As an African-American child adopted by a white family in Colorado, Jocelyn Lee believes she was more sheltered from the inequities of education that affect others. She recalled recently that a counselor failed to recommend her for Advanced Placement classes despite her high GPA in school, but at the time Lee did not connect that lapse to bias.
"I was not aware about issues of inequity," Lee said, "until I experienced racism for the first time."
That occurred one summer during college while working in the Hamptons in New York as a babysitter. When shopping at Walmart for groceries once, she had people approach her assuming she was an employee. Lee asked her African-American boss why people made this assumption, and the woman pointed out that while the customers were white, the employees were all people of color.
"I was outraged," Lee said.
That experience triggered a deep interest in education and its ability to bridge inequities. It also focused her ensuring career in education, which led this summer to her being hired as the new executive director of the East Palo Alto nonprofit Foundation for a College Education.
Lee comes to the nonprofit with more than 20 years of experience in primary and secondary education. In that time, she has dealt with and attempted to dismantle systemic inequities and says she it's been her long-term commitment to help students become the first in their families to attend college.
Lee is tasked with furthering the organization in a number of areas, including advancing the mission of providing quality college-prep services to local students, raising community visibility and securing the nonprofit's financial well-being. Foundation for a College Education served 200 students and families last year through after-school and weekend programs encompassing tutoring, help with college applications and parent advocacy.
Lee spent July shadowing departing executive director Anna Waring, who led the organization for 11 years. Under Waring, the nonprofit was recognized as a model college-access organization in 2007 and 2012 by the Lumina Foundation and the Educational Policy Institute.
Lee first witnessed educational inequity when volunteering at Menlo-Atherton High School through the Stanford University student-teacher program. She recalled a troubling aspect of the socioeconomically diverse student body, which included students from both the wealthier Atherton and less affluent East Palo Alto. Students would interact in the hallways and during passing periods, but they were effectively "segregated," she said, by classrooms.
"This phenomenon piqued my interest," said Lee, who later became a U.S. History teacher at Menlo-Atherton. "As a teacher, I got involved with a schoolwide committee and had this urgency to address inequities."
In order to make a greater impact on educational outcomes, Lee transitioned from teaching to administration, hoping to help students become college-ready. However, she then noticed that college readiness had to start earlier than high school. Students, in particular English language learners, were not prepared.
To influence student outcomes by reaching kids earlier, she went on to work as principal at Bullis Charter School, a middle school in Los Altos, and as director at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center Leslie Family Preschool in Palo Alto.
Lee said her interest in Foundation for a College Education was driven by a sense of alienation from her original aspirations -- to get low-income and first-generation students college-ready.
"I started to feel like I wasn't being true to the whole reason I wanted to be an educator," Lee said, "which was to make a difference for students of color and make sure they have the same access as their white and Asian counterparts."
Lee applied for the position of program director at the nonprofit but was asked if she would be interested instead in applying to be executive director. Lee did. The foundation announced her hiring in late June.
Although the new position is a departure from her prior ones, Lee hopes to use her expertise in three ways: providing support to families, managing support staff to create systems that can maximize the organization's work and focusing on equal opportunity for all student-members.
She also brings with her an educational philosophy that emphasizes the needs and interests of the child as a whole.
"If a child's basic needs are not met, it is very difficult for them to be successful in school," Lee said. "It is so important to focus on the whole family and have a parent-education component."
Another strong belief Lee holds is that students need exposure to different topics and experiences so they can decide what they are passionate about, an approach she said she will reinforce through the foundation's STEAM middle school program, which provides academic enrichment sessions to help middle school students become college ready.
Lee is still planning specific goals and objectives for the year ahead. She said she'll start by building relationships with staff, board members, parents, students and donors.
While continuing to build on the work Waring did, Lee hopes to pioneer her own leadership style.
"I'm thrilled to be here," Lee said. "I feel very passionate about the mission and feel honored to follow Anna."