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National Blog

Women Who Stand: Karen Williams


Stand for Children's Luis Avila is a pretty inspiring guy himself, so when he told Tyler how fantastic Superintendent Karen Williams is, Tyler took notice.   

Dr. Karen Williams is Superintendent of the 14,000 student Alhambra School District in Phoenix, Arizona. Last week, Tyler talked to her about her upbringing and her leadership philosophy.

Tell me a little bit about your upbringing. What inspired you to go into education?

We did not have any money growing up, but my parents, grandparents, and aunt were determined that I would be a college graduate. I never knew that I had a choice about attending college and doing well in school. It was just a mandate in my family.

My aunt, for example, was very intent on me being well- educated. She would take my siblings and me to the library, and she would give us grammar lessons in her house. And I started skipping the library trips and the grammar lessons. So one morning, she woke me up early and said, “You’re coming to work with me today.” She worked as a domestic. All day, I watched her clean bathrooms and mop floors and make beds. I offered to help her, but she told me to just sit and watch. At the end of the day, I remember watching the sweat drip off her chin as she starched shirt after shirt. She looked at me and said: “I do this. With an education, you won’t have to.” 

Your school district, Alhambra, does a fantastic job teaching low income students and students of color. In your view, what were the most important things you do as a leader to bring about these outcomes?

First of all, it’s broader than Karen Williams. I follow two outstanding mentors [former Alhambra superintendents]. They both took a special interest in me and helped develop my skill set.

If there is something that I would say I have added to the organization, it would be a well communicated message regarding beliefs. In Alhambra School District we believe that every student is entitled to a high quality education. Every time we speak about Alhambra, we repeat that message. We have it on t-shirts, on websites, on drinking tumblers. We believe!

And those beliefs are demonstrated through our action. If we believe that children deserve high quality education that should be seen in our interactions with children and families, in our pursuit of opportunities for them, in every action we take to ensure our children have gateway from poverty.

Why do you think women are the majority of the teaching force but not the majority of superintendents?

For years, the superintendents have been predominantly men. But women are emerging as leaders in education. [Leadership at the superintendent level] is still a male dominated field, but as men leave or retire from the profession, women are being hired in those leadership positions.

What advice would you have for other women who want leadership positions in the education field?

Again, believe! And remain steadfast in your pursuit. Don’t be afraid to take advantage of various opportunities to build and strengthen your skill set.