We often define career success in geographic terms: moving from a small town to a big city for a new job implies progress and greater opportunity. Dr. Noni Thomas López took the opposite path. After living and working in New York City’s Bronx borough for the past 20 years, she agreed to join the Gordon School in East Providence as head of school starting July 2018. Resigning as interim principal of the 1,750-student Lower School at the Ethical Cultural Fieldston School to work at 350-student Gordon School was not part of her career plan, she admits: “[Rhode Island] was not something that I predicted within my immediate future.”
Thomas López had never visited Gordon School, but she was familiar with its reputation. “It was a school that for me represented what independent schools should be doing, which was focusing their work on creating inclusive environments for all children but doing that very explicitly through curriculum,” she says. “So even though the school was in a town that I hadn’t visited until my interview process, it was a school that matched who I felt that I was as an educator and my core values as an educator.”
Thomas López’s new position is exciting for another important reason: she is the first woman of color to serve as head at Gordon School, and just the fifth woman of color to serve as such among roughly 500 private schools in New England. The Gordon School is broadly diverse, with over 40 percent students of color, but many private schools were founded as exclusive environments, she notes. Students, teachers, and the mostly male administrators were typically white. The schools were (and still are) expensive to attend, so students usually came from wealthier families.
Her appointment can help change those conditions, she believes. “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it,” she says. “There are women of color working in independent schools who have leadership aspirations. If you don’t see people [of color] in those roles, you can get discouraged about what that means for you to be able to reach that level of leadership in our schools. But I also think it’s important to have folks in these positions who come from a variety of backgrounds outside of the traditional ‘profile’ of those who previously occupied the headship.”