Just before the New Year, the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools lost a giant, a woman who influenced the lives of literally tens of thousands of students and their families in this community. It’s hard to know where to begin to tell the story of such a remarkable life. I am filled with such a deep sense of loss and sadness, and yet I know that the lessons learned from this accomplished woman, whom I have the privilege of calling my mentor, will last well beyond her time here on earth.
Gloria Alexander Willis always wanted to be a teacher. She graduated from Tillotson College in Texas, and moved up to Kansas City, Kansas. She began teaching in 1953, the year before Brown v Board of Education. She began teaching at Attucks, and also taught at Douglass, Hawthorne, Bryant, Stanley and Emerson. Her vast talent was recognized, and the district tapped her to serve as a “helping teacher,” then as a reading specialist, and soon assigned her to serve as principal, first at Grant, and then at her beloved Quindaro Elementary School.
Her tenacity, strong work ethic, perseverance and determination were central to her ability to overcome the limitations placed on her early in her career. During those early years, she was told she could only teach black children. She was told when she got married that she had to resign. When she became pregnant, again she was told she had to resign.
District history doesn’t tell us exactly what caused the changes to those policies. However, it’s interesting that before the ink dried on Gloria Alexander’s first resignation, district leadership changed their policy and decided that married female teachers were positive models for our youth. Six months after her beloved daughter Sonya was Board, Mrs. Willis was back in front of students, doing what she loved.
Gloria Willis worked for the district for 41 years, and the year after she retired, she joined the Board of Education, where she served for another 21 years, including 14 as Board President. She began her career in a society where she was only allowed to teach children who looked like her, and ended her journey leading the most diverse school district in Kansas, and one of the most diverse in our nation. She often remarked how proud she was to lead a district where children from the world’s cultures, and all walks of life, come together to be educated.
During her tenure as president, the district implemented the First Things First Reform, and earned national awards and recognition as one of the best urban school districts in the nation. During her time on the Board, she never lost sight of the importance of the parent voice in decision making. We could always count on Mrs. Willis to ask with every proposal or recommendation: “What do the parents think?”, or “Have the parents been informed?”
Mrs. Willis influenced generations. At her memorial service, former students talked about her influence, and how she fought to give them the opportunity to succeed. It was fitting that just this past year, she was recognized by City Union Mission as one of several “Women Who Changed the Heart of the City.” I include myself among the thousands of individuals profoundly impacted by Gloria Willis.
Mrs. Willis, you will be deeply missed, but your legacy will be felt in this community for generations to come.