PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Teryn Thomas knew from the start she wanted to impact kids.
“For me, education was never a choice,” she says.
Thomas was just 6-years-old when her passion ignited, soon after she and her family relocated from California to New Jersey.
She says her family took on a tour of schools in South Jersey, but when young Thomas visited schools in Camden she realized where you lived made a difference.
“I asked my mom- why would there be bars on a window at a school,” she says, “I knew it would be my charge to make sure that those inequities would not happen.”
Fast-forward: Thomas went to college, joined Teach for America, and hasn’t looked back since.
She picked up a Master’s degree at University of Penn and has taught school in Philadelphia, Newark and now in the city of Camden at Whittier Elementary at KIPP, which is part of the KIPP New Jersey system of charter schools.
“I’ve always had a great sense of ownership that I would not want to run, teach, or work at a school where I wouldn’t want to send my kids,” says the mother of a two-year-old and 14-year-old. “I don’t think that a school that isn’t good enough for my kids is good enough for others.”
Thomas is founding principal at Whittier, a third and fourth grade elementary school which opened over the summer. She wanted to ensure that the 120 students who attend the school knew at least one person their first day of school, so she spent a month completing home visits at each of the students’ homes.
“We’re not just about test prep and it’s not just about academics,” says Thomas, “we know that you can do great on assessments, but you can fail in college if you don’t know what it means to have perseverance and know how to advocate for yourself.”
She says she loves KIPP’s philosophy that schools much do everything they can to make students succeed. Thomas says she makes personal connections with children to understand who they are and where they are coming from to get a real world understanding of who each of the students are. In fact, Thomas makes sure she knows each of her students by name, as well as their favorite toy. She takes photos of each student with a graduation cap on and then tests herself with photos and flash cards.
“Our kids are the hardest working kinds in the United States,” she says, “but they never bring it up.”
Every day, Thomas starts the morning by shaking students hands as they enter the building. She says she wants kids to know they can.
“I show how much I believe in them, so they can believe in themselves the same way,” says Thomas.