Distinguished Young Alumni Award
Dacia Merle Sampson Toll ’94
Dacia Toll is no stranger to accomplishing what some say can’t be done. As an undergraduate at Carolina, she had a role in the long struggle to establish what’s now the SonjaHaynesStoneCenter for Black Culture and History. For the last seven years, she has worked to address what she calls the civil rights issue of our time: equal academic achievement for minority children.
She went from Carolina, where she studied political science as a Morehead Scholar, to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship and from there to law school at Yale. When she was still working toward her law degree, she and some of her fellow students began making plans to establish a charter school to prove that inner city students could achieve at extraordinarily high levels. We’re not sure how you can teach full time while finishing law school, but Dacia did it. She got her teaching certificate and her law degree.
At the same time, she and her colleagues started talking with education professors, teachers, district officials, politicians, and the non-profit community. Nay-sayers told them charter schools were a bad idea, that they’d never succeed without experienced leadership, that a middle school was the toughest possible place to begin.
Well, with Toll as director, AmistadAcademy has done what few thought possible. Harvey Koizim, a New Haven activist and philanthropist, reports the results this way: “Inner city youngsters attending this charter school are performing on the same and
better levels as their suburban counterparts. Test scores are improving by leaps and bounds. Parents are involved and participate meaningfully in their children’s education. There is discipline and respect for intellectual achievement. And, the morale of the students and hard-working teachers could not be higher.”
Colleague Leslie Redwine says Dacia is just relentless when it comes to accomplishing the work in which she believes. “She will do whatever it takes,” Leslie says. “She accepts challenges and tends to make sure the challenges are met.” And, says Redwine, Dacia appreciates the people who work with her. AmistadAcademy and Achievement First, the nonprofit she now leads, view themselves as a team working collectively to create opportunities for students and their families. The hours are long and the work hard, but the teachers who work with her love it. One of them said she’d rather teach 10 hours at Amistad than six hours at a regular urban public school.
Achievement First now runs several other charter schools that follow the Amistad model. With Dacia’s leadership, the organization is duplicating Amistad’s success in two additional schools in New Haven and three in New York City. More will open next year. Consequently, Dacia’s role has shifted from principal at Amistad to president of the overall organization. She excels at establishing partnerships with businesses, working to change legislation that restricts funds for charter schools, and developing relationships with people who bring resources into the schools. She is, say her colleagues, a big picture thinker and the darling of the New Haven education community.
Amistad’s remarkable achievements have brought the school a lot of attention, including stories in major newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post. Last year, PBS aired an hour-long documentary on the school that showed some of the secrets of its success: three-way contracts among students, parents, and teachers; an elaborate system of reward and punishment; rigorous standards on dress, attendance and homework completion; a supportive community; and, perhaps most important of all, high academic expectations.
“To get these kids to learn,” Dacia says, “we have to get them to believe that it is cool to do well in school.”
Creating equal opportunity is a many-faceted task, and over Amistad’s history, Dacia has personally taken on many of those. She’s the type of leader who is never in her office. Instead she’s in the classroom, observing, encouraging or teaching herself. Until last year, she taught a different subject each year. Or she’s lobbying lawmakers, or raising funds, or meeting one-on-one with a student or parent.
The work is never done, but it is rewarding and fun. Dacia says, “When you have a sense that you’re working as part of a talented and committed team to create real opportunities for kids and you know that it’s working, that creates tremendous energy.”
Dacia Toll easily could have become a well-paid Wall Street lawyer. Instead, she chose to work for social justice by helping create a school whose very name evokes the struggle for freedom and equality. Through Amistad and now through Achievement First, she is, as Harvey Koizim says, changing the educational topography for good.
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