When Jas Thurmond became principal of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Academy of Social Justice in 2016, the K-8 school had only recently been renamed. That was an important change, Thurmond said, but as she stepped into her new role, she had a goal: to actually live up to that name.
That's what she tries to achieve every day, she said. Now, in her 10th full year in education, about half of which were spent at King Academy, Thurmond is reflecting on what she's accomplishedand what culture she hopes to continue fostering.
"I am dreamy enough to believe that we can literally change the world, one student, one school, one community at a time," she said. "I'm so excited about where we're going in terms of social justice."
To put that into practice, Thurmond changed the way King Academy disciplined kids. Rather than punish children for manifestations of trauma, teachers and staff take a trauma-informed approach. In response, administration saw suspensions and infractions drop.
When Thurmond started, Chicago Public Schools identified King Academy as a Level 3 school on the School Quality Rating Policy, indicating it needed intensive support. When the school reached Level 1, she could hear shouts of joy through the hallways.
"There were people who had tears in their eyes," she said. "I had teachers who had worked here longer than I had been living, and the excitement that they had was incredible."
Thurmond and her team also implemented an annual Peace March and Rally, in which students march against bullying and violence. During the pandemic, the school created a social justice week in its place. She said these initiatives help children understand they can increase visibility around a cause they're passionate about.
Under her leadership, the school also offers a committee to emphasize students' voices and encourage them to advocate for themselves and their peers. They can have a real impact on school policy, she said.
"Oftentimes, Black kids from Englewoodthey don't know their power, right?," Thurmond added. "When you know that your words and your collective impact has power, you can recognize anything is possible, so it's just really important to give kids that power early on."
Thurmond said she had her own journey toward finding her voice and confidence. Growing up, she said she didn't feel safe or confident enough to explore her sexual orientation until her first year of college. When she returned home, she didn't come outinstead, her mom outed her to herself.
"She told me, 'You've been hanging out with other lesbians and It seems like you're a lesbian, too.' I didn't say anything, and she said, 'Well, is it true?' And I started bawling," Thurmond said. "My mom said: 'I'm going to love you no matter whatyou don't have to hide who you are for me. So wipe those tears away. There's nothing for you to be crying about.'"
That moment changed her life, Thurmond said, allowing her to feel more comfortable in her identity. But when she first entered education, she felt wary about being open. She wasn't exactly closeted, but she wasn't out, either.
Years into her career, she started working at Butler College Prep, where the principal was incredibly intentional about diversity, equity and inclusion. She said in that space, she felt incredibly supported in all her identities.
So when she became a principal herself, Thurmond wanted to create a positive, diverse atmosphere. Still, she worried that she may not be accepted.
"The parents and staff all saw that I was focused on the kids, and it's always about what's in the best interest of students," she explained. "Because of that, nothing else mattered. The very thing that caused me so much anxiety ended up not even being a factor anymore."
If anything, her lesbian identity has created a safer space, especially for LGBTQ+ students. That was never something she anticipated, but it feels incredibly good, she said.
Every student deserves to be unapologetically themselves, Thurmond saidand she will stay unapologetically Black, unapologetically lesbian and unapologetically herself, too.
"I know that for some kids, I'm their North Star. They've never known a Black woman who is out as a lesbian and is a profession that is relatable to them, who also has street cred in the community," she added. "It means the world to me."