|Grandma’s wisdom kept us safe
|Three and carefree - 1947
|She is who she is
Jacqui was born in1944 to a warm and loving family in a close knit segregated community during the Jim Crow Era in Washington D.C.: a community where teachers, doctors, shopkeepers, family and friends all lived in the same neighborhood and cared for each other. Her grandmother owned three beauty parlors and rental homes, and Jacqui remembers tagging along with her to collect rent. Jacqui’s grandfather worked for the British embassy as a carpenter and went to work each day in a suit, tie and fedora. Jacqui waited for him to pass by her steps each morning for a big running hug. Jacqui’s parents both worked for the federal government, and in high school, Jacqui worked as a typist for the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA). Jacqui recalls an amazing start to school life with Kindergarten teacher Miss Duncan, who inspired her career, and that her K-12 education was rich and included the study of Black history, inventors and poetry.
Jacqui reflects on a golden childhood in a “prescribed area,” where she grew up under the fierce protection of her family. She was taught to keep her head down and not to go where she “wasn’t welcome.” She endured ugly experiences in a segregated world and heeded her parent’s words to stay in her lane. These words have both haunted her and driven her throughout her life to be a positive force for change.
Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority
Cheyney State College 1964
|Teaching First Grade at The Day School 1987
Jacqui with Jamie Gabriel,
one of the first Early Steps students
Jacqui went on to attend and graduate from Cheyney State Teachers College - now Cheyney University of Pennsylvania… the oldest HBCU (Historically Black College and University) in the nation. An important part of her college experience was pledging Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. (AKA). Growing up near Howard University in D.C., Jacqui recalls always wanting to wear those pink and green AKA colors! Being part of the AKA sisterhood stoked a sense of empowerment for Black women and to this day, Jacqui’s sorority sisters are among her closest friends.
After college, Jacqui taught in a variety of public and independent schools for 22 years: in inner city Philadelphia, a rural six-room schoolhouse in Vermont, and suburban open-space classrooms in Maryland. When her family moved to New York City, Jacqui worked in independent schools as a kindergarten and first grade teacher and administrator at the New Lincoln School and The Day School (now Trevor Day School).
|Early Steps Holiday Gathering - 1989
|Jacqui with her staff, 1990
In 1986, the Minority Affairs Committee of the Independent Schools Admissions Association of Greater New York (ISAAGNY) conducted a study and recommended that its member schools pool resources to more efficiently recruit younger students of various racial backgrounds. This was particularly significant because while there were existing organizations to help enroll middle and high schoolers, there was no one working specifically on behalf of children of color in lower grade levels.
So, Early Steps was born. The goal of the pilot was to enroll 18 students of color in NYC independent schools in the first two years – but it happened in one! Amy, Candice, Carah, Charles, Derrell, Elliott, Heather, Hezza, Jamie, Jay, John, Kasaine, Marisa, Maritza, Maryam, Oriana, Osakwe and Rasheeda entered schools in September 1987 as the first class of Early Steps scholars. They were the pioneers of this success story, and Jacqui – who became Executive Director of Early Steps the following year - is thrilled to maintain relationships with many of them and to be guiding some of their children as they enter NYC independent schools!
|Jacqui with Eve Kleger, a treasured Early Steps board president and school leader
|One of the first families helped on this journey, the Oquendo’s still stay close
The sole mission of Early Steps is to promote racial diversity within New York City independent schools. The message of inclusion at the core of that mission is a timeless one, just as important today as it was in 1986 when the organization was founded. One only needs to look at the headlines or listen to the soundbites to know that our nation is still in the early stages of living inclusion.
We accomplish our mission by increasing the enrollment of children of color beginning at the kindergarten and first grade levels. It is reassuring to know that our schools are working to send their students out into the world equipped with the lessons of diversity, equity and inclusion, which will serve them well.
Chapter Five – Jacqui’s Secret Sauce
|Jacqui Pelzer, 92Y Extraordinary Women Awards Finalist - 2019
|Jacqui a teacher/mentor at the KO Summer Institute to grow administrators of color in independent schools
|People of Color Conference - 2016, Jacqui with legends John Lewis and Hank Aaron
|Jacqui attended the NMAAHC Dedication Ceremony, seen here with Bobby Edwards and Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe
Early Steps is a hands-on organization, because that’s how Jacqui built it. Over three and a half decades, she has built relationships with people across the various constituencies associated with Early Steps including school professionals, families, students, alumni, boards and related nonprofit leaders. Her “secret sauce” is not only her ability to connect, but to understand, empathize and advocate on behalf of children. These skills have helped over 4,000 students of color enroll at “just the right school” for them – producing the best result for children, their families, and the schools.
In recent years, Jacqui is brought to the table to address incidents of racial injustice occurring at independent schools across the nation, reassuring parents and guiding school leaders to address these difficult issues.
Jacqui also serves as a mentor and champion to young educators of color, many of whom are women. She recognizes their potential and helps them see and believe in it too. Considering her early experiences as a child of segregation, Jacqui is proud to empower the next generation to be bold in the pursuit of their dreams.
Chapter Six – Teachable Moments
|Early Steps Workshop for Applicant Families: How to apply to school
|Applicant children playing during a workshop for their families
|Early Steps Annual Meeting lead by Dr. Howard C. Stevenson
|Jacqui welcomes our member school administrators to the Early Steps Annual Meeting
Parent workshops are held four times per year to educate families who are actively going through the admissions process and introduce them to others who are sharing a similar experience. Panel participants include school heads, admissions directors, experienced Early Steps parents, and professionals of color. Topics cover application procedures, school selection, school tours and interviews, and the financial aid application process.
An annual meeting is held in May for Early Steps member school leaders: school heads, admission directors and diversity directors. Expert speakers are brought in to examine pertinent topics related to diversity, equity and inclusion and help school leaders effectively address these issues in their schools.
Chapter Seven – Early Steps Today and Tomorrow
Leading up to enrollment, applicant families received more than a year of hands-on guidance to find the best school for their child. These young students follow in the footsteps of over 4,000 children of color who since 1986 entered school with the help of Early Steps.
These equitable halls of learning that we strive to create in New York City independent schools are good for everyone. For children of color, an independent school education means greater opportunity and a better education. For schools, it means creating an environment that fosters racial acceptance and understanding. For New York, it creates leaders that will thrive in tomorrow’s diverse and complex world.