Women's History Month: Chevelle Lampkin

One of Principal Chevelle Lampkin’s students at National Academy Foundation School of Baltimore (NAF) decided to create a bench in the Memorial Garden where other students could sit if they were feeling lonely. The student, a boy named Kayontae Taylor, hoped that sitting on that bench would be a signal to others that company was welcome and needed. The garden and Kayontae’s bench all came under the auspices of Rotary International’s Interact Club, which Chevelle introduced before the pandemic of 2020–21 ravaged the city of Baltimore.

The loneliness bench, the Memorial Garden, tree planting and service projects for nearby senior citizens all pretty much fell by the wayside during the pandemic years. Now, after all that, students have been through with COVID-19, Chevelle says, it is more challenging to muster the same enthusiasm, but they’re getting back to it little by little—and the loneliness bench is needed more than ever.

Since being recruited by Baltimore City Public Schools 24 years ago, straight out of Lincoln University in her home state of Pennsylvania, Chevelle Lampkin has had one luminescent goal: “To end generational poverty.” 

The Interact Club and other student clubs that expand possibilities have been hallmarks of her efforts ever since. She began her career as a teacher at Chinquapin Middle School in 1997, and during her teaching career became academic dean at W.E.B. Du Bois High School and then at Renaissance Academy. She then became assistant principal at Edmondson-Westside High School and Digital Harbor High School.

Nearly every school she has been assigned to has been “in need of improvement,” and she says simply, “And we improved them.” 

“We” is her preferred pronoun, because she explains “no one ever accomplishes anything alone.” Renaissance Academy became a top-10 high school with a 100% college acceptance rate. Edmondson-Westside High School’s graduation rate rose to almost 90%. Digital Harbor High School was also in turnaround mode when she got there, and then she was assigned to be principal at NAF in 2018.

“I loved being an academic dean and I loved being an AP for 14 years,” she says. “I loved focusing on instruction and teacher support.”

But her supervisors, Karl Perry and Daryl Kennedy, recognized her leadership gifts early in her career—so becoming a principal seemed inevitable. Today, Dr. Perry is the dynamic new president of the Public School Administrators & Supervisors Association of Baltimore City (PSASA), AFSA Local 25, and remains one of her biggest influences, having taught her “the importance of creating an environment based on mutual respect.” 

In terms of mentorships, she has been fortunate. When she was sent to the Maryland State Department of Education(MSDE) Promising Principal Academy in 2016, her assigned mentor, Dr. Felicia Tarason, taught her about the importance of work/life balance and how to be strategic as a school leader. This has helped her juggle professional responsibilities with personal ones—being a mother to her daughter, Amirah Lampkin, wife of fellow educator Foster Lampkin, and a member of a close-knit, extended family. When she became a new principal at NAF, Dr. Irma Johnson became her coach and continues to mentor her, stressing the importance of acting in the best interests of students at all times.

At NAF, Chevelle and her staff were on their way to improving attendance and graduation rates when COVID-19 struck and set them back. “Fortunately, we had built strong relationships,” she said, and now, forward momentum seems altogether possible, through increased instruction, student supports and building of community through the Interact Club and other student organizations. NAF also is offering interventions and opportunities for credit recovery to make up for learning loss during the pandemic.

“Wherever I’ve gone, starting at Du Bois in 2003, we’ve always introduced male mentoring programs,” Lampkin noted. 

A key is finding a strong male staff member to manage the program. “Our boys come together to learn to navigate school and life,” she said. “At-risk students don’t necessarily know what’s out there for them.”

Often coming from poverty, they begin to see possibilities beyond their daily life. The current group of boys named themselves “Boys ’n Books.” They go on college tours and are encouraged to apply for financial aid and state scholarships. Not long ago, with Principal Lampkin and other staff, they had an overnight at West Virginia University. Some of the students were athletes who wanted to see a college football game. Chevelle recalls it as great fun, including the night they spent at the Days Inn, a very rare treat for her students.

Recently, the Hyatt invited her boys to learn about hospitality careers, a possibility most of them had never imagined: “They have the chance to see new opportunities and that life can be different. One failing student recently went into the Navy. I just heard from a student who has become an electrician. Another student has just been accepted at Bucknell University, and quite a few others are awaiting college acceptances.”

The same goes for her girls. In fact, two of her most memorable students were girls who have remained part of her life. Among her warmest memories is one from a hospital stay not long ago. She recalls waking up after surgery feeling someone kissing her cheek. She was surprised to see Demeka Daughton, a student from Chevelle’s days at Renaissance Academy, who works in a hospital and is preparing to be a nurse. Quite a few of her other students came to see her in the hospital. 

Another student who regularly keeps up is Brittany Chaney, also from Renaissance. Brittany recently invited Chevelle to her to her bridal shower. “She just completed her master’s and bought a home,” Chevelle says with pride.

If Chevelle Lampkin inspires intense loyalty, so did her mother and father back in Chester Township, Pennsylvania. Both Sam and Katherine Williams were leaders on their jobs and strong unionists who made it a point to show people how to be successful at work. “They taught us the importance of serving people,” she said. Not only did she become a professional who is dedicated to service, so did many people in her life. Her husband Foster, whom she met in her teaching days, is a special education professional. Her brother, Sam Jr., teaches trades, and her sister, Cassandra, works for the federal government. Looking back, she adds, “My sister Cassandra taught me a lot about how to deal with people.”

Her parents were the masters of all that. At his 70th birthday party, Sam, a retired labor foreman, was surprised to see so many workers show up to talk about him. His daughter says, “He was always an example of what a man should be, raising a family, succeeding on the job. And he never complained.”

Her mother Katherine was bigger than life, serving as Chester Township councilwoman for 17 years. After her death in 2017, countless people came to pay tribute to her. Chevelle remembers, “She was a big people person. She was able to give others opportunity. She had the gold standard of excellence.”

Now, as the leader of a school, particularly during a time of unprecedented crisis, she sometimes finds herself craving her mother’s counsel. “She helped me learn how to give critical feedback without hurting people. I miss that now.”

The in-person return to school has been unusually challenging. Having been without conventional school, her families realize how much school meant to them. But now “there is a lot of fear,” she says, “and people are still dying. It’s going to take time because our kids have seen some horrible things while they were out. But we have a lot of students who are happy to be here and see adults who really care about them.” To help sustain herself and those around her, Chevelle has been reading Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma so she can learn more about supporting those who are experiencing trauma.

Much of life still carries on over Zoom. Even Local 25 meetings are conducted over Zoom, the last one with an online attendance of 200 members. After-hour staff recreation, such as cooking lessons, happens via Zoom. Budget meetings are held over Zoom, “and last time we ended out staying and playing music for hours.” Now, they yearn to do all of this in the same room. “The advancement of urban students is all about hard work, perseverance and love,” says Chevelle Lampkin, and she believes it is much more satisfying to get there in person.