Remembering names of elementary school teachers presents a challenge for most adults. Recalling the name of an elementary principal is a test few could pass.
Unless that principal is Sandra Woods, who made a big impact at North Star West Elementary from 1994 to 2004. Woods spearheaded a contest for students to rename the school after a prominent Black American, Lucy Craft Laney, who founded the first school for Black children in Augusta, Ga.
Sherome Milon of Bloomington benefited from Woods' leadership while he was a student at Lucy Laney from first to eighth grade in the late 1990s. "She always told us we'd be future college graduates," he said. "As a kid in the inner city, I told myself I was going to be one too. Her stressing academics motivated me to go to college. Now I'm teaching school and getting my master's degree."
Woods, 79, died March 20 of complications from Parkinson's disease.
She grew up in Roanoke, Va., and went to college at a historically Black school, Central State University in Ohio. Education and good grades were important to her. She and a dozen of her teen friends formed a group calling themselves the Debonnaires or Debs. All were smart, graduating in the top 20% of their class. "We competed with each other to see who could get the best grades," said Pat Moore Harbour of Suffolk, Va.
Getting advanced degrees brought Woods to the University of Minnesota, where she was reunited with Delta Sigma Theta sorority sister Gertrude Barwick of Brooklyn Park, who also became a principal. "Our students came from poverty, but we still insisted on high standards for them," she said.
Woods adopted a program originated by Dr. James Comer, a professor of psychiatry at Yale Child Study Center. Its teachings encompassed the needs of the whole child, and working with a child's family was integral. "If a child's environment isn't working at home, it's not going to work at school," Barwick said.
That meant bringing together parents, Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, a City Council member, police in the north Minneapolis community and the YMCA and YWCA. It worked. Lucy Laney's test scores in science and reading outscored other Minneapolis schools not using the Comer model, according to Beverly Probst, a special projects coordinator at Lucy Laney in the 1990s. "If a parent needed housing or a job, that's where I helped," she said.
Woods insisted that teachers send notes home for parents to sign that highlighted their child's good work. Tim Yurecko started as a new teacher at Lucy Laney when Woods was principal. "The biggest thing she taught me was to build strong relationships with students and families," he said. "Twenty years later I still have contact with students I taught 20 years ago, thanks to Sandra."
Her teaching continued after she developed Parkinson's. "She was always reaching out to others, asking how they were doing and what they were learning," said Rose Wichmann, director at Struthers Parkinson's Center in Golden Valley.
Longtime friend and caregiver Roderic Southall of Golden Valley described Woods as "a changemaker who lived to make the world better."
Before she retired in 2004, Woods was an English teacher, an administrator at Anoka-Ramsey Community College and vice president of the Minneapolis Urban League.
She is survived by daughters Sydnee Woods of St. Louis Park and Kimberley Jordan of Williamsburg, Va., and brother Ronald Jones of Roanoke. A virtual memorial service will be held April 16.
John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633