Sitting in her classes in middle school, Ebony Jones was a model of good behavior. Her mother, Cherrie Jones-Haynes, taught at the campus, and she didn’t want to embarrass or disappoint her. She was proud.
But what she learned from her was more than math — she learned a true love for children.
“I was able to witness firsthand her late nights, early mornings, how she was being intentional with how she set up her classroom and her activities,” Jones, now 39, said. “And I was able to see how she engaged with her students.”
Jones followed in her mother’s footsteps and went on to teach at Arlington ISD’s Roquemore Elementary — now Jones Academy — and Ellis Elementary. She also taught at Fort Worth ISD’s Morningside Middle School and Briscoe Elementary. Now, she is helping other educators as the head of Fort Worth strategy for Teach for America.
The nonprofit Teach for America recruits, hires, trains and places highly qualified college students to teach in high-need areas. It focuses on addressing systemic educational inequities.
The group has partnerships with Fort Worth ISD, IDEA Schools Tarrant County and Uplift Summit International Preparatory School in Arlington.
To address inequities like poverty or representation, teachers can do a few things in the classroom to help students achieve at a higher level.
“That looks like being able to ensure your students are seen, valued and heard,” Jones said. “I think it’s also advocating for your students, advocating for your parents, building a community within that school system in that neighborhood.”
At Morningside, she said, the staff was intentional about making home visits, bringing resources to the schools, providing healthy food options and working on neighborhood clean-ups on the weekends.
“That’s one version of being able to help and build community within a neighborhood from a teacher level, a classroom level,” Jones said. “You could look at bias and any of the activities you offer. You can also ensure that students see themselves in the work, the books, the activities, the tests that you give in class.”
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One way to do this is encouraging more classroom involvement. Jones regularly asked her students to write their own math problems or write their own stories and share them out loud.
“They’re talking about their neighborhood. They’re talking about the things that they experienced in their lives,” Jones said. “That’s one way to still be inclusive of the kids that are in your room, but still ensure that their identity is being shared among other students.”
One of her former students, Promise McCree, 21, said she still has a relationship with Jones, even though she taught her in fourth grade at Roquemore Elementary.
She remembers Jones helping her even though math was not her best subject, and she helped make accommodations for McCree to learn. Being asked to write her own math problems helped, she said, because she enjoyed writing and it helped her see math differently.
She recalled Jones breaking students into small groups to tutor them so everyone understood each concept.
“It was just based on your pace, but she made it to where nobody would feel that you’re slow, or that you’re not as smart as the next student, just because you’re in this group,” McCree said. “But she just wanted to make sure everybody at least had not mastered it, but at least had it down pat to where they could move on.”
The education of an educator
A lot of what Jones has learned about a good classroom comes from her own educational experience. Jones attended the Alice Carlson Applied Learning Center in 1992, the year it opened; she was part of the first class when she was in fourth grade. Her mother was a founder of the instructional practices in the school.
After Alice Carlson, she went to Applied Learning Academy, which is fed students from Alice Carlson. Jones said those classrooms are her ideal school.
She said both schools were centered around her instructional needs as a student and offered plenty of opportunities. There were mentorships with businesses, like a robotics competition with Lockheed Martin.
“When I had conferences with my teacher and my mom, it was me being able to share what I was proud about what I learned and where I kind of needed to strengthen my learning,” Jones said. “But it was all focused on me (as a student). It was all rooted in student voice and student advocacy.”
She’s carried that foundation with her the rest of her life, she said. As a teacher, she wanted to let students be in charge of their learning.
Jones spent 11 years in the classroom as a teacher. During her time in the classroom, she left an impact on students, including on Qwest Courtney. The 23-year-old remembers Jones was his first teacher who was a Black woman. She reminded him a lot of his mom. She taught him math and science in sixth grade.
To this day, Courtney still thinks about the day when he started to care about his appearance and outfits more. On the first day he put together an outfit he was particularly proud of, Jones complimented him. Her paying close attention to Courtney boosted his confidence in school.
“And that fueled my self-esteem so much, and she probably doesn’t know to this day that still sits with me,” Courtney said. “I was kind of a new kid in the district, so I didn’t have too many friends. But I knew I could rely on Ms. Jones.”
But even after teaching, she continued to work in education at a district level doing curriculum, coaching and response to intervention.
She also did turnaround coaching, where she helped schools being taken over by the state restructure their math curriculum. Most schools remain in local control, but if the Texas Education Agency sees consistent failure, it can intervene.
All of her work in classrooms, districts and following her mother’s example led Jones to Teach for America, where she said she wanted to have an impact on a higher scale. She got an opportunity to design the curriculum for first-year teachers going through the program.
“It’s important that I give them background on how to build relationships with kids, how to actually tailor your lesson so kids feel included in what’s happening, and also how to make those real-world connections,” Jones said. “Because my real world is very different than, maybe, a real-world experience of someone who lives in 76104.”
Those lessons resonated with teachers. Tony Moten, 30, worked with Jones when he was at Morningside Middle School for Teach for America. Jones was an instructional coach while Moten was there.
When Moten entered the classroom as a new teacher, he said, Jones played an instrumental role in his development. She helped him look at just not the education system as a whole, but how he engaged with students from the southside of Fort Worth.
“She really pushed my thinking on how do I engage these students?” he said. “How do I meet them — at all the levels physically, socially, emotionally and mentally — to not only pursue and believe that education is the path forward, but also to really unlock their leadership and to let them know that there’s bigger and better greater things that they can do, and really instill that belief in students.”
Her work with Teach for America can help address issues and provide solutions for some education needs in Fort Worth. One of the main issues is a lack of staffing.
Jones sees gaps in school leadership, so it would be beneficial to have more direct pipelines from the classroom to leadership certifications. This is something Teach for America can help with.
She said the vast alumni network of Teach for America can join a fellowship or certification program and go into Fort Worth ISD.
The pandemic also spurred a need for new ways to teach, Jones said. When considering multigenerational families in one home, it’s not safe for some students to go to school. Because of that, Jones said it’s time to consider how to keep students engaged while not exposed to COVID-19.
During the pandemic, politics also started to enter the classroom in ways that educators fear, Jones said.
“I remember my mom used to say, before she retired, she wanted to go back into the classroom because you have more freedom in the classroom. It’s not as political,” Jones said. “And now when I look at it, I think about how there may be a high sense of fear, actually. Because you don’t want to get in trouble per se. But you still want to do what’s best for kids.”
To Jones, that’s a conflict of the values of the education system. Educators go into their roles to do what is best for kids.
“And what’s best for kids is to ensure you’re educating the whole child spiritually, emotionally, mentally, etc.,” she said. “I could see that being a huge tension point.”
Moten believes the leadership skills of Jones can have a broad impact on education. He said she is transparent, upfront and honest.
“She is always thinking outside the box, thinking creatively, always asking, ‘Has this been done before? If the answer is yes, what was the impact that it had? If it didn’t have the impact of one-on-one, I go into a different direction,’” Moten said. “She’s always been forward thinking and everything that she does for her personal life or professional life, and really focused on how do we get the most out of people.”
Everything she’s done has led to this moment. Jones said she does vision and strategy, external affairs, fundraising, all to help improve education in the area.
Though she enjoyed her time in the classroom, she left because she realized she could have a larger impact at a higher scale with Teach for America. It was important to her to help craft the next generation of teachers to help students.
“Every experience, every conversation, every job has prepared me for the spaces that I sit in today to elevate, to advocate for others as well,” she said. “But then not only that, to just roll my sleeves up and get the job done, but not wait for someone to invite me in.”
Ebony Jones bio
Birthplace: Born in Teague, Texas, raised in Fort Worth
Family: “I lost my mom to cancer in 2018. Her name was Cherrie Jones-Haynes. Although I do not have any siblings, I am fortunate to be surrounded by aunts, uncles, cousins and a core group of friends.”
Education: Arlington Heights High School class of 2001; bachelor’s in English with a minor in communications; masters in educational leadership and policy studies from University of Texas at Arlington.
Work experience: Girls Inc. of Tarrant County in college; team lead and classroom teacher at Arlington ISD, 2007-13; Rainwater Foundation Morningside Children’s Partnership instructional specialist and campus turnaround consultant, 2013-17; Teach for America director of professional learning, 2017-19; Teach for America managing director for Fort Worth strategy, 2019-present.
“I have an extensive background in nonprofit and education,” Jones said. “My first job post college was with Girl Scouts. This job expanded my perspective on the inequities in our education system and influenced my desire to become a classroom teacher. After success as a classroom teacher, district leaders began to tap me for district needs and I was able to lead efforts to audit and restructure school instructional programming- infusing research-based practices to result in exemplary campus turnaround results.”
Volunteer experience: Board of Directors for Leadership Fort Worth and Soul Tea Foundation, on committees for Fort Worth Public Library Foundation, United Way’s Women United Committee, The Fort Worth Report Advisory Council, Communities with a Common Cause
First job: Shelling peas for my grandmother
Advice for someone learning to be a leader: “If your leadership only serves one generation, it is destined for failure. You are successful when you recognize the importance of your gift and transfer your knowledge to the next generation. I think greatness is measured by the impact of your legacy.”
Best advice ever received: “A transformational leader is a good steward of their gift, elevates a community to a higher good-sowing fruitful seeds along life’s journey.”
Ebony Jones is a member of the Fort Worth Report Reader Advisory Council.
Kristen Barton is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.