In this Q&A with TyAnthony Davis, lead school founder of Vox Collegiate, TyAnthony dives into why he’s launching Vox Collegiate, his favorite things about Watts, and why there will be no dreams deferred at Vox.
1| Where did you grow up? What was it like?
I was born and raised in Fresno, California. It had a bit of a small town feel, but it was highly segregated. I initially went to school in southwest Fresno, which is a poorer Black and Latino part of town.
My experience there was very different from when I was transferred to school for gifted and talented kids in town. That was the first time I was hit in the face with the idea of different expectations for different children. And it divided my own household, with me at the gifted and talented school and my brother at our home school. It was, at times, frustrating.
I was lucky from kindergarten through 12th grade to have some incredible educators in public schools affect my life dramatically. From Brendel Jackson, the assistant principal at Kirk Elementary School (my home school), to Cynthia Lawrence, my speech and debate teacher at Bullard High School, I had passionate educators who took ownership of their classrooms and what it meant to help students find their own paths.
2| Where did your vision for Vox Collegiate come from?
In September 2016, as part of the Building Excellent Schools fellowship, I visited Memphis, Tennessee to observe schools. We got there in the evening, and took a bus to the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. It was an emotional place to be.
I stood on the ground staring up at the balcony where he was shot, and I started crying. And I realized why I’m doing this work.
When I was in kindergarten in Fresno, Brendel Jackson, our vice principal started a program to take a handfull students to schools in the Central Valley to give presentations on Black history. The speech I gave in kindergarten through third grade was the last speech that Dr. King gave before he was killed.
When I think about my own path, I think about Ms. Jackson taking me as a five-year-old (who still sucked his thumb) to memorize a speech, perform it, understand it, recognize the history of it, and feel the meaning behind the voice of one of the most important figures in American history. It set me up for success, and gave me a voice.
Understanding how Dr. King used his voice empowered me to find my own.
In Dr. King’s last speech, he said -- speaking of the promised land -- “I may not get there with you, but we as a people will get to the Promised Land.”
We all play a role in getting our communities to the promised land, that place of equality and justice. I understand that my role in the fight for justice is through education -- and empowering students to be a bigger part of the fight than I could ever hope to be. That means building a school that will ensure students have their own voices and know how to use them for change. Regardless of challenges they face, will always be heard.
3| What was your own path to college (and Harvard Law School!) like?
I never questioned whether or not I was going to college. It was always a requirement from my parents and from me.
I was all set to apply to UC Berkeley, and I set that as the goal for my college career. But then Yale told me that if played football there, I could go. As much as I was done with football my senior year of high school, if it got me to Yale, it was worth it.
When I graduated from college, there was something about education that always interested me. I applied to Teach For America and ended up teaching fourth grade in Las Vegas. I absolutely fell in love with the art of teaching.
As an athlete, there were moments in a game where the field slowed down, and I could get into a flow. It’s a pretty euphoric feeling.
It’s a feeling of being in control and doing something so well it comes naturally. I had that same feeling in the classroom.
Teaching was one of the few times in life when I was doing something that I could be great at. There’s something calling me to do this work, something beyond a job or a paycheck.
But coming out of Yale, there was external pressure to do something else, and to have a career that people traditionally view as “successful.” I’d had an interest in law, so off to law school I went. I really enjoyed studying the law. It gave me invaluable insight into how I process information and solve problems. It also helped me understand the U.S. and the structures impacting education. But even while in law school, I still knew that teaching and being an educator were my passion.
4| When did you realize that you wanted to found a school?
When I interviewed for jobs at law firms, they’d ask me about my long term plans. Opening a school was always in there. I just thought at first it would be when I was in my 60s, not at 29!
After spending a couple years as a lawyer doing work that I wasn’t passionate about, I realized that I wanted to spend the limited time I have on earth teaching children.
5| Why did you choose the Watts community as the place to launch Vox Collegiate?
For me, I wanted to put a school in an area of highest need in Los Angeles, looking at historical data on school performance.
In Los Angeles, there are 20 schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District that perform in bottom 5% of schools statewide. Four of those are in Watts. That was it for me. There’s a clear need here.
6| What has surprised you about launching a school in general, and in Watts specifically?
I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how accepting people are. This vision I’ve started developing for a school and students has been aligned to what the people I’ve talked to want for their children.
It doesn’t feel like Vox is an imposition on Watts, but a school that will be built to be a sustaining institution in and with the community.
7| What are some of your favorite things about Watts?
The history and commitment of the people. Watts has seen some tough times, but it also has tough people who haven’t shied away from it. They haven’t been deterred from improving their community. There’s an optimism that the next generation will improve, be better, and get it right. It takes strength to have that optimism in the face of significant challenges educationally, economically, and in the criminal justice system.
The demographics of Watts have changed in the last 25 years, from majority Black to majority Latino, but the sense of a collective community hasn’t changed. Go to an immigration rights town hall meeting and it’s not just Latino faces there. There are plenty of Black faces there sitting side by side, making sure their Latino neighbors know that they are loved and protected.
8| How has the Watts community and the people you’ve met influenced or changed your vision for Vox Collegiate?
They have kept me focused on individual people. Our vision and school design is simply a means to empowering individuals. While I may get caught up in a budget line item about computers, it only matters because those computers help a kid access a personalized learning experience that will enable them to grow two years in sixth grade, instead of just one.
It’s also about keeping things simple. Sometimes you want to be innovative in a school, but parents and the community are looking for a school that is going to stay committed to get it right and has the fortitude to face down challenges they will inevitably face.
9| What would you say to a parent thinking of enrolling their student in Vox Collegiate?
We haven’t earned your trust yet, but we will.
A parent agreeing to send their child to our school is putting a lot of trust in us. Their child is likely the most precious thing in their lives. We need to prove, and we will prove, that we will take care of every child. All children.
10| What are your hopes and dreams for the students who will attend Vox Collegiate?
"My vision for Vox is that there will be no dreams deferred."
I have so many. I want all of our students to be academically successful. I want them to be accepted into college, and succeed in college.
But I really want them to understand that college and academic success is not about certificates and credentials. It’s a means to them fulfilling their dreams.
My vision for our students is that when they graduate, I can look them in the eyes, tell them they can do anything they want and be anything they want, and know in my heart that I’m not lying.
My vision for Vox is that there will be no dreams deferred.