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Mary Peake Award for Excellence in Education Equity

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“What would the best soil produce without cultivation? We want to get wisdom. That is all we need. Let us get that, and we are made for time and eternity.”

 -Former student of Mary Peake

Education equity in Virginia is largely indebted to a brave humanitarian, Mary Peake. Peake is known for educating both enslaved and free Black people during a time when such an act was illegal. Her classroom was the foot of a grand tree known as Emancipation Oak, located on the grounds of what would later become Hampton University. Her fortitude to educate her people, particularly during a time when it was forbidden, demonstrates an understanding of the value of education and a commitment to serving those intentionally marginalized. Mary Peake is one of Virginia’s first education equity pioneers and her contribution to education in the Commonwealth is a true testament to the ongoing journey towards education equity. Her example has been emulated time and time again. This award recognizes her contribution and continued inspiration.

About Mary Peake

Mary Peake

The emancipation of education of a newly freed people is deeply rooted in Hampton, VA and began with a beloved humanitarian whose passion for education was just as deeply rooted there.  Mary Smith Kelsey was born free in Norfolk, VA in 1823 and educated in Alexandria, VA (then part of the District of Columbia) until the US Congress enacted a law prohibiting education and closing all schools for free people of color in D.C., mirroring the educational landscape in Virginia and several other southern states.

Many believe that although Mary was just a teenager, this was the very moment that served as the catalyst for what became her profound legacy and changed the course of the lives for many generations to come. In 1839, at age sixteen Mary returned to live with her mother. After being denied access to the classroom, she risked her own freedom as she began secretly teaching free and enslaved African Americans to read and write. Upon her mother remarrying, she and her family relocated to Hampton where she expanded her curriculum and eventually gained the approval of local authorities. Mary was one of few women of color whose teaching was officially sanctioned by the Union army as the United States entered the Civil War in the 1850s.

Mary wed Thomas Peake, a formerly enslaved man who worked in the merchant marine, in 1851. They had a daughter named Hattie, whom they nicknamed “Daisy”.  While in Hampton, she also founded a women’s charitable organization, called the Daughters of Zion, whose mission was to assist the poor and the sick. She made a living by dressmaking and continued her secret mission of educating her people – both young and old. Among her adult students was her stepfather Thompson Walker, who progressed as a more prominent leader of African Americans in Hampton through her teachings. Her teachings are largely attributed to fostering the African American population of Hampton to develop a literacy rate that outpaced most other communities in the South.

Her fortitude to serve as a conduit to educate her people, particularly during a time when it was forbidden, demonstrates that she understood the value of education and what it represented. Mary recognized that access to fundamental education and literacy could have a profound impact not only the student, but also on their entire family and community. Although she was breaking state law, the Union Army and other white leadership gave tacit sanction to her lessons on the grounds of Fort Monroe once the Civil War began. In 1861, when those who fled enslavement, then regarded as “contraband”, began flocking to the fort to seek freedom Mary’s educational mission increased in masses. She initially taught at the foot of an oak tree in Phoebus (now known as the aforementioned Emancipation Oak), but she was ultimately provided a cottage to serve as her classroom, which is recognized as the very first facility of what is now Hampton University.

Mary continued to teach adults and children from her sick bed until tuberculosis took her life in 1862 at age 39.  The year after she died, the oak tree that once provided shade for her outdoor lessons was the setting for the first public reading of the Emancipation Proclamation in the Deep South. Local residents gathered there to receive word that President Abraham Lincoln had formally begun the process of freeing those who were enslaved. The Emancipation Oak still stands on the campus of Hampton University. It has grown mightily with the passage of time, extending its reach upward and outward. Much like Mary Peake’s legacy.

Today, an early childhood education center is named for her in Hampton, and a stretch of road near Aberdeen Elementary.

Photographs of Mary Peake and Emancipation Oak courtesy of Hampton University Archives.

About the Award

The Mary Peake Award for Excellence in Education Equity highlights individuals and organizations that have made significant contributions to the advancement of equity in education for students in Virginia. The award offers the Commonwealth an opportunity to recognize educators, policy makers, education advocacy groups, and stakeholder organizations whose service and leadership is impacting equity outcomes for Virginia students. 

The Commonwealth is committed to ensuring that its public education system is positioned to achieve equitable academic outcomes for all students. The Virginia Department of Education’s equity framework, Navigating EdEquityVA, outlines our commitment to eliminating the predictability of student outcomes based on race, gender, zip code, ability, socio-economic status and/or languages spoken at home. This requires that ALL students have access to high quality learning programs by developing a culturally proficient educator workforce and eliminating opportunity gaps to maximize student potential. Every day, all across the Commonwealth, countless individuals and organizations work tirelessly in various capacities to help achieve this goal. The Mary Peake Award recognizes those efforts.  

Award Categories

  • Educator (Teacher, Paraprofessional, Support Staff, Specialist, Professor or Educator Preparation Program (EPP) Staff, etc.)
  • Policy Maker (General Assembly Member, School Board Member, Elected Official) 
  • School Leader (Principal, Vice-principal, Superintendent, Central Office Staff, etc.) 
  • Organization/Stakeholder Group/School or Division Team (e.g. Grade Level Team, Professional Learning Community (PLC), Educational Support Organization, Out of School Time Provider, Advocacy Organization, etc.)

2021 Award Updates

The nomination window for the 2021 Mary Peake Award for Excellence in Education Equity has now closed. Thank you to everyone who submitted nominations. Announcements about the 2021 winners are forthcoming. Check back here for more information.

The 2020 Recipients of the Mary Peake Award for Excellence in Education Equity

Educator Category:

Dr. Shantha Smith, Equity and Excellence Coordinator, Gunston Middle School, Arlington Public Schools 

Dr. Shantha Smith

Dr. Smith places an emphasis on culturally responsive and sustaining pedagogy and remains a champion for children through her instructional approaches and advocacy for resources that are current, varied, and mirror the children in our classroom. The instructional experiences she provided students has been supportive, culturally responsive, and engaging. Dr. Smith created an affirming and inclusive education environment that was supportive, culturally responsive, and engaging. She is recognized for her work to promote equity in practice at the school level, supporting students and teachers, and influencing the instructional system. Dr. Smith also led professional development which promoted consistent best practice to support students of color. She continues to ameliorate academic inequities through the creation of student affinity groups, book clubs, and activities tailored to meet the needs of marginalized student groups. Dr. Smith’s work continues to address the disproportionality in student outcomes that has disparate impact on students of color

Policymaker Category:  

Mr. Rodney A. Jordan, Virginia School Board Association President and Norfolk City School Board Member

Mr. Rodney Jordan

Mr. Jordan has dedicated his career to advocating for programs and policies that increase student opportunity and access to the resources necessary to be successful. He has championed initiatives that promote digital literacy, economic inclusion, and equitable opportunities for students and families that have faced systemic oppression and economic hardship. In his role as Co-Chair of the Virginia School Boards Association’s “Task Force on Students and Schools in Challenging Environments,” Mr. Jordan championed innovative policies and practices that serve to reduce inequity and its effects with a focus on research, best practice, and strategies that empower Virginia’s schools and leaders. As the Chair of the Norfolk City School Board, Mr. Jordan established the division’s first Equity Policy, strategically focusing the division’s efforts on meeting the diverse needs of students. For years, Mr. Jordan has been a leader in the pursuit of educational excellence and continues to leverage collaboration, innovation, and his personal passion for this work to reduce disproportionality in student outcomes.

School Leader Category:

Dr. Jeffery Smith, Superintendent, Hampton City Schools 

Ms. Ayanna Mitchell.

Dr. Smith transformed teaching and learning in Hampton City Schools by implementing innovative strategies to close achievement, opportunity, and equity gaps that exist among marginalized student groups. His development of Hampton City Schools’ College and Career Readiness Plan increased access and opportunity for students across the division by creating a blueprint for PreK-12 instruction and real-world experiences that embed core academic skills, career-aligned technical skills, and lifelong learning skills with college and career exploration and work-based learning. Under Dr. Smith’s leadership, the Academies of Hampton (AoH) were created, which transformed the cities four traditional high schools to college and career academies where students learn through a career-focused lens and graduate prepared for 21st century careers. Thanks to Dr. Smith every Hampton student is connected with college and career pathway opportunities in the community through every level of their educational track.

Organization/Group Category:

Albemarle County Community Engagement Equity Specialists, Albemarle County Public Schools

The Albemarle County Community Engagement Equity Specialists team, under the direction of Dr. Bernard Hairston, are committed to marginalized students who have been underrepresented in the past through focus on advocacy, inclusiveness, cultural responsiveness and educational innovation. The team has addressed inequities such as achievement gaps around standardized testing, disproportionality in school disciplinary practices, family partnerships, and curricular representation. The team has worked to increase the culturally proficiency of Albemarle County Public School educators through the development of a Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT) micro-credentialing program and facilitated the certification of 63 educators and the micro-credentialing of 68 educators through a year-long engagement with the county’s Culturally Responsive Teaching programs, including a rigorous assessment process. The model they have created can be scaled up to reach the entire 1200-person teaching staff.  Additionally, the Equity Specialists organized a team of Diversity Resource Teachers in each school building in order to provide site-based CRT professional development (PD) on a monthly basis and lead school-based book studies focusing on Culturally Responsive Teaching.

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