Championing Equity and Inclusion in Education | Dr. Dorothea Gordon

Education is often hailed as a transformative force, shaping lives and futures with every lesson learned and every book opened. Yet, for many, access to quality education remains a hurdle, entwined with economic barriers and societal biases that can alter the trajectory of a young mind. These challenges are not merely academic; they are deeply personal, affecting individuals who recognize education not just as a pathway to opportunity but as a fundamental right. This narrative of struggle and triumph is vividly personified in the journey of Dr. Dorothea Gordon, whose own experiences propelled her into a lifelong mission to advocate for and uplift scholars, especially those with special needs.

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Dr. Dorothea Gordon Eager Young Minds Special Education Solutions

Driven by early encounters with prejudice and a passionate commitment to education, Dr. Gordon’s story is a powerful testament to the resilience and dedication required to change not just individual lives but the very systems that shape them.

Guided by her vision of educational equity, Dr. Gordon founded Eager Young Minds  – Special Education Solutions, an organization devoted to supporting these cherished scholars. Eager Young Minds works closely with educators, communities, and parents of scholars to provide advocacy and to design services that facilitate a smooth transition into life beyond academic institutions.

Dr. Gordon’s passion for education was ignited by her experience growing up in a lower-income household and facing racism while moving through the school system in the sixties.

“I was one of nine little black children, and at that time, we were called colored,” she says. As she and her siblings transitioned to public school, the administration automatically assumed they might require special education services without ever assessing them.

“From that point on, I became very interested not only in education overall but also in participating in the lives of scholars with special needs.”

Her parents, who had always been steadfast advocates for their children, ensured they were not placed in special education classrooms. When the kids were later tested, the results showed they did not need to be there.

Dr. Gordon’s father had a deep love for reading, which significantly impacted her attitude toward learning and how she perceived her current circumstances. He would tell her that they could only give her and her siblings an education.

“Because he was an avid reader, it helped us to understand that there was life beyond our situation. We had books in every single room, including the bathroom, and with that, we were able to journey into other parts of the world.”

Throughout her childhood, the Salvation Army also played a pivotal role in supporting her family, generously providing essential school supplies and a wide range of other invaluable assistance and opportunities.

“We had opportunities to go to church. They would come by and pick us up, and we took up a whole pew with all nine of us there. When we needed food or money to keep the lights on or presents at Christmas time, they were always right there. Because of that, I continue to contribute to and share the work of the Salvation Army.”

Reflecting on her past today, she is grateful to her parents for instilling a mindset focused on personal growth during her formative years.

“That was the importance of reading and taking that journey through books. That was the opportunity to say, ‘You don’t have to, and I don’t want you to continue in this life.’ Quite frankly, I didn’t know that we were poor until I went to school because we didn’t have that mindset. Our lives were not easy. Sure, there were times when we had no electricity or no water, but we had food. When we didn’t have food, my father was creative in making sure that there was enough food for all of us. He could make a meal out of rice. For breakfast, it was rice and milk with a little butter and sugar. We had rice soup for supper: rice, chicken broth and vegetables. Dessert was rice pudding!”

Despite the option of having breakfast at school, the family prioritized the importance of sharing a meal together every morning. Her family has since continued this cherished tradition.

In her formative years, another figure had an immense impact on Dr. Gordon’s life. Her first-grade teacher was a nun by the name of Sister Shawn Mary. Dr. Gordon attended St. Killian’s, a Catholic school in New Bedford, Massachusetts. She did not know how to read, while the other students had already grasped the skill.

“Sister Shawn Mary would sit me on her lap in her rocking chair during reading time, and she would read to me. Though she was reading to the whole class, to me, it was just me. With perhaps some divine intervention, I started to read.”

Sister Shawn Mary played a crucial role in Dr. Gordon’s personal and professional development, leading to a significant shift in her goals and a strong desire to make a positive difference in scholars’ lives. Sister Shawn Mary’s impact was not limited to her personal life and would later extend to how she would approach teaching.

“It’s all about relational capacity and taking the time to understand and take an interest in one child. One person’s interest can impact the trajectory of a child’s life forever. And so, with that, it inspired me, motivated me to continue to seek out education and advocate for those in need.”

Her life remained intertwined with faith as she was immersed in the teachings of the Bible, thanks to her devoted parents. This nightly ritual of reading the text became a cherished tradition that Dr. Gordon and her husband later carried on with their own children.

Both her parents and Sister Shawn Mary ingrained in her the value of education, a force she now heralds as the great equalizer, capable of transforming the course of one’s life.

This belief led Dr. Gordon to pursue a higher degree in education, earning an undergraduate degree from Boston University in elementary and special education, a master’s degree from Texas A & M Commerce (formerly East Texas State University) in educational management, and a doctoral degree in administration of teaching and learning from Walden University.

Throughout her impressive career spanning 37 years, she has taken on many pivotal roles in education. From her days as a dedicated general and special education teacher to her later achievements as a respected campus principal and esteemed special education executive director, she has consistently demonstrated her unwavering commitment to the betterment of the education system.

Today, her organization, Eager Young Minds, provides essential support services for parents, districts, and anyone in need of valuable assistance in helping scholars through their educational journey and beyond.

“Our mission is to serve the scholar’s collaborative team. The team of educators, the parents, and the community work together to self-advocate and design services for the scholar’s life beyond that local campus.”

They work closely with families and organizations, provide staff development and individual education plan facilitation meetings, and help local districts audit their special education programs to ensure that they are compliant with local, state, and federal regulations.

“Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress in our society and in every family because education is that great equalizer. What does our organization do? We provide parent support systems.”

One quote that inspires her is by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—it reads, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is ‘What are you doing for others?’”

“That’s my mantra because we rise by lifting others. Is that not what faith is truly about? It’s helping those in need. With Eager Young Minds and my educational journey of being a teacher, assistant principal, principal, and executive director of special education, it’s all about giving back because we rise by helping others. Now, I work with the special education department at the University of Texas at Arlington College of Education and supervise the clinical teachers out on local district campuses.”

Driven by a strong sense of altruism, she also actively engages in various social impact initiatives, often collaborating with her sisters. She contributes to the women’s shelter at the Salvation Army by providing blessing bags and generously volunteers her time at their distribution center, particularly during the Christmas season.

“My sisters and I crochet blankets and baby hats to give to those in need. It’s always about giving back because we know where we came from. And if we did not have those who stepped in to lift us up—Sister Shawn Mary, the Catholic organizations, the Salvation Army, our parents—we wonder where we would be because, again, we rise by lifting others.”

The name for her organization is inspired by the movie A Beautiful Mind—where the main character, John Nash, walks into his classroom and welcomes students with “Good morning, eager young minds.”

“It hit home for me because I see the same eagerness to learn in all the scholars I encounter in the community, in classrooms, and in church—special needs or not. They are eager to learn. They just need someone to guide them through the process.”

She says we all possess an innate desire for learning and knowledge. Sometimes, due to other external factors, it may not always seem so.

“I’ve always told my team that children are all scholarly in something. It is up to us as educators to hone that desire to learn, awaken it, and continue to inspire them to keep learning.”

She says an effective teacher prioritizes building strong relationships with scholars, as children tend to observe our actions more closely than they listen to our words. A skilled educator understands that behavior can be just as powerful as words when it comes to conveying messages. All behavior is about communication.

“They should step back and observe and talk to the child and know the entire child, not just the academics. People want to know that you care before they care about how much you know.”

She stresses the efficacy and importance of combined classes that include both special education and general education students.

Dr. Dorothea Gordon Eager Young Minds Special Education Solutions

“We talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion like they are new terms, but diversity, equity, and inclusion have always been a part of special education. How can anyone navigate or participate fully in their society if they’re not a part of it? In this scenario, their society is their classroom. Imagine if I have a scholar who is impacted by autism. In order to be able to navigate the society that they live in, they must be a part of it. Inclusion is not just a place; it’s a process to progress. Scholars must be fully embraced and fully engulfed in that experience.”

Dr. Dorothea Gordon Eager Young Minds Special Education Solutions

They must have the chance to receive an education alongside their non-disabled peers to experience social interactions commonly found in general education classrooms. For this cause, Dr. Gordon actively works with educators to develop inclusive classrooms.

“The IEP team, when you design their individual educational plan, must ensure that they’re educated with their non-disabled peers. We must first start with social opportunities because it’s also about social-emotional learning. Those social interactions happen naturally at lunchtime, during recess, physical education, music, art class, hallways, and assemblies. It’s about being in the classroom during those non-structured learning times.”

This setup enables scholars to closely observe and analyze how their peers engage with a presented concept, allowing for a fully immersive learning experience.

Dr. Gordon also emphasizes the importance of supporting teachers with adequate resources to ensure the highest quality of education while also considering their well-being. Many teachers pay for classroom supplies out of their own pockets.

“When we think about resources, we are not only thinking about providing educational supplies, helping them understand the curriculum, and making sure they have the training. We’re also asking how they are, as people, okay with what’s happening in this world today. We need to check in with them.”

Educational leaders, including assistant principals, principals, and central office administrators, play a crucial role in supporting teachers in their daily work.

This support could look as simple as offering teachers a 15-minute break while another educator briefly takes over their class, she says.

Reflecting back on her own childhood, Dr. Gordon believes disparity in the education system still persists, especially for individuals from low-income households. These families must grapple with a scarcity of basic necessities and limited educational opportunities.

“The opportunities to experience a museum, to go to the library, to experience a zoo, to go to the playground and just play, to go to a bookstore during story hour—those are the type of opportunity gaps that exist in our world today with marginalized populations. Parents are focused on survival. They’re thinking, ‘How am I going to feed my children? How am I going to keep a roof over their heads? How am I going to ensure that they have their immunizations up to date?’”

Growing up, Dr. Gordon was able to access some of these opportunities through the Salvation Army, such as going on field trips to museums and zoos, as well as attending summer camps and city parks that had free lunch programs. However, a child cannot take advantage of these opportunities without first having their basic needs met.

“We must talk about the disparities in healthcare and the food deserts that exist in the United States. It’s all a part of not having those opportunities to thrive rather than just survive. A child must have those basic needs met—Maslow’s hierarchy of basic needs, of food, shelter, and a sense of belonging, before they can start accepting the knowledge imparted to them, evaluating their world, and participating in their environment, such as in Bloom’s taxonomy—Maslow’s before Bloom’s.”

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs outlines the most basic physical needs for survival and ascends to psychological and self-fulfillment needs. At the foundation are physiological needs like food and shelter, followed by needs for safety, love and belonging, esteem, and finally, self-actualization.

Meanwhile, Bloom’s Taxonomy categorizes educational goals, illustrating the process of learning. It starts from foundational tasks like remembering and understanding, moves towards more complex levels such as applying and analyzing, and culminates in evaluating and creating, encouraging deeper engagement and critical thinking in scholars.

There has been some progress made by local governments. Dr. Gordon shares that there are greater opportunities now to access free clinics and have free immunizations at local county hospitals in Texas. In Dallas, they have established neighborhood clinics.

“Parkland Hospital has set up these local extension clinics right in the neighborhood so that parents can access the immunizations, eye exams, hearing tests and health care they need. School districts in major cities have set up ‘back-to-school fairs,’ where they not only have the local county hospital looking at scholars’ vaccination records and giving them the necessary immunizations, but they also have local barbers there giving haircuts.”

Parkland is a county hospital whose noble vision is to advance health equity through excellence as a public health system. Parkland’s sixteen community-based health centers provide the health services in the communities that need them most.

Dr. Gordon believes that teachers, parents, and the government have a responsibility to educate their citizens. “Even the community has a role. We all have a role because it takes a village to educate us all.”

“Libraries could offer free programs for the scholars to participate in through the parks and recreation department, the YMCA, or the Salvation Army within cities. Getting government funds to support these programs is very important in the trajectory of our scholars’ lives. It’s about an opportunity gap; it goes back to not having those opportunities to experience the world. These experiences also play a role when it comes to performing well on national assessments.”

The overturning of affirmative action in 2023 places another barrier against these scholars. With the end of affirmative action, public and private colleges and universities can no longer consider race as a factor for admission. This will ultimately impact admissions in preschool and on.

“If it wasn’t for affirmative action, I wouldn’t be here today talking to you, point blank. It’s not a handout; it’s a hand-up. And when you look at our society, some still need a hand up. I know a portion of our society says, ‘I did it on my own.’ Those who view us as marginalized populations had a hand up as well. We must look at our perspective overall on what we understand affirmative action to be.”

Dr. Gordon says that the crux of the issue has to do with the foundation on which a child must eventually build the rest of their life.

“Affirmative action was a hand up because we as a society know that it is not a level playing field. Now, some of us take our hand up and continue to have our hand out; that’s just society as a whole. That’s just human nature. Some of us take that hand up, reach down, and lift another one up. That’s what society should be based on. That’s what Jesus did in the Bible.”

Through her work, she guides teams toward achieving “Kaizen,” a powerful Japanese concept that emphasizes the importance of continuous improvement. “We are all continual learners,” she states.

She generously offers advice to individuals who aspire to make a positive impact in the field of special education and leadership.

“You must have the passion and desire to help those who do not look like you. So, how do you prepare for that? I always tell my team and my student teachers that you can teach skill, but you cannot teach character. Do you have that character within you to work, to serve those who are in need?”

She says that the first step is self-reflection, followed by considering the more practical aspects, such as the length of education. Then there is resilience. To illustrate, she quotes an article by Dr. Carol Dweck.

“It says, ‘Does effort beget success?’ Her big thing is on mindset—a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. The growth mindset is always evolving. When you stay fixed on something, you’re not going to be able to grow past it. So, one of the challenges of education is understanding that you’re continually evolving. If you’re not going to put in the effort, then don’t do it.”

Nowadays, she often bumps into former scholars when she’s running errands. She recounts a story of running into one such scholar at Target some time ago.

“He asked me if I was still the principal. I said, ‘No, I work in the special education department, supporting scholars with special needs.’ He said, ‘You always liked those kids, didn’t you?’ For him to know that at that time when he was with me in elementary school and in middle school, let me know that I was doing something right.”

This is why she continues to do the work she does in retirement.

“Those moments right there demonstrate the fact that it’s about the relational capacity. It’s not always about what the scholar is learning in this class right at that moment or what the rules are. It’s not about me being the principal or the enforcer in scholars’ eyes. It’s about the relationship that I had with these scholars, who are now grown up. There’s this old saying: it’s the aha moment when you see the light flash across their eyes and faces. It’s when they’re comfortable enough to take risks within the educational space that they’re in, be it a pre-K classroom or a calculus class. Being able to witness that ‘I got this, and now I understand what all these other kids are doing that I was not able to do as of yet’ look on their faces is incredibly rewarding. And that’s what Sister Shawn Mary did for me.”

It is truly remarkable to witness the transformative power of our own struggles, as they often become a source of profound inspiration for those around us.

“My reward in this space, in this life, is how am I helping others? Because others helped me.”

Dr. Dorothea Gordon Eager Young Minds Special Education Solutions