We need more unicorns

an interview with Dhyia Thompson-Philips

by Caity Henderson

Dhyia Thompson-Philips models flexibility, one of the four habits of heart and mind at GALS Inc. She’s adaptable, working in the nonprofit, corporate, and public sectors. She’s tough, smart, and funny. And she’s the perfect person to stand by Liz Wolfson’s side in the next phase of GALS Inc.’s expansion. We’re lucky to have her.

Before the age of 18, she was exposed to a broad set of activities: she was among a handful of black girls competing as a rhythmic gymnast; she studied improv classes at Piven Theatre in middle school, and in high school she earned college credit in Physics at the Space Academy in Huntsville, Alabama. Throughout her life, she’s always been a unicorn — special, unique, almost mystical.

Dhyia serves as the Deputy Chief of Planning and Performance for GALS Inc. She moved to Denver as part of the prestigious Broad Residency in Urban Education, selected among thousands of applicants vying for residencies around the country available for only two percent. Dhyia met Liz through a mutual friend and noted Liz’s unique leadership style in gender equity.

“[The GALS Inc.] culture stands out compared to other middle and high schools,” Dhyia said. “The instructional methodology is unlike anything I’ve encountered… the intention by which they pursue equity in all aspects from enrollment to recruitment of staff makes them a charter organization to watch closely.”

As a graduate of an all-girls high school, Dhyia said GALS Denver reminds her of her alma-mater, St. Scholastica Academy. She described a seamless diversity at her high school before equity and inclusion became buzzwords.

Dhyia, wasn’t always on the fast track to disrupting public education. Initially, she hoped to work for NASA with interests in space, aeronautics and astronomy. However, when Dhyia attended the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, she discovered that college was a political hotbed of academic and workforce racial inequities. After a number of disappointments, she gave up on her dream of working at NASA, but she completed a minor in computer science.

“I’m grateful for that experience, because it birthed my passion to pursue greater equity in education for students who came after me,” Dhyia said.

After graduating, Dhyia worked for a nonprofit serving disenfranchised and immigrant students. However, after 9/11, the money in nonprofits dried up, and Dhyia decided to focus on equity in higher education. In her role as a strategist with the City Colleges of Chicago, Dhyia became a leader in education. When she started, 7 percent of students were completing their degrees. In three years, Dhyia brought the number up to 22 percent.

Curious about K-12 and craving another education adventure, Dhyia found the Broad Residency program. When she was placed in Denver, Dhyia experienced culture-shock coming to Colorado as a black woman, even after so many transitions.

“At first, people back home were like, ‘why are you going to Denver? There’s no black folks in Denver,’” Dhyia said. “But there are black folks in Denver, and there are black kids who need black leadership.”

In Denver Public Schools, there are over 12,000 black students, 13 percent of the district’s population. Only a third of black students graduated college-ready last year, trailing the numbers for white and Latino students.

When Dhyia found Liz and GALS Inc., she saw an opportunity to expand a much different model in the educational sphere. Dhyia wants to change the dialogue about charter schools, shifting the narratives that charters are anti-union and anti-student-success. Though she sees the problems in the charter world, Dhyia thinks charters are a much larger “ecosystem.” For black leaders, charter schools present an opportunity to “change the game,” to rewrite the rules of an education system that underserves black and brown students, Dhyia says. There is space in the charter world for autonomous, innovative, and passionate leaders of color to create their own solutions for inequities in education.

“As one of the few black women and Broad Residents serving in a leadership role in public education in Denver, I am unicorn again,” Dhyia said. “However, I’ve come to embrace my unicorn spirit – being a new and different voice of influence to continue to push for equity in education is fun. In fact, we need more professionals of color bringing their voices of influence to the table, because this will undoubtedly result in better outcomes for students of color. GALS Inc. is so ahead of the curve on equity. I’m celebrated for being a unicorn, but what really sets us apart from other organizations is I’m not the only one … There’s a wonderfully intelligent and amazing enchanted forest filled with unique and badass spirit animals at GALS!”