The official student newspaper of Lower Merion High School since 1929

The Merionite

The official student newspaper of Lower Merion High School since 1929

The Merionite

The official student newspaper of Lower Merion High School since 1929

The Merionite

A new direction for diversity

New DEI director Shawanna James-Coles plans to serve by getting to know the student body on a personal level.

On April 25, 2022, LMSD Superintendent Dr. Khalid Mumin announced his recommendation of Shawanna James-Coles as the new Director of Diversity and Equity of the district, an endorsement confirmed by the Board of School Directors. James-Coles will assume the role on July 1 this year.

James-Coles is a seasoned veteran of the educational system, with nearly three decades of experience as an educator and supporter of students. Having served in a variety of roles—from kindergarten teacher to elementary school principal, instructional specialist to diversity director—James-Coles also has not stopped with her own education, as she pursues her doctorate from Immaculata University. James-Coles draws from a myriad of experiences spanning both urban and suburban districts as she takes on the new role as diversity coordinator at LM.

James-Coles draws her own story from humble origins, growing up in the
inner city as the eldest of three siblings. She cites her role model as her mother, who raised her “three children basically by herself” and instilled in them the importance of “resilience, hard work, dedication, and sacrifice.” James-Coles fondly recalls how her mother would always take the time to be there for her, from sending her off to school to being there when she arrived home, and notes how her mother’s emphasis on family contributes to her current desires to bring her community together. Despite the financial limitations of her upbringing, she recounts how her mother’s emphasis on education, along with the support of affectionate teachers, was what helped shape her own aspirations for bettering those around her, because education is “something no one can take from you.”

James-Coles carried this philosophy of community-based education into her professional career, where she strived to be as visible and impactful in students’ lives as possible. As a kindergarten teacher, she would directly engage with families out in the community, and as principal, she would regularly conduct friendly home visits so students and their extended families—especially those new to the district—could “get to know me on the other side.” After transitioning to the administrative level in the district—a decision she admits was quite difficult to make—she continued to go out of her way to connect with students beyond the walls of her office, even keeping the latter in the same building where she was principal so students could access her whenever they needed. “I’ve never been a teacher or administrator who liked to sit behind a desk,” James-Coles reflects. “I want to be in touch with the students, I want to hear about their day, I want to be in the lunchroom, I want to be invited to all the events they have, and so I think early on I understood the importance of being involved.”

James-Coles’ efforts have certainly made their mark in her community, with many of her students offering their unwavering support of her as a mentor and advocate. James-Coles describes how her most memorable moment as an educator was following a difficult episode in which she was diagnosed with liver disease, after which a local news outlet interviewed some of her students as part of a report on her. The response from students was heartwarming. “She cares about me. She looks us in our eyes. She makes us feel that we matter.” Similarly, after conversing with her two children Jared and Kelli a few years ago about whether she should continue with her current career path, James-Coles was inspired by what they told her as students coming from a suburban district severely lacking inracial diversity: “Be what we didn’t have.” All these experiences have helped James-Coles come to appreciate the way in which she can touch the lives of her pupils.

As James-Coles continues her educational journey at LM, she seeks to continue to apply her philosophy on being highly visible for students in order to best engage with her new community and build upon what has already been done. She strives to develop a learning environment conducive to all forms of diversity, including but not limited to race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, and be in a position where she can “empower their voices, show that I am listening, so they feel that they have an advocate, an ally in me.” She also hopes to develop partnerships between school districts, bridging the divide between suburban and urban, as she has done previously at Springfield and Centennial School Districts, so as to best “elevate the collective voices” of the student body. One of the best ways she believes she can facilitate change is through partnerships with students and student-run organizations as well, which have made tremendous impact in her own previous experiences. After partnering with a student equity group called Voices for Change at Centennial, she was able to help create a book club to read beyond required texts, an initiative for sending birthday box gifts for underprivileged students, and a program for visiting local elementary schools to read with their students. She hopes to continue to develop further initiatives for advancing student growth and diversity by getting to know the student body, exploring all that LM has to offer, and enjoying the wealth of opportunity that comes with the role she is about to embark upon.

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