Chéla Wallace, Director of K-12 Science, KIPP NYC
Chéla Wallace, KIPP NYC’s Director of K-12 Science, was four years old when she turned her family’s loss into a gain for thousands of students. Chéla’s grandmother passed away from breast cancer at a time when she, her mother, and her grandparents lived together. At the time Chéla wondered, how can I find a cure to what killed my grandmother? While she did not know it then, she would soon get closer to the field of science where she could attempt to answer that question. In 7th grade, her middle school science fair project, which sought to identify if nitrogen impacted the texture of hair, won second place in the biochemistry category. With her confidence soaring and an innate gift for biochemistry, Chéla dove headfirst into AP-level science in high school, leading her to research the human genome before her senior year.
Chéla attended the University of Virginia where she was one of six black students in her class who graduated with a degree in Chemistry – in a department comprised of a majority all-white male faculty. After UVA, Chéla was at a crossroads: continue down the road to becoming an Oncologist or listen to the advice of the Board Director of the Boys & Girls Club in San Antonio where she volunteered a year after graduation, which was, the way you engage the kids, have you ever thought about teaching?
Nearly 15 years later, Chéla has been a classroom teacher, and now, in her words, “a drum major for STEM equity,” as the leader of K-12 Science instruction. In this role, she’s still teaching by advising KIPP NYC teachers how to plan lessons and instruct students. Her impact is to be a STEM activist, implementing a vision that’s equitable for all kids and creating a pathway for students and teachers to meet a high bar of excellence in the sciences.
Chéla is also the program leader for KIPP NYC’s wildly popular robotics program that has sparked a passion for programming and engineering in hundreds of students during their science classes, afterschool clubs, and weekend competitions against other schools.
“I noticed with robotics that it opens up so many possibilities for kids. Robotics provides relevancy; if I’m learning with circuits in science, then I do that in robotics. It’s science, technology, and engineering in real time. It gives students a badge of honor. Parents said, ‘I’ve never seen my child so motivated in science.’ It’s a gateway for kids to say that ‘I do belong in this space. I can be part of the change in STEM.’ And it’s challenging and fun.
Chéla has made it her mission to encourage more young women of color to enter the sciences. She creates curriculum and compels teachers to ensure that Black and brown girls are included. She has trained teachers on their implicit biases. Chéla said there’s an approach all educators must take to empower girls of color in the classroom:
“I go back to this illuminating truth about what’s happening to women of color in education: they are outcast. Get them to feel like a part of the community. Get more innovative about how we approach schooling. We don’t need to be so cookie cutter about how we educate kids. Let’s look at the needs of girls of color and propel them to a level where they can be successful. Ultimately, my mission is to empower the next generation of STEM-literate innovators, thinkers, explorers, and creators that includes a particular focus on Black and brown kids. My hope is that the work we are doing at KIPP NYC will create a level of confidence for our students to feel included and seen in STEM spaces; that they belong and their ideas matter.”
Thank you, Chéla, for advocating for our students’ STEM education. We can’t wait to see you back in our schools designing experiments and organizing robotics expos for thousands of KIPP NYC students.