Dr. Monique Chism, an SCPA alumna (Class of 1991), joined the US Department of Education in 2013 and now serves as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Programs in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. In this role she serves as a principal advisor to the Assistant Secretary on grant programs and initiatives in the Offices of Academic Improvement, Safe and Healthy Students, School Support and Rural Programs, Impact Aid Program, Migrant Education, and Indian Education. Previously, Dr. Chism served as the Director of the Office of Student Achievement and School Accountability, and then transitioned to lead the new Office of State Support. Prior to joining the US Department of Education, Dr. Chism held a number of positions in the field of education as a teacher, researcher, and state policy maker at the Illinois State Board of Education, where she served as the Assistant Superintendent for Innovation and Improvement.
In these positions she has influenced and shaped education policy with the goal of ensuring that every student has access to a high-quality education and the opportunity to learn. She is committed to creating environments that foster educational excellence. Through her work she continues to focus on effective strategies for improving equity and access for all students, closing opportunity gaps, and cultivating culturally proficient schools.
Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with Dr. Chism, and seek to better understand how the School for Creative and Performing Arts shaped her life and served as a starting place on her education journey – all the way to a top leadership position in the US Department of Education. Dr. Chism painfully recalled watching the KKK march through downtown Cincinnati, and hold a very public gathering on Fountain Square. But, she also, more proudly and hopefully remembered that same time of her life, as a student at SCPA.
“It was an environment where you could be yourself. There were no lines that divided us – by race, gender, income, or sexual orientation. Those lines that divide us in society didn’t exist at SCPA. I wasn’t simply defined as a young, low-income, African-American woman. Rather, I was considered to be a student with the potential to grow!”
Dr. Chsim is deeply appreciative that she can call herself an SCPA alumna. She uses words like ‘changed my life’ and ‘pivotal’ when referring to the impact SCPA’s teachers had on her life. When her parents divorced when she was twelve years old and she moved from Iowa to Cincinnati, her mother began to look for ‘other options’ for schools rather than attending the neighborhood high school, which was deemed chronically underperforming. The search led her to SCPA. When I asked Dr. Chism what she meant by ‘other options’, she responded,
“At SCPA there was a rigorous academic curriculum and training in the arts. Through the arts, especially the process of rehearsals and productions, we learned discipline. My experience in dance and drama taught me lessons about perseverance and resilience. I didn’t just learn an artistic discipline, I learned about practice, feedback, improvement – lessons which I’ve incorporated into how I work as a leader.”
While Dr. Chism didn’t pursue an arts career, she has surely applied what she learned at an arts school, to become a better leader. It appears that those lessons have been applicable, whether dancing on stage or sitting around a boardroom table.
“Teamwork was one of the lessons that was most powerful at SCPA. I learned it’s not just about me delivering my lines. Rather, it’s about us, working together, to make a production happen. That’s what I do as Deputy Assistant Secretary in the US Department of Education; it’s about creatively coming together, to move things forward.”
In closing, when I asked her, if she had any nugget of wisdom to share with our graduating seniors, Dr. Chism responded,
“Be aware that SCPA is a unique opportunity, and you have a responsibility to not settle for mediocrity. Be an engaged citizen and work creatively to make things better.”
I am reminded of a recent conversation I had with SCPA junior Megan Carlson, who was reflecting after her performance of “My Shot” (from the Broadway musical Hamilton), at Alumni Day. Megan reminded me, that 26 years after Monique Chism’s graduation from SCPA, she sees the world through that same lens. Megan said to me, “No, I am not throwing away my shot – that’s the main thing that I learned at SCPA – to work hard, to persevere, and reach for what matters.”
SCPA’s Principal, and SCPA alumnus, Michael D. Owens reflected on Dr. Chism’s inspiring words, and added,
“As we begin to implement our school’s new strategic plan, we’ll continue to leverage our dual curriculum – arts and academics – as we seek to improve student learning outcomes. More importantly, we’ll shape a school culture where students can, both, fit in and stand out. Like Dr. Chism, we will continue to encourage our students to find your voice and make a difference.”