Breaking the Mold: Shining Light on the Black Female School Leaders in Indianapolis- Orleta Holmes



“The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind.”   Khalil Gibran



When you are a young teacher, you latch onto other teachers who inspire you and motivate you to be the best version of yourself. Earlier in my teaching career, I had to opportunity to work alongside an amazing educator. We worked together at Thomas Carr Howe Community High School. TC Howe was formally an IPS school, but was taken over by the state of Indiana and given to Charter School USA. She was one was of the most dedicated educators I had the privilege to be around. Even four years later, I have yet to meet an educator quite like her. We started a student council program. I remember vividly working into the wee hours of the morning one day going through 100 senior transcripts after realizing when the school was taken over from IPS that many of our seniors were at risk of not graduating. It was that commitment to her students I remember the most. Even though we have gone our separate ways on our education journey, I still consider her a friend and early inspiration for the kind of educator that I want to become. This week’s edition of Breaking the Mold: Shining Light Black Female School Leaders in Indianapolis, I want to celebrate Orleta Holmes, Assistant Principal at Phalen Leadership Academies at IPS School 103.

Orleta Holmes is the Assistant Principal at Phalen Leadership Academies at IPS School 103. Born in Evansville, IN and raised in East St. Louis, IL, she graduated from William Henry Harrison High School and attended the University of Kentucky and West Virginia State University where she majored in Psychology and Education.  She has earned a master’s degree from Walden University studying in Education with an emphasis on Curriculum and Instructional Management.

DM: What inspired you to become an educator?

OH: My grandmother, Ollie Mae Sargent, is my continued inspiration to remain steadfast in the field of education.  She marched and protested to show East St. Louis, IL their marks of injustice within the structure of education during the Jim Crow Era.  My grandmother told me many stories of her being mauled by police dogs and pepper sprayed because she marched to receive books at the school she taught in.  She would also express to me she received death threats for being a teacher that went above and beyond to ensure education took place for all children within her neighborhood.  

Her fight and passion opened my eyes to how important education is for communities to flourish.  Because of the path she paved, I am able to stand firmly and passionately as an educator, continuing her legacy and fight for freedom.

DM: How has your experience shaped you as a school leader?

OH: My personal experiences have helped me learn how to be a passionate voice for those who have no voice while listening with compassion to policy makers in order to gain strides for each school I have worked in.  As an African American woman leader in this field, I have been called names, demoted, and even fired simply for being an advocate for my scholars and families.  I have been passed for promotions due to my color, age, and gender and these real and very troubling experiences simply push me to be even greater.  I have learned the fight for equality was not just in my grandmother’s era, but continues today and I become an even better opponent because of these positive and negative experiences.  I am a lifelong learner and I will not see the change I expect unless I am willing to be the change I expect.  I continue forward with my head high and my integrity intact until my scholars and their families experience a future we all can be proud of.

DM: Why are you so passionate about education?

OH: I, just like several of the scholars I have the privilege of educating, experienced trauma at a very early age.  Due to my mind being preoccupied with my personal experiences, I did not feel education was something I needed to focus on and I could not read.  When I was in the second grade my teacher, Mrs. Lee, would not allow me to sit silently answering the bare minimum during learning.  She saw something in me I was afraid to see in myself at the time.  Because of her diligence and her taking a small, but necessary step in my life, I learned to read.  She stayed with me after school each day of the week until I was on grade level in my reading.  This very small step meant the world to me and because of her, I finally saw the importance of education put to practice.  I knew I was meant to change the lives of the young the way she and my grandmother imprinted change within me.  These women, my mother, and my ancestors are the reason my passion burns deeply and will never waiver.  Education is power and I tend to give that power to our youth in urban and underprivileged communities.

DM: This series about is about black female school leaders. Did you have any black female school leaders that served as mentors to you while you were a teacher?

OH: I can note one woman in particular I looked up to and took great notes from who was a school leader, Mrs. Tijaunna Tolliver.  She was a principal in Evansville, IN and a close family friend.  Before I met her, I never knew a black female leader within a school building.  She taught me how to speak my mind without offending the majority.  She showed me how to remain steadfast even in difficult situations.  She and her daughter, Aleesia Johnson, have been black women I have looked up to within this field.  Their poise and professionalism continues to make change on a political and school level.

DM: Why do you feel there is such a lack of black female school leaders?

OH: This career choice is a difficult one for women of color.  We have to break through the barriers that are given to or handed to many of our men counterparts.  Many black female school leaders are only in those positions because they knew another black female leader who was willing to give them a chance or they worked alongside great network.  I have also noticed that black female school leaders do not get paid as much as their male counterparts.  These barriers and lack of compensation make it difficult for young women with the passion of education to become a part of this field and stay to make significant change.

DM: What advice do you have for other black female teachers who hope to be school leaders one day?

OH: My advice to other black female teachers would be never quit!  Don’t stop at the “no” continue to try until you find someone who will say “yes.”  You are enough!  You are not hateful and your voice counts.  We are all hoping to hear it.

DM: Tell me about your current school? What is it that you want our readers to know?

OH: I work at Phalen Leadership Academy @ School 103.  We are the first innovation school in Indianapolis and we have had the privilege of educating the scholars that were said to be one of the worst.  Before our partnership with IPS, the elementary school was Francis Scott Key at 103 and was known for being one of the most violent within the state.  It took an entire year to change the culture and shift the conversations of the youth, the parents, the community, and the staff coming into the school.  I was in charge of shifting that culture and because of the work and passion of the team I have the honor to work with, Agnes Aleobua (Principal) and countless strong educators who don’t have a capacity to quit, we were able to, in two years, have an A school.  

Many policy makers, the Glick Foundation, the Mind Trust leaders, and countless other partners walk into our building and see the change we have made and impact of growth we have had within the community.  I am proud to say that our A was based on growth, which means, our scholars are growing and catching up with the State.  We will soon surpass the State and will be noted as a trailblazing school, one that others run to for assistance.

DM: When you retire what do you want your legacy to be?

OH: I came, I saw, I took action and made significant change for the better, and that change continues forward even while I rest.



David McGuire

Mr. McGuire is a middle school teacher in Indianapolis, Teach Plus Policy Fellow, and currently enrolled in a doctoral program at Indiana State University for Educational Leadership. Driven by the lack of having an African American male teacher in his classrooms growing up, David helped launched the Educate ME Foundation, which is geared towards increasing the number of African American male teachers in the classroom. A born and raised Hoosier, he is dedicated to improving educational outcomes for all students in Indianapolis. He describes his educational beliefs as a reformer grounded in the best practices of traditional public schools, where he was mentored by strong leaders. David graduated from Central State University with a degree in English and also holds an MBA from Indiana Wesleyan University.