- On Monday, Aug. 14, 1989, Woods-Tucker officially began his teaching career at Jardine Middle School in Topeka.
- During his time at KDE, Woods-Tucker also will lead the Office of Teaching and Learning.
By Jacob Perkins
On Oct. 24, 1965, Thomas Woods-Tucker became the youngest of 11 children and the first to be delivered in a hospital. It didn’t take long for Woods-Tucker to face the world he was born into – Cotton Plant, Ark., in the thick of the civil rights era.
Less than 24 hours after his birth, the doctor who delivered Woods-Tucker and nurses came into the hospital room to inform Ernest and Rena Woods-Tucker that they and their two-month premature and just under 4-pound baby would have to leave. Other families were uncomfortable with their presence.
“The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended the legal discrimination, but it did not end the backdoor segregation because it did not clear the minds of others right away,” said Woods-Tucker.
Woods-Tucker’s parents brought him back to their farm home, a home with no running water, where he would learn the value of hard work.
He worked on the farm with his siblings and from a young age, his family told him, “If you can survive Cotton Plant, you can survive anything.”
This was one of the many lessons he learned from his grandparents – both of whom were sharecroppers and one generation removed from slavery.
“My grandparents taught themselves how to read, how to write and more importantly, when they were able to eventually market their own cotton, they taught other people, which was very dangerous at this time,” said Woods-Tucker. “We were not afraid of hard work. We were accustomed to it.”
Another lesson learned in Woods-Tucker’s youth; get your education and you will be a lot better off.
“We knew that hard work and education were our passport. It really has been a savior for our family, certainly a savior for me,” said Woods-Tucker. “Education, I truly believe, is not only the best shot for many children in America, but it is also the only shot to the American dream.”
Woods-Tucker, 54, sees his role as Kentucky’s new deputy commissioner and chief equity officer as the ideal chance to help deliver that message to the 648,000 students who attend public schools in the Commonwealth.
“This a responsibility that comes with a great deal of humility,” said Woods-Tucker. “There’s no better opportunity than to work with equity at the state level and to ensure that every student, regardless of his or her ethnicity, regardless of his or her zip code, is ensured an equitable education.”
Woods-Tucker said each job or opportunity that someone has should be seen as a chance to “fill their suitcase with experiences.”
“I’ll take those learning experiences to the Kentucky Department of Education,” he said. “I’m well-prepared to deal with the various populations and groups of students and staff that I will have the pleasure of serving during the time as deputy commissioner and chief equity officer.”
Woods-Tucker attended Cotton Plant High School, which decades after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling that was supposed to end legalized segregation in schools, was still “de facto segregated.”
“There were school buses in our town that took White children to majority White schools in towns that were adjacent to Cotton Plant,” he said. “Some of the White parents did not feel comfortable with their children attending a predominately Black school.”
After graduating in 1984, Woods-Tucker attended Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark. – a historically Black college – on a full-ride biology scholarship. However, much to the chagrin of his mother and former teachers back in Cotton Plant, Woods-Tucker decided to switch his major during his sophomore year.
“I felt the calling to uplift, the calling to improve and save lives. Especially the lives of young people who really needed it most because I was one of those children,” he said. “My heart lead me to education.”
While a student at Philander Smith College, Woods-Tucker was approached by the public school system in Topeka, Kan., with a contract that would have taken him financially from poor to instantly middle class, he recalled. The district was on a recruitment trip seeking young and diverse teachers.
“I was intrigued to go there. I did my student teaching in Little Rock, so I would have the history of being in two of the most well-known school systems,” Woods-Tucker said, referencing the history of the Little Rock Nine and Brown v. Board of Education. “That was really a great educational and learning opportunity for me to be a part of history in those two districts.”
After graduating from Philander in 1988 with a bachelor’s in English education, Woods-Tucker would go on to obtain his master’s in educational administration and doctorate in education from The Ohio State University.
On Monday, Aug. 14, 1989, Woods-Tucker officially began his teaching career at Jardine Middle School in Topeka.
“To be called teacher, that is the absolute greatest title in the world,” he said. “To be called teacher, that means people have entrusted you to impart knowledge onto them. They have said to you, ‘I trust you to shape my future and to shape my thinking.’”
During his 31 years in education, Woods-Tucker has served students as a teacher, coach, assistant principal, principal, director of secondary curriculum and superintendent. While he has advanced into a leadership position, he will always miss the relationships made in the classroom.
“These young folks were really looking to me, and looking to my staff as a principal, to be parent-like, to be a positive role model and to be vulnerable,” said Woods-Tucker.
Woods-Tucker most recently served as superintendent of Douglas County Schools in Colorado. Prior to that, he had been superintendent of three Ohio school districts and has been nationally recognized for his work.
In 2013, he was named the National Alliance of Black School Educators National Superintendent of the Year. In 2016, he earned both the American Association of School Administrators National Superintendent of the Year Award and the Buckeye Association of School Administrators State Superintendent of the Year Award.
Through all his successes during his career, Woods-Tucker credits his parents, grandparents and his teachers for never allowing him to develop a “poor mentality.”
“They never let us engage in the victimology idea that you could not move past our own station in life,” he said. “Our parents and our teachers never let us think we were poor. They said being poor is a state of mind and that we could compete with any students in America.”
Kentucky Department of Education
It was announced on Oct. 14 that Woods-Tucker would be joining KDE on Nov. 2 as deputy commissioner and chief equity officer. During his time at KDE, Woods-Tucker also will lead the Office of Teaching and Learning (OTL).
Woods-Tucker said his work as chief equity officer will go hand in hand with the work in the OTL. There’s no better way to improve teaching and learning than by ensuring equitable opportunities for students and staff across the Commonwealth, he said.
“We know that next to students, the life blood of a school district is high quality instruction from our teachers,” said Woods-Tucker. “We need to ensure that our teachers and principals are able to lead and ensure that they have the resources and a deep understanding of the Kentucky Academic Standards.”
Woods-Tucker will join KDE at a time when both the department and the Kentucky Board of Education (KBE) are aiming to correct a history of racial inequity in the Commonwealth’s public schools.
At the board’s July 10 meeting, the KBE unanimously approved a resolution affirming its commitment to racial equity in Kentucky’s public schools. KDE staff recently participated in the second of a series of implicit bias trainings. Kentucky’s school districts will be asked to take part in similar trainings.
“I salute Kentucky for taking such a bold, aggressive and necessary step,” said Woods-Tucker. “The first step is to say we have an issue and we’re going to commit our resources and our time to this. A lot of states have not made that commitment.”
Within the resolution, the KBE called on KDE to continue and reinvigorate its work to foster a culture of anti-racism and further racial equity within Kentucky’s public schools. Woods-Tucker hopes to come in and work alongside districts as they face the inequities within their schools.
“It will not be my job to come in and say to our 171 districts that they better do this,” he said. “It’s more, ‘So how can we do this together?’ One of my many jobs will be to help explain to our communities why this is important. I’ll say to them that the future of Kentucky is tied to our people. And who are our most important people? Our young folks. It will be our young folks who will push the great Commonwealth forward.
“The tough challenge, and I’m looking forward to it, is to bring everyone to the table and help explain why it’s important that we all come together.”
Woods-Tucker said he can’t help but think about the relatively short distance from Cotton Plant to Frankfort.
“If you’re in Frankfort, you’re probably about eight hours away,” he said.
Every year, Woods-Tucker takes his wife, Janae, and their three youngest children – Adrian, 17; Jaeden, 16; and Jai, 12 – back to the area where he grew up. It’s where his mother and stepfather, Lee Roy Woods, still reside. Their oldest daughter, J-Quaysha, lives with her husband and son in Sacramento, Calif.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, his trip may look different this year, but he still plans on making it.
“We go to the farm area where we grew up, which was once a plantation,” Woods-Tucker explained. “I take my children back there and say to them, ‘This is not necessarily where your culture began, but this is a big part of your culture. And don’t ever, ever forget where you come from.’
“We have to remember where we come from, but our beginning does not define our end. We have to teach our kids those lessons.”