Stepping Out and Stepping Up
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How I’m giving back to my own community
By Traci Thibodeaux, CEO/Superintendent of Rêve Preparatory Charter School
When I tell people I grew up in some of the most underserved communities in Houston, they usually look at me with a bit of disbelief. I have come to understand that those who really know the neighborhoods I grew up in look at me in disbelief because I am a testament to beating the odds.
MY EARLY LIFE
I was born the third daughter of my parents, each of whom was born and raised in Sunnyside and South Acres. One graduated from Sterling High School and the other from Worthing High School. When my parents were growing up during the 60’s and 70’s, they experienced integration in their schools, but would tell me stories of how all their teachers knew their parents and siblings and how those relationships helped to keep them safe and motivated to make the right decisions. Overall, they grew up in homes within a tight knit community and knew college was an option. My mother decided to attend college, but eventually did not graduate before she married my father and started a family.
Once my sisters and I entered the picture, the Sunnyside/South Acres communities were riddled with the negative impacts of underinvestment, and families were struggling with poverty. We predominantly grew up in the South/Southwest area of Houston, and most of our homes were in communities that were food deserts, filled with low-performing schools, and high occurrences of crime. Growing up facing some of the toughest aspects of society helped me dream of the life I wanted, the opposite of what I was experiencing. I wanted to live in an area that was safe enough where I did not hear gunshots at night, had nice grocery stores filled with fresh fruit, and nice homes that had working air conditioning throughout the house.
One of the biggest factors that allowed me to dream of a different existence was the fact that my parents instilled the belief in me that education would allow all my dreams to come true. So that is what I focused on. I studied and focused on my education starting in kindergarten and dreamed of college, because for me, going to college meant escaping living in poverty.
I went to college and eventually earned two master’s degrees. My parents were right – my education opened all kinds of doors for me. I have been blessed to travel the world (I went to Bulgaria and never imagined that!) and have had some of the most exciting experiences so far in my career, but something was missing.
What I realized was that success is not sweet alone. As I sat in executive meetings and was the only person of color, I felt unsettled. Why was I the only one? The quick answer was education. One distinction in my journey was that my parents sent us to some of the highest performing schools in Houston, but these schools were in the wealthier communities of Houston, not in my own community. It was not rocket science that getting a better K-12 education allowed me an opportunity to excel in college and beyond.
Over a period of years, it became clear to me that I would need to step out on faith and do something bigger than I had ever imagined. It was on my heart to return home to Houston and start a college preparatory school in the neighborhood I grew up in. I uniquely understand a lot of what my students are facing because I faced some of the same hurdles a few decades ago, but I also knew what it would take to overcome those obstacles and succeed in this society.
Founding a charter school in an underserved community — in my community — has been beyond difficult, but it has also been an amazing and unique blessing to be able to make such a huge difference in the lives of so many children. Education is the key. I am doing my best to instill in our students and our community that with that key, we can truly accomplish all of our dreams.
Traci Thibodeaux, MBA, M.Ed., earned her bachelor’s degree in Mathematics from The University of Texas at Austin, a master’s degree in Business Administration from The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and a master’s degree in Educational Leadership from The Broad Center. In addition to over 18 years of experience in both the corporate and urban education sectors, Ms. Thibodeaux brings a true understanding of the social and economic hurdles faced by many of the children living in Houston and she is committed to maximizing the lessons she has learned in her professional career to provide a high-quality education that not only prepares students for college, but also grows each child in a holistic way to ensure they have the support to grow into healthy, confident members of their community.
Rêve Preparatory Charter School believes that preparing students for college begins in kindergarten. Educating kindergarten through grade eight students for success in high school, college, and beyond, Rêve Preparatory Charter School ensures rigorous academics, individualized supports, and purposeful character development for every student, every day.