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Meet Tonya McGee of The EdSperience Child Development Center in South Central Los Angeles

Today we’d like to introduce you to Tonya McGee.

Tonya, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I was born to Claudia Virginia and Raymond Alfred. My mother was an alcoholic and because of the alcoholism, it made it difficult to keep a roof over our heads for more than six months at a time. We were constantly moving. If we were not moving into our own apartment, we were moving into the apartment of anyone who would allow my mother and her four children to stay at their home.

The last place I remember living was in a vacant house with no electricity. There was no running hot water and we had no food. I remember my older sister having to steal loaves of bread and bologna so we had something to eat. Things had gotten so bad that my grandparents drove down from Inglewood, California to pick up my sister and I. As soon as we arrived in Inglewood, my grandparents called my father and he immediately came to pick us up.

I was about eight years old at the time and it was at this point that my father became my guardian, where I began a new life in West Covina, California. He was a single father and of Belizean descent. My father’s ancestry is important because my sister and I were not raised like the average American child. My father was very strict and his ways of discipline mirrored those of his ancestors from the country of Belize. I was recently informed while visiting Belize, that my grandmother and father, were both beaten by my father’s stepfather. My younger sister and I were both beaten by my father. One evening, we had been beaten so badly that we had trouble walking the next day. A teacher noticed that we were both limping and called Child Protective Services. We were promptly removed from my father’s home and again my grandparents came to our rescue. This time, we became wards of the court and remained in the home of my grandparents.

Both of my grandparents were entrepreneurs but as they aged, business slowed and their funds became little. I attended Warren Lane Elementary School in Inglewood and from there, I moved on to Inglewood High School. I never had any of the newest clothes or shoes because my grandparents just couldn’t afford it. They were doing the best they could. As soon as I was able to get a work permit, I did and landed my first job at McDonald’s located at Florence and Crenshaw in South Los Angeles. I got up early on the weekends to catch the bus to work and worked each day after I got out of high school. My job provided me the funds to buy the clothes and the supplies that I needed. I was even able to pay for a dress so that I could attend my prom.

As a teenager, I was surrounded by many positive people—my grandparents who worked hard in their businesses, teachers, and my older sister who took me on library and bookstore dates, read to me and showed me how young women should carry themselves. It would have been very easy for me to take a wrong turn in life but I was surrounded by so much love, concern and people who showed me right from wrong. Some of those people stuck with me, especially two educators whom stood out the most, my high school English teacher, Ms. Moss and Mrs. Rollins, my high school counselor.

Because of these two women, I put myself through college as the single mother of a young child. I put myself through college a second time and became an educator and mentor to so many amazing black and brown students in South Los Angeles. I was fired from one job, laid off three times after that, only to bounce back from my obstacles and land back on my feet. I honestly believe that if God had not fired me from that job and created the three layoffs, that I would have remained comfortable, working for someone else. Instead, He pushed me off the cliff, in flight towards my goals. I am now living the dream that I dreamt for twelve years. I have not only started the one preschool campus that I always imagined but two campuses serving underserved children in the inner city communities of Los Angeles. I am currently in the process of opening the third campus.

I remember being the little girl who didn’t have a warm coat during the winter months. I remember being the little girl who didn’t have a backpack and school supplies. Now I am the woman who feels on top of the world while giving back to my community through annual coat drives and back to school supply giveaways because I know the feeling of going without. I am the woman who has started thriving businesses in the neighborhoods of South Central Los Angeles that provide an extraordinary, hands-on, experiential education for students who may have never experienced it.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
There were so many obstacles in my life. I remember getting pregnant and telling a family member I was closest with at the time. She told me that I had ruined my life and would never finish college. I set out to prove her wrong. I went to speak with a counselor in college to find out my options for returning after the birth my child and she told me to take a year off. She said it would be impossible to continue sooner than a year. I refused to take a year off. I had my daughter on April 9. The next week was spring break, so I utilized that time to heal from my cesarean section and I returned to school the following week to finish out my final quarter. I graduated from college with my first degree, three years later and my daughter was there to witness it all. I began teaching in Los Angeles while working on my credential. It was not easy but I knew that the only way I could make a good life for my daughter was to get the credentials needed to obtain a career in the field that I loved so much, education.

I taught at a charter school in Inglewood, where I received awards for obtaining the highest state standardized testing scores. Of course, you have those parents who do not always see eye to eye with you and I had a few of them in my classroom. They objected to the open ended assessments that I gave each week, that I felt created academic rigor for my students. I felt like creating the rigor throughout the year, would create a comfortable environment for them at the end of the year, when they sat down to take that state exam and it did. Hence, my high test scores. Because of the few unhappy parents and politics, I was fired for the first and last time in my life. But in hindsight, it was the hugest blessing. It was that blessing that landed me where I am.

After leaving this school, I was hired for the Compton Unified School District. I loved it there! I was able to meet so many great educators who felt like family and I touched so many lives. Because of all of the new charter schools popping up all over Los Angeles county, this district, like so many others, began to experience low enrollment, so much so, that Compton Unified was forced to shut down a few schools. My principal fought for me though but to no avail. Jobs were secured due to seniority status, even for teachers who really showed no interest in making a change in the community. I was laid off.

I remember looking for a job for so long that I was willing to take anything, at any salary, no matter how low the salary was. I just longed to get back into doing what I loved most, teaching. I remember coming across a job opening that sounded just right for me! I looked at the name of the principal conducting the hiring process and it happened to be the same lady who fired me at the previous charter school. But the job sounded so right and I was so desperate to just be out, working. At this time, I had an eight month old child and an eleven year old who I needed to provide for and the unemployment check was not even a third of my mortgage. I knew that I was an amazing teacher and I had nothing else to lose. So, I applied for the job with the principal who had previously fired me. I wanted to break the ice so my email to her was, “Mrs. ……..?” She replied, “Mrs. McGee?! I have been looking all over Los Angeles for you to join my team!” Because of the faith of a mustard seed and me knowing exactly who I was, I was hired at this charter school, where I became great friends with that principal, who I attribute assisting in molding me into the educator that I am today.

This charter school went through many transitions in administration and budget. The school hired a new principal who had very little experience in education and little to no experience in teaching in the inner city. Some of the resolution for improving the budget consisted of laying off experienced, higher paid teachers and hiring inexperienced teachers in a popular program that offered to pay off their student loans if they taught in an underserving area. So that is exactly what this charter school did. I was laid off. But luckily, God had given me the spirit of the discernment. I had obtained the paperwork for the first preschool campus of many that I would open in the inner city in April, 2012. I would leave work at 6:00p.m. each evening from the charter school and go paint a room in the building that I obtained for my preschool. Some nights I wouldn’t leave there until midnight, only to get up the next morning to be at the charter school for 7:00a.m. After the long-awaited journey, my first preschool campus opened in September of 2012.

The preschool had opened but I continued to struggle for a bit. I almost lost my home and my vehicle. I had trouble buying food, clothing and shoes for my girls. At the time, I had the best babysitter a parent could ask for, Mrs. Elizabeth Wheeler. Mrs. Wheeler allowed me to continue to bring my baby even though I was out of work and looking. I couldn’t even buy my daughter’s diapers. Each evening, Mrs. Wheeler would hand me a couple of diapers to get me through the evening until she received my baby the next morning. My daughter started walking and Mrs. Wheeler informed me that she would need some hard bottom shoes to assist in her transition. I just didn’t have the money to buy her any. Each morning, when we arrived, Mrs. Wheeler would take an old pair of shoes from a previous student and put them on my daughter so that she could practice walking throughout the day, at her house. Mrs. Wheeler meant the world to me. She too was a huge attribution to my journey. It was such an amazement to me that I went through so much only to end up right where I dreamed for so many years and it was all worth it. I learned so much along my journey and because of it, I am able to share my story with so many others who stumble upon that same doubt.

Please tell us about The EdSperience Child Development Center.
The EdSperience Child Development Center serves students who range in age from 2 to 6 years old, in the inner city community of Los Angeles. After serving as an educator in the Los Angeles, Inglewood, and Compton Unified School Districts and coming across so many students who were not reading at the 5th-grade level, Mrs. McGee, dreamed of opening a school that would ensure that students left her preschool, overly prepared for kindergarten.

The EdSperience CDC offers a rigorous academic curriculum that caters to all of the modalities of learning. Mrs. McGee has included technology and offsite field studies to enhance students’ learning. Students wear uniforms and receive a healthy, well-balanced lunch, daily. Mrs. McGee writes the daily curriculum for the class and homework assignments. She is very involved with all of the campuses, which she attributes to her success.

Has luck played a meaningful role in your life and business?
I don’t believe in luck. I believe that blessings come from hard work, focus and perseverance!

“We got turned down, we failed, had setbacks, had to start over a lot of times. But we kept going at it. In anybody’s case, that’s always the distinguishing factor.” – Nipsey Hussle

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