RELN Fellows

Meet the 2019 RELN Fellows

In our executive leaders track, SEF recognizes a need to more fully engage in thought partnership with key decision makers and support their efforts as they work toward addressing the significant equity challenges that increasingly exist in our classrooms and communities. SEF believes that any attempt to effectively address deep, persistent disparity within schools calls for visionary leadership with a strong and explicit equity orientation, a clear sense of purpose, and the ability to mobilize stakeholders in an aligned direction. Currently, SEF offers the Racial Equity Leadership Network (RELN), an 18-month cohort-style fellowship that aims to strengthen the capacity of C-Level school district leaders to address disparities in learning and opportunity for low-income students and students of color. Through this unique experience, leaders will become more knowledgeable, skilled, and effective in leading and sustaining reform efforts in their systems.

We’ve gathered 11 ambitious school district leaders from across the nation poised to address racial, economic and academic disparities in their districts. Read below to learn more about our 2019 Fellows and the districts where they are taking the lead.

Rosa Atkins

Division Superintendent, Charlottesville City SchoolsCharlottesville, VA

Dr. Rosa Atkins is Superintendent of Charlottesville City Schools, a division of more than 4,000 economically, ethnically, and racially diverse students in nine schools. During Dr. Atkins’ tenure, Charlottesville City Schools has become one of the top performing school divisions in the state with an on-time graduation rate of 93% and one of the best Advanced Placement programs in the area. In 2011, she was named Superintendent of the Year by the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, as well as Virginia State University Alumnus of the Year for Professional Education.

Under her leadership, Charlottesville schools have been marked by innovation and collaboration. The creation of advanced manufacturing and engineering labs at Buford Middle School and Charlottesville High School – as well as a new curricula and engineering pathways – have been made possible by a partnership with area businesses, school divisions, and the University of Virginia. Despite these resources and a long-time commitment to equity, Charlottesville City Schools still see persistent disparities in educational outcomes marked by race, ethnicity, and income. Using the white nationalist rallies that occurred in Charlottesville in 2017 as a galvanizing moment, Charlottesville Schools and other organizations and agencies in the region have committed to seizing this window of opportunity and attention to advance racial justice for the benefit of all.

Christopher Blair

Superintendent of Education, Bullock County School SystemUnion Springs, AL

Currently, Dr. Christopher Blair serves as the Superintendent of Education for the Bullock County School System and is a presenter and consultant. Previously, Blair served as network deputy chief for Chicago Public Schools where he led school improvement and instructional leadership initiatives. Earlier, Blair was Chief Academic Officer for Montgomery Public Schools where he led the transformation of instructional services and central office support and oversaw administrative operations in school operations, human resources, curriculum and instruction, federal programs, exceptional education, principal leadership and development, professional development, accreditation, student support, and educator evaluation. In addition, Blair has been an English teacher, math teacher, elementary and middle school principal, central office administrator, postsecondary Dean of Education, and Alabama State Department of Education administrator.

Blair possesses over 15 years’ worth of executive educational leadership experience in collaborating with education leaders and school stakeholders. He contends to ensure student success through strong school support structures, evidence-based school operations, and student-centered learning environments.

Blair’s passion for leadership development and demonstrated ability to inspire education leaders to come together around a shared vision of student success are instrumental in helping schools and districts develop internal capacity to achieve continuous improvement. Blair believes and proves that putting students first always works in the best interests of students and adults.

Jessica Grant

Director of Student Services and Secondary Education, Kannapolis City SchoolsKannapolis, NC

Jessica Grant serves as the Director of Student Services and Secondary Education for Kannapolis City Schools in Kannapolis, North Carolina. She received her Ed.D. in Educational Leadership from Wingate University and has served as a teacher, administrator, and director during her 15-year tenure in the district. With a background in mental health and special education, she is committed to creating responsive educational environments which support the whole child. Jessica has recently led educational equity efforts in the district to ensure educators understand their roles as gatekeepers and hold themselves accountable where change is needed. She is also intently focused on eliminating discipline disproportionality through restorative practices, positive behavior interventions, and social-emotional learning.

Toya Harrell-Matthews

Assistant Superintendent, Clarksdale Municipal School DistrictClarksdale, MS

Toya Harrell-Matthews is a native of Clarksdale, Mississippi. She is the daughter of two former educators, Donell Harrell, and the late Vera C. Harrell. She has one sister, LaDonna Harrell-Harris of Houston, Texas and is the aunt to Ahmad & Aria Harris.

Education was always a priority for Dr. Matthews. She graduated in 1993 from Clarksdale High School and completed her undergraduate studies in psychology from Tougaloo College in Tougaloo, MS. Additionally, she has earned a master’s degree in Counseling from Delta State University, and an educational specialist’s and doctoral degree in educational leadership from Mississippi State University. She is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., National Educators Association, Mississippi Association of Educators, North Delta Connection, NAACP, The Links, Incorporated, and a member of Haven United Methodist Church.

Presently, Matthews serves as the Assistant Superintendent for the Clarksdale Municipal School District. She is the proud parent of Taylor Collins Matthews, a 16-year-old eleventh-grade student. Her life’s motto is: “Life is like a coin. You can spend it any way you want, but you can only spend it once. Spend wisely.”

Lisa High

Chief of Schools, Chesterfield County Public SchoolsChesterfield, VA

Lisa High is the Chief of Schools for Chesterfield County Public Schools in Chesterfield, Virginia. She is responsible for managing the Department of School Leadership and Support Services. Previously, Ms. High served as the Assistant Superintendent and Chief Academic Officer for Falls Church City Public Schools. With over 25 years of experience in public education, it is these varied experiences that have given Lisa a strong base in understanding what global education and life-long learning means for children. Lisa consistently focuses on providing all students with an inquiry-based and enriching education to prepare them to be global citizens. Ms. High is a proven leader with skills to provide instructional and organizational leadership to implement quality programs in curriculum, instruction, and human resource management. She is a lifelong learner at heart who has a broad perspective and understanding of the current issues and challenges in education.

The following skills and attributes are the keys to her success:

  • Strong leadership focused on accountability and excellence
    Extensive curriculum knowledge in Pre-K through 12th Grade
  • A collaborative professional who works with administrators, teachers, parents, and community members to ensure diversity, equity, and inclusion in division practices and instructional programming
  • A visionary leader who has a keen sense for creating personalized learning opportunities for teachers and administrators

Lisa High earned her Bachelor’s degree from James Madison University and her Masters in Education from the University of Virginia. Lisa is currently a doctoral candidate completing an Ed.D in Educational Administration and Leadership from Walden University. Her degree will be conferred in 2019. Ms. High desires to continue to advance the learning community in the development of creating a caring, inclusive, and equitable learning environment for students, staff, and the broader community.

Gerald Hudson

Superintendent, Cedar Hill Independent School DistrictCedar Hill, TX

Dr. Gerald B. Hudson, superintendent of Cedar Hill Independent School District (Cedar Hill ISD) since July 2019, is deeply committed to working with all stakeholders of the community to achieve a shared vision of educating with compassion and dedication so that every child can be successful. Mark Twain said, “the two most important days in your life are the day you are born, and the day you find out why.” Dr. Hudson found his ‘why’ and purpose during student teaching in Lubbock, TX. As a student-focused leader, his mission and burning imperative is to create and sustain a learning environment for both the adults and students, while providing a quality education for all that is second to none.

Before joining Cedar Hill ISD in 2019, Dr. Hudson served as Superintendent in Jasper Independent School District for 3 years. Previously, Dr. Hudson spent 19 years in Garland ISD as a teacher, coach, assistant principal, principal, and an area director. Dr. Hudson received his Doctorate and a Master of Science in Education Administration from Texas A&M University at Commerce, and a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics from Texas Tech University.

Dr. Hudson was awarded the Garland ISD Parent Teacher Student Association Secondary Principal of the Year in 2009, participated in the Raise Your Hand Texas- Harvard Leadership Program, and Education Seminar Principal Exchange Program (Brazil) in 2011. Dr. Hudson is active in many professional and civic organizations, including Texas Association of School Administrators, Future-Ready Superintendents Leadership Network, The Thompson Executive Leadership Institute Superintendent Academy, and Texas Alliance of Black School Educators.

Kelli Joseph

Superintendent , St. Helena Parish School SystemGreensburg, LA

Dr. Kelli Joseph began her educational journey at Southern University in Baton Rouge and completed her program of study at Southern University in New Orleans in 1998, where she majored in Secondary Education with a concentration in Social Studies. She continued her education at Southeastern Louisiana University where she obtained her master’s degree in 2003, master’s +30, and doctorate in Educational Leadership in 2011. She also attended Harvard University’s Leadership Institute for Superintendents.

During Dr. Joseph’s career as an educator, she served as a substitute teacher, middle and high school teacher, and sponsored various school-based organizations. She served as Site Director for the Catholic Charities Summer Witness Camp for four years before becoming an assistant principal and later a school principal in St. John the Baptist Parish School System. In 2010, Dr. Joseph was named Principal of the Year for St. John Parish while serving at Garyville/Mt. Airy Math and Science Magnet School. In 2011, she was hired as Superintendent for St. Helena Parish School District where she is instrumental in developing a system that has improved educational outcomes for students. In 2014, the St. Helena Advocacy for Parish Enrichment (SHAPE) named her Person of the Year. The District Administration National Organization identified her as an Outstanding School District Leader. She was named a 2017 Woman of Distinction by the Girl Scouts of Louisiana East.

Her professional organizations include: AASA School Superintendent’s Association, President of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, Louisiana Association of School Executives, Superintendent’s Advisory Council, Louisiana Accountability Commission, Capital Area United Way Board of Directors, Capital Area United Way Community Impact, Regional Educational Laboratory Southwest Governing Board, and Rho Pi Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. She is a member of Our Lady of Grace Roman Catholic Church where she serves in various ministries.

Yanisha Mann

Secondary Education Director, Pitt County SchoolsGreenville, NC

Ms. Yanisha Mann serves in the role of Secondary Education Director for Pitt County Schools in Greenville, NC. Ms. Mann has enjoyed a successful career in public education spanning over 16 years in North Carolina. Prior to this, she served as Superintendent of Washington County where record-breaking academic gains were made, and as a result, the district was recently removed from state low-performing school district status. She has served as an educational consultant for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, and a principal mentor for the Northeast Leadership Academy (NELA 2.0) through North Carolina State University, where she has coached principals all over Eastern NC, specifically regarding the application of technology in schools. She has also served as Director of Home Base, Director of Secondary Curriculum, Global Schools Coordinator, Principal, Assistant Principal, Instructional Technology Specialist, and a teacher for Edgecombe and Washington County Schools.

Ms. Mann’s impressive academic background includes a bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, which she attended as a North Carolina Teaching Fellow. She went on to obtain two master’s degrees in Curriculum and Instruction and Educational Administration from Grand Canyon University. In 2021, she is looking forward to the completion of her doctorate as an East Carolina University Pirate.

In her search for greater impact in a larger school district, Ms. Mann is now working with Pitt County Schools. The best part for Ms. Mann, she says, is that she is still in Eastern NC helping our communities reach new heights.  “I have always had a love for helping others,” she says,  “especially our future. I am looking forward to doing all that I can to help our students be Pitt County Schools Strong!”

William Merritt

Chief of Staff, Jackson Public SchoolsJackson, MS

William M. Merritt, IV, a native Texan, has been an employee in Jackson Public School District (JPSD) for 18 years. He began his teaching career at Siwell Middle School. Later, he transferred to Galloway Elementary School where he taught fourth and fifth grades.

In 2008, Dr. Merritt was promoted to Assistant Principal at Walton Elementary School. He also served as interim principal at Watkins Elementary and Lester Elementary before being named as the permanent principal at Lester Elementary School. Two and a half years later, he was promoted to Chief Academic Officer of Elementary Education for JPSD and served in that capacity for three years. He next served as Executive Director of Federal Programs, and now as Assistant Superintendent for School Support.

Dr. Merritt holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree from Grambling State University, a Master of Arts degree from Belhaven College, and a Specialist Degree in Educational Leadership from Mississippi College. He earned a doctorate in Early Childhood Education from Jackson State University.

Dr. Merritt is a committed professional to academic excellence and he is passionate about the instructional success of students. Additionally, he holds membership in several civic and social organizations. Dr. Merritt is the proud father of one son, William M. Merritt, V.

Dawn Meyers

Social Emotional Learning Specialist, Foothills Education Charter High SchoolAthens, GA

Dr. Dawn Meyers currently serves as the Social Emotional Learning Specialist for the Foothills Education Charter High School in Northeast Georgia. As a public charter high school, Foothills offers alternative, evening, self-paced instruction designed to support varied student needs while they earn an accredited Georgia high school diploma. With eleven sites in counties both urban and rural, a soon-to-open fully virtual site, sites in three Georgia Department of Corrections facilities and the Youth Challenge Program, Foothills provides a unique solution to the state’s dropout problem. Dr. Meyers work involves developing the health, mental health and social emotional learning framework to support Foothills students.

Prior to coming to Foothills Education Charter High School, Dr. Meyers was the Chief of Policy and School Support Services for the Clarke County School District where she led work to address equity and student disparities through policy and support services. The School Support Service divisions that Dr. Meyers supervised included school nurses, school social workers, homeless education, school psychologists, school counselors, special education, behavior specialists, and migrant specialists.

In her more than 20 years in education, Dr. Meyers has served as a homeless liaison, school social worker, district director and executive director. In 2013, Dawn earned her Doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Georgia where she studied the impact of teacher home-visits to students. Her professional areas of interest include policy, social justice and equity, domestic violence prevention, immigration issues, home-school relationships, and child abuse and neglect prevention. She has presented at state and local conferences on topics including: suicide prevention, trauma informed family engagement strategies, and the collaboration between public schools and youth mental health services.

Dawn is an active member of her community and recently has served as Board Member and Board Chair for the Project Safe Domestic Violence Shelter (2010-2017), the Co-Chair for the Jeanette Rankin Foundation It’s Time to Talk: Forum on Race (2019), and was honored to receive the UGA School of Social Work Alumni of the Year Award in 2018. Most importantly, Dawn has been married for more than 25 years and is the proud parent of three young adult children.

DesMontes Stewart

Superintendent, Gainesville Independent School DistrictGainesville, TX

DesMontes (Des) L. Stewart became the Superintendent of Gainesville Independent School District (GISD) in 2019. His primary roles in the district are to oversee the daily operation of the district, ensure that District resources are being utilized to support the goals of the District and to provide the students of GISD with a safe and secure learning environment. In addition to these responsibilities, Dr. Stewart spends countless hours on GISD campuses meeting with the instructional leaders in an effort to build quality relationships with faculty, staff and students as well as see the great things that are happening in the classrooms.

The career of Dr. Stewart spans more than 21 years across multiple school districts. He has served as a High School Algebra/Geometry teacher, Middle School Assistant Principal, High School Assistant Principal, Intermediate Principal, Middle School Principal, High School Principal, Area Director, and Deputy Superintendent before accepting his current role as Superintendent of Schools in Gainesville ISD. Having worked in Fort Worth, Crowley, Mansfield, Garland, and Killeen prior to his landing in Gainesville, he attributes his professional outlook to those experiences gained while working for these fine educational organizations.

Born in Waco, TX. he realized at an early age that he wanted to make a difference not just in the lives of his family members, but for all kids. This transformation took place during his middle school years and to this day he continues to strive to make a difference in the lives of children. Having grown up in a low socio-economic upbringing, he understands the struggles that kids of today are experiencing. Dr. Stewart is a self-proclaimed “life-learner”, who takes great pride in learning from others. Proverbs 27:17 states, that “Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend.” Having worked with many great visionary leaders helped prepare him for any future challenges that he may encounter.

In his spare time, he enjoys spending time with his family and friends. He also enjoys traveling, reading, listening to jazz music and playing golf. He currently lives in Gainesville, TX and is the father of three beautiful girls, Kyndhal, Cierra, and Lyric.