Educator Shirley Thornton. Image courtesy of YWCA.

Dr. Shirley A. Thornton, a woman dedicated to the pursuit of equal education and opportunity, lives by this life motto: “Let us use the knowledge we have, to gain the knowledge we need, to do the job we must for all children” (Thornton). A determined advocate for “excellence in education for all children,” Thornton is originally from New Orleans (YWCA). She now extends her advocacy into the Bay Area community and continues to dedicate her life to the education and empowerment of younger generations. Thornton earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from San Francisco State in 1965 and a doctorate in education from the University of San Francisco in 1985 (Thornton).

During her undergraduate years, she began her career in education as a Science and Physical Education teacher for Aptos Junior High School (Thornton). In the ensuing years, she was consistently promoted within the educational and administrative system. She was promoted from principal of Balboa High School to Area Superintendent of High School Operations and Instruction Division for the San Francisco Unified School District (Thornton).

Thornton used her time between her educational careers to develop relationships within the San Francisco community by working as an active member of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Using her background in biology, she was able to become an active participant in the fight for disease research. Although her love for the medical field did not necessarily follow her into her career, she continued to be a passionate member and advocate for her community. She is a self-described “scholar, educator, administrator, author, and school board member” (Thornton). Thornton has a wealth of intellectual qualifications, professional experience, and credit in the literary world. With the publishing of her textbook Transforming Schools, Finding Success For Students At Risk Through Systemic Change, Thornton paved the path for disadvantaged youth and aspiring changemakers.

Thornton’s accomplishments within the education sector have hardly gone unnoticed—in fact, she has received over 50 awards for her powerful insights and contributions, not only in local settings, but also in the greater educational field (Thornton). Dr. Thornton aimed to develop the whole person through exposure to educational opportunities, specifically for marginalized groups. Most notably, she developed a program in the educational sector known as the “California Local Educational Reform Network” which is a technical tool for improving schools (YWCA). The program was piloted in Sacramento Schools in 1987–89 and worked to provide equal opportunities for all students regardless of race or income (YWCA). Such an advancement in education has helped students across the nation.

Dr. Shirley Thornton has helped transform the education system into an equitable and socially receptive institution.

After dedicating her life to education as a teacher, counselor, and administrator, Thornton then worked as the Deputy Superintendent of California schools until 1995 (Thornton). Programs like these greatly helped African American youth address the barriers that many face in obtaining higher education.

From 1995 to 1996, Thornton served as Director of San Francisco Public Housing. Former San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan noted: “Thornton is a strong manager and effective leader who is ready to create change and better days for the Housing Authority and for San Francisco” (SF Gate). In 2000, Thornton decided to resign from her role as associate professor at Sacramento State University so that she could take the job as Senior Vice President and National Director of the Schools Division of the America’s Schools Program (Thornton).

Since 2006, Dr. Thornton has been an Adjunct Associate Professor in the California State University, Sacramento’s School of Education, in the Educational Administration and Policy Studies Department (Thornton). Additionally, she owns Thornton Educational Services which focuses on helping schools provide quality education for at-risk youth.

In order to continue providing these resources, Dr. Thornton co-founded the nonprofit Center For Excellence where she continues to act as the Board President (“Sausalito Marin City School District Board Meeting Minutes”). Center for Excellence provides a space for youth to use art as a way to create opportunity, love, and happiness (“Welcome to The Center for Excellence”). Thornton continues her personal mission today by building the foundations for holistic learning and education. Her main philosophy “stresses that all children can learn, and that high standards and expectations are necessary not only for the students but for all involved in their education” (Thornton). She continues to actively post on social media about contemporary issues, social events, and how to get involved. In an interview with College Partnership she explains her passion for her career: “If people go into it thinking it’s a job, then there’s a problem.” Her holistic approach to education is a testament to her devotion to making the world a better place.

Kiana Martinez and Draucillia Bala; additional research by Olivia Walker

Works Cited

“Dr. Shirley A. Thornton.” YWCA San Francisco and Marin.

“Vitae—Dr. Shirley Thornton.” Shirley Thornton.

“15 Minutes with Dr. Shirley A. Thornton” College Partnership.

Bowman, Catherine Chronicle Staff . “Educator Favored As Housing Head” SF Chronicle. 14 Jul 1995.

“Sausalito Marin City School District Board Meeting Minutes.” Sausalito Marin City School District. 8 Sep 2015.

“Welcome to The Center for Excellence.” The Center for Excellence: Empowering Students through the Arts.

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