepared for following a pathway that leads to STEM career choices because we’re hurting in the numbers of students in our country; we’re certainly hurting in the number of students in Michigan. We can’t bring in enough people. People are leaving who have the potential, People who could be staying and going into STEM related jobs in our state. So it’s a matter of survival for us. I think the collaboration is super exciting; MCNC and Jobs for the Future are two major organization, blending together. I’ll have the opportunity to work hand in hand with Cece on this project while I concentrate on organizing and trying to direct it and move these 11 pilot districts here in Michigan.


Any last thoughts?

It has been a dream job; a dream organization to be a part of. It’s been a family. My daughter teases me. She says she has my speech down. Whenever I meet a stranger I ask them to sit down and I say, “Have you heard about Middle College?” And then I say, “Now let me tell you about Early College?” She imitates me. . . Aren’t I fortunate? I’m the one who has gotten the most out of this experience.

Well, Chery, many of us at the Consortium, in Michigan, and at Mott Middle College and Community College would beg to differ on that last point. Wishing you all the best in this well deserved move.