Women on the Leading Edge of Education
Tamara Johnson, Executive Director and Principal of Malaika Early Learning Center, grew up navigating between two worlds. During the day she attended mostly Caucasian schools in the Wauwatosa School District, and at night she returned home to her central city neighborhood on 19th and Atkinson.
“I learned a lot, early on, about adapting to different situations. Even with that, I had a good childhood. My mom, Donna Hopkins, was a single parent raising two daughters, and she was very engaged in our lives—at home and at school. She didn’t start working until both my sister and I were in school full-time. Before that, she volunteered at my school. Ultimately, I returned to the Milwaukee Public School System during my high school years and graduated from Custer High School,” said Tamara.
When she was 18 years old, Tamara became a single mom. It’s that event that caused her to seek out information about child rearing and early childhood education.
“I was looking for information and resources to help me become a great parent. I ended up taking a class at Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) in early childhood education. I wasn’t looking for a career, but I loved the class so much that I ended up taking another one. I’ve been working in this field ever since,” she said.
Tamara earned an associate degree in child development and a bachelor’s in human services. She also has a master’s degree in early childhood administration from National Louis University. In addition, she has earned multiple certifications, including a certificate in Early Childhood Leadership.
Over the years, she has held a number of progressively responsible positions at Milwaukee Public Schools (district parent involvement) and COA Youth and Family Centers’ Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY/ HIP) program. She has also held positions on the board of directors of the Black Child Development Institute (BCDI); Milwaukee Affiliate; Metropolitan Milwaukee Alliance of Black School Educators (MMABSE); and Parents Plus Inc., among other organizations. She was elected to a four-year term as a governing board member of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) in 2017.
Some of Tamara’s previous accomplishments include 2005 Fellow of the Children’s Defense Fund Emerging Leaders Project; 2005 participant in the National Women’s Law Center PLAN (Progressive Leadership and Advocacy Network); and 2007 participant in the White House Project. She is a contributing author to the article, “Leadership Development for a Changing Early Childhood Landscape,” in NAEYC’s Young Children journal in May 2015.
Tamara has participated in the Marquette University College of Professional Studies, Future Milwaukee Program, and the Early Childhood Leadership Credential program at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. She also was named a 2013–14 Fellow for NAEYC’s Legacy Leadership program.
Today, Tamara leads Malaika Early Learning Center, a state-of-the-art facility that focuses on children from birth through age 8 in its early childhood and elementary school programs. She credits her long-time mentor and friend, Ann Terrell, for not only pushing her academically, but encouraging her to apply for employment positions, as well as positions on various local and national boards.
While Tamara wrestles with ways to consciously give back to others, she acknowledges that others tell her that she’s a role model for them.
“Many of the staff I work with have earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees. They tell me that I have modeled the importance of higher education and helped push them to achieve. That’s just something I do naturally, in any space that I’m in. I encourage people and remind them that anything is attainable. Also, I’ve always been transparent about my struggles as well as the rewards,” she said.
With her climb to leadership, Tamara acknowledges some of the challenges she has and continues to face. Among them is being a Black woman in leadership and getting people to fully understand the value of early childhood education.
“As Black women, there’s a tendency for us to give 200 percent to something that may only require 100 percent. We go above and beyond expectations because I think, in our mind, that’s what we are supposed to do. We have to stop. We are killing ourselves.
“We, as a community and leaders, must begin to place more value on the merits of early childhood education. We have a responsibility to look back at the lives of some of our teens and young adults, and ask ourselves where we failed these little people in life. At some point, we must realize children are our greatest asset. All kids are important, no matter their age; but we need to place a greater emphasis on taking care of young children, regardless of where they live. We must get to the point where—regardless of affordability and access—early childhood education is equitable. We’ve grown Malaika to be an example of what’s possible for our children. Our children leave this school well-rounded with a solid academic foundation and social emotional grounding to become intelligent leaders. I would love to see Malaika replicated across the community,” she said.