|Carolyn Stanford Taylor is Wisconsin’s State Superintendent
Committed to Children
Carolyn Stanford Taylor, Wisconsin’s first African American
State Superintendent of Education has been focused on
academic education for all children for more than 40 years.
Stanford Taylor had her eye on becoming a principal and got her chance at Marquette Elementary School.
“At the time, it had just split into a paired school. Lapham Elementary had K-2 and I had grades 3-5,” Stanford Taylor said. “That was the first year of the split. I
stayed there for five years. When I left Marquette, I didn’t feel like my work was done. We increased the reading scores and the community had settled down
regarding the split in the schools. Everyone was feeling like they were a part of the school and had ownership of the school. I wasn’t quite ready to leave, but the
superintendent felt the need to have someone who could lead Lincoln into becoming a K-5 school.”
Stanford Taylor moved on to Lincoln Elementary School which was paired with Midvale Elementary School. There were political forces within the attendance areas
of the schools pushing to separate them once again and make them K-5 schools. The superintendent had her eye on Stanford Taylor and moved her to Lincoln to
help guide the change.
“It didn’t turn out that way because we had lots of hearings,” Stanford Taylor recalled. “And again, you had a split community about what that really meant. And so,
the board in its wisdom said, ‘If you can raise the reading scores in three years, we will allow this school to remain a paired school. Jenny Allen at the time was at
Midvale. I was at Lincoln. We did it. We absolutely did it and it remained a paired school. I can tell you one thing about Lincoln. They are truly child-centered. I came
in on the weekend. The staff would ask on Friday, ‘Are you coming in on Saturday?’ They would be there. There was a phy ed teacher, Tom Grogg, who worked with
teams to have a soccer program there. He didn’t get compensated for that. There was Dawn Crim at the university and she would bring her girls from the basketball
team to work with our students. We had police officers who wanted to come in and do some work with the kids on weekends. In order for there not to be a charge, I
was always there on the weekend letting the community come in and work with our kids. We had great things going on and I wasn’t ready to leave at that point.”
Lincoln was improving its academic scores and Stanford Taylor was enjoying the climb. But James C. Wright Middle School had been floundering after it opened as
Madison Middle School 2000 in the Hoyt Building on Regent Street. The school was in need of new leadership and the superintendent had her eye on Stanford Taylor
once again. But Stanford Taylor didn’t want to leave Lincoln.
“Well then the superintendent came back because of what was happening at Wright not having the number of students enrolled at the school and not having staff
hired,” Stanford Taylor said. “The first request was that I become the principal of Wright Middle School and leave Lincoln. Again, I didn’t feel it was the time to leave
and take on another responsibility, so I made a deal with the superintendent. Basically it was, ‘What if I could do both of them?’ She said, ‘Tell me more.’ That’s
basically how I became the principal of two schools, by not wanting to leave the other school at that time. We did have another person on site and that was Rollie
Willin who was acting as the site principal. And Rollie had been my principal when I worked at Gompers Middle School. We had a lead principal and a site
Being the principal of two schools was not something that could last indefinitely. Stanford Taylor needed to find her replacement and she had her eyes on Ed Holmes
who had been working as a counselor for the district.
“I had been talking with Ed Holmes and trying to convince him to come,” Stanford Taylor said. “And I think at the time, he had his heart set on West High School, so
he delayed for a while. But I think it was around March of that year that he agreed to come over to be the principal.”
After Holmes was hired, Stanford Taylor went back to just being the principal of Lincoln. And one could say that she was just minding her own academic business
and taking care of business when a higher calling reached out to her in the form of Libby Burmaster, the newly elected state superintendent of education in 2001.
“Libby and I were in the same principal cohort,” Stanford Taylor said. “We had what we called the Principal In-Service Program. And there were groups of
principals in each PIP group. She and I happened to be in the same one. Libby started at Hawthorne Elementary, which was supposed to be a school for the arts.
We were colleagues for a couple of years before she went to West High School.”
Shortly after the election in 2001, Stanford Taylor got a call from Burmaster.
“I couldn’t imagine what the call was about,” Stanford Taylor said. “So I didn’t get the chance to return the call during the day. That afternoon, when I got home, there
was another message saying Libby had called me. When I did get an opportunity to talk with her, she said, ‘We’ve been talking about building my cabinet and your
name keeps coming up. I’m wondering if you would like to come and work with me at DPI. It wasn’t on my radar at all. We were doing great things at Lincoln and I
was still in it. She said, ‘Can we meet and talk about it?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ I met her at the Memorial Union. And she started talking about the division that she had in
mind for me. She started listing all of these things that were in that division. At the time, there were more things than we have right now. As she talked, my eyes got
bigger and bigger and bigger. She said, ‘You know, one thing about the agency is that we have great people who work there. And with your experience, I think you
would be wonderful leading that team.’ I didn’t get that feeling in my gut that tells you, ‘Maybe not.’ And so, I said, ‘Okay.’ I was ready for the next journey. I told her I
was willing to do it.”
In some ways, accepting the assistant superintendent position was the easy part for Stanford Taylor. The Lincoln Elementary staff has always taken pride in the
school and the work that they do with a diverse array of students. Over the years, Stanford Taylor had gotten close to her staff. Saying good-bye would be difficult.
“We were at the end of the school year,” Stanford Taylor recalled. “I talked to them and of course, there were some disappointed people about the decision was
made because they too saw the progress that we had made and felt it could be interrupted. But again, we’ve had great leadership, so someone else could pick up
the ball and take it the next ten yards.
The one thing that I learned — and I learned it early — is that change is inevitable. We all know that. That’s the one constant, change. And every time there has been
a change in my life, it’s always been for the better. And I do lean on a higher being, so my steps have been ordered. I’ve learned to listen.”
Carolyn Stanford Taylor was on her way to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction where she would spend the next 18 years plus of her career serving
Wisconsin’s students. It was a career that would allow her to continue to work on the academic issues impacting students of color.
Next issue: The work of DPI and becoming state superintendent of education.
Part 2 of 3
By Jonathan Gramling
It’s been a long and incredible journey for Carolyn Stanford Taylor, from the Mississippi Delta to
becoming the Wisconsin State Superintendent of Education, the first African American to hold the
position. It is an honor well-deserved, earned by a lifetime of dedication to educating Madison’s
and then Wisconsin’s children.
After graduating from the UW-Madison School of Education, Stanford Taylor took a job at WPS in
their education department. But as positions opened up in the Madison public schools, Stanford
Taylor’s mentor, Geraldine Bernard, helped her get her foot in the door and Stanford Taylor began
her MMSD career as a teacher at Frank Allis Elementary School. It was a start that almost stalled.
“Unfortunately after my first year at Frank Allis, I was surplused,” Stanford Taylor recalled. “That
meant I had a job with the district. They just didn’t know where. I was assigned to Gompers
Middle School, which is now Blackhawk. I started teaching sixth grade there for six years and
then I moved to seventh and eighth grade math and science for three years.