Providence Middle School UR Trifecta

May 20, 2021
Three SPCS graduates join the administrative team at the same middle school together

By Julia Straka, ’21

The faculty in the SPCS Educational Leadership & Policy Studies (ELPS) program love when their graduates succeed, but they love when their graduates succeed together even more. In 2020, LeKiesha White, GC’16, joined a team of two other ELPS graduates at Providence Middle School’s administration. Together, Dean of Students White, Assistant Principal Beth Morris, GC’19 and Associate Principal Sandra Judge-Harden, GC’15, worked together to make the transition to virtual learning, and for many, middle school itself, as smooth as possible. 

Although all three women ended up at the same school, they started out in very different places. Judge-Harden began her career in insurance and banking. As part of her job, she volunteered in eighth grade classrooms, teaching students how to balance checkbooks and ace job interviews. While working part time, she applied for a substitute teaching position at Providence Middle School. She scoffed when her husband suggested she consider teaching full time, but when the kids in her neighborhood kept asking her when she was coming back to substitute, she was sold. 

Similarly, when White’s friends suggested she become a teacher, she replied with “absolutely not!” White majored in biology while playing basketball for St. Augustine’s University. After graduation, she coached basketball at Virginia Union University and Bluefield State University, winning championships and rings. When she was offered a promotion, she realized she wanted a change and moved back home to Richmond. Like Judge-Harden, she started as a substitute teacher in the middle of an academic year before diving into the profession and earning a provisional license. 

Beth Morris planned to go into full-time academia, but she realized she wanted a different trajectory while in graduate school for literature. Like Judge-Harden and White, she started out as a substitute before beginning her 17-year career as an English teacher. Morris discovered she had a penchant for leadership when she ran a school-wide remediation program and a district-wide early college academy. 

One of Morris’ focuses as an administrator is equitable education, which is something White values too. Before White made the leap into administration, she taught biology at Meadowbrook High School and coached basketball at Clover Hill High School, whose student bodies represent vast socioeconomic differences. 

Working at those two schools, White recognized the difference such disparity made in the classroom. She saw “what some schools had and what others didn’t,” she said, and she pursued administration because it would allow her to help more than just the kids who were in her classroom or on her team. She wanted to be “at the table for those difficult conversations,” she said.

White lived and went to school in Chesterfield County herself, so she chose SPCS because of the local school system connections faculty had. She also knew several alumni who raved about the program. Her prior knowledge about the staff and insight from her own network made the choice easy for her. “It was the only program I applied to, and the only one I wanted to be in,” White said. 

Morris had a similarly easy decision to make when she was choosing an education leadership program: “I didn’t even look at other programs... I knew it [SPCS] was the route for me,” based on the advice of friends and colleagues, she said.

The professors Judge-Harden met at orientation are who sold her on the program. The staff that she met at orientation gave her a good, warm impression.  “[They] were so caring, they made me want to come back,” she said. She feels she graduated with a “semi-family,” she said. 

Similarly, White remembers a professor’s early advice to form an SPCS family and find a grad school “spouse” in her courses. Those relationships became invaluable: the program wasn’t always easy and it helped to have “people around you to encourage you and to speak life into you,” White said. 

The three graduates brought the family-like feel of the program with them to their new school. White feels she has the same kind of support system she had at SPCS at her new job. “The atmosphere at Providence is so amazing... I feel like I’ve been there for five years,” she said, though this is only her first. 

The three administrators reach out and support their students too, even though they are not physically in the building because of the pandemic. White often pops in during virtual classes and checks in with parents via phone. Morris’ favorite part of her job is the home visits, where she’s able to see her students and their families at a safe distance from their porches. “The connection and support for the kids will always be the best part,” she said. 

Dr. Kate Cassada, who’s the Assistant Chair of Graduate Education at SPCS and has taught all three women, sees the SPCS leadership trifecta at Providence as a win for both the three graduates and for the school itself. “I am thrilled with how prepared our graduates are for leadership goals, and that the very strongest leaders are in our schools,” she said.

And the three women are just as thrilled to be working together. Morris recruited White to Providence after they had one class together at SPCS. Harden-Judge remembers Morris’ excitement when White was brought in as the newest hire: “I remember Beth saying, ‘She’s a UR grad!’”

Update: Since this story was written, Providence Middle School, along with other Chesterfield County schools, has resumed in-person instruction