State Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor – 35th Annual Black Excellence Awards Honoree

Women on the Leading Edge of Education

Carolyn Stanford Taylor
Superintendent of Public Instruction of WI

Growing up in a racially segregated environment, Carolyn Stanford Taylor faced many barriers. With support and encouragement from her family, she persevered and overcame those obstacles to become Wisconsin’s first African American state superintendent of public instruction.

The ninth of 14 children, resources were scarce growing up in Marks, Mississippi. Carolyn’s parents, Leroy and Lena Stanford, realized early on that education was their family’s ticket out of poverty, and a key to lifelong success.

“I come from humble beginnings — where the railroad tracks literally separated the black and white communities — but my home life was filled with love and encouragement,” Carolyn said.

Carolyn’s grandmother worked as a domestic in the nearby white community. On the way to visit her, Carolyn and her siblings would cross the railroad tracks only to encounter verbal and physical confrontations.

“Sometimes we would have rocks thrown at us, dogs set on us, or hear people calling us names,” she said, adding that she’d pass the white school on her way and take note of the brick, two-story building with a well-manicured lawn and pristine swimming pool. That same swimming pool was one of the main motivators for Carolyn and her siblings when their parents gave them the choice to attend another school following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

While other black students also attended the white school with Carolyn and her siblings, it was short-lived for a number of them, as many were unable to endure the racial inequality prevalent at the school. With the goal of building a foundation based on education, and despite the hostile atmosphere that surrounded them, Carolyn and her siblings stayed at the school.

Carolyn noted a majority of the negativity came from teachers and staff rather than her peers. “They found subtle and not-so-subtle ways of letting us know we were not welcomed or valued,” she said. “The difference for us was our home environment … we knew we had the support and advocacy of our parents, who instilled confidence in us and encouraged us, so it didn’t matter how we were treated by others.”

After graduating from high school, Carolyn earned a scholarship to attend Mississippi Valley State University. One of her brothers headed north, moving to Wisconsin and enrolling in the University of Wisconsin – Madison on a scholarship. It was his encouragement that led to her following him, and she transferred to UW-Madison.

With her parents and family hundreds of miles away, and being one of only a handful of students of color in the School of Education, Carolyn found friends in the School of Engineering. She leaned on her new friends for support and encouragement, and she returned the favor.

Carolyn’s original plan was to return to Mississippi following graduation and start a career back home. But she fell in love with the small town feel and excellent public schools in Madison, and started shaping the lives of students in Wisconsin.

Beginning as a teacher, Carolyn became an administrator and spent more than two decades working in the Madison Metropolitan School District. During that span, she noticed a shift toward a much more diverse population in the district and needs that were being unmet. Instinctively, Carolyn took action.

Carolyn was called upon to help staff within the district learn how to effectively work with student diversity. That work and its results opened the door to another opportunity – becoming the first African American assistant state superintendent in Wisconsin.

She was appointed to the position by Elizabeth Burmaster, the newly-elected state superintendent at the time, and worked in the role for 17 years before being called upon, once again, in January 2019 – this time to serve as the chief advocate for Wisconsin’s education system, its students and employees, as state superintendent of public instruction.

Carolyn’s message to the educators, students, families, and communities in Wisconsin is based on her own personal experiences growing up in Mississippi: “For students to achieve success, families, and the surrounding community must create environments that support a sense of belonging in them early on and help them unearth their many gifts and talents.”

Despite the discouraging public environment she grew up in, Carolyn said she was fortunate to have a base of people who made investments in her, holding her up, and holding her accountable.

“Today’s youth need people behind them to help them understand their greatness,” she said.

Carolyn isn’t just a firm believer that no matter your background, your skin color, or your income, you should have an equal opportunity for excellence. She’s a living example of it.

Throughout her career, and especially as state superintendent, Carolyn has called for us as a society to move forward by making educational equity a priority. There are many ways to accomplish that mission, she said, and one is by focusing on the front-end with early childhood initiatives instead of spending time correcting on the back-end.

Carolyn has served on numerous boards and committees. She has also been a recipient of many awards. Most recently, she was the 2018 Virginia Hart honoree.

Carolyn and her husband, Larry, have five children — all public school graduates. Two are public school educators.