‘School choice can be a powerful tool,’ says Florida’s former top education choice official

(reimaginED) – After being named the Florida Teacher of the Year for 2020, Dakeyan Chá Dré Graham served as executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education.

Graham graduated from the University of Florida with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music education. He also earned a master’s degree in educational leadership from Concordia University and a doctorate in music education from the University of South Florida. A proud graduate of King High School in Tampa, Florida, he spent 10 years as director of instrumental studies in the Hillsborough County School District.

After serving at the Florida Department of Education for two years, Graham stepped down to pursue other opportunities. Graham recently sat down with reimaginED to reflect on his time spent as an advocate for expanded education choice for Florida families. Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q. Before leading the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice, what did you think of education choice? Did it turn out to be what you expected or like what you had heard?

A. Even though I am a product of a choice school program, I hadn’t fully considered the vast array of what school choice included. There are many people who don’t understand what school choice is. And there are others who have a very limited scope of school choice. I am much better informed now on that definition and feel equipped to leverage that understanding for the benefit of students.

Q. What was the most important lesson that you learned about choice during this time?

A. When implemented in the manner it was intended, school choice can be a powerful tool. The important part is making sure everyone understands what school choice actually is…and what it isn’t.

Q. This job represented quite a departure from being a band director in the classroom. What challenged you the most and what adjustments did you make?

A. The greatest challenge was not being able to physically see the immediate results of decisions and being disconnected from those on the ground level doing the work. As a high school band director, you are an administrator over a small school. Taking the administrative and supervisory skills and refocusing them for another avenue was a manner of adaptation. You take those skills and amplify them. But it’s important that one doesn’t lose sight of the main goal – which is doing what is best for students. With every decision. In the classroom, you see the benefits of what you sow. At the state level, you have to be intentional about remaining connected in order to maintain an accurate and applicable perspective.

Q. What improvements did you make while you were leading the department?

A. This question would best be answered by the stakeholders which I had the opportunity to communicate with during my time with the IEPC Office. Based on their feedback after my announcement, I would say it was the amount of communication, assistance, and tangibility that our office had during that time which was the greatest improvement. Personal connection and availability go a long way. I wish I could have accomplished more, but I believe the legacy left was one of improved ground-level communication. I hope it continues.

QWho was your biggest inspiration during your time in the department? It can be someone inside or outside the department. What did you learn from them?

A. It was always important to me to maintain contact and perspective with those on the ground level who were responsible for the actual implementation of policies and procedures being facilitated through our office. In this regard, I guess one could say that the teachers and administrators with whom I had the opportunity to connect with served as my greatest inspiration because they kept me informed of the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of what was coming down the pipeline. In turn, we could take that feedback and attempt to assist in improving access and, therefore, increasing opportunities for change.

Q. What advice do you have for your successor?

A. Communication is key. In order to ensure that students and families receive the opportunities they desire, it is integral to maintain open and transparent lines of communication with the ground level. It is always better to overcommunicate than to do so sparingly.

Q. What do you want to do next? Do you see yourself administrating in a local district, working in the private sector, or returning to the classroom?

A. I plan to pursue opportunities where I can best advocate for an equitable educational experience for all students, regardless of race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status.


This article originally appeared at reimaginED.