By Matt Wastradowski, Viewpoints Magazine
Roughly a decade ago, first-year literature and writing teacher Drego Little, education alum ’05, was in the middle of a lesson about fairy tales when a middle-school student piped up. “These stories are sexist,” Little remembers the young girl saying. He was taken aback but nevertheless listened to her rationale.
So, in the next class period, he tasked his students with finding stories in which female protagonists saved the princes. “They were trying and that was the most important thing,” Little says. “All kids are capable of doing high-level work, but you need a culture that supports that.”
That “ah-ha!” moment had been 20 years in the making, and Little has spent the 10 years since ensuring that his Rainier Scholars students enjoy and cultivate a supportive classroom atmosphere.
Little’s journey to Rainier Scholars – which offers educational opportunities and support to motivated children from ethnic minority backgrounds – started in the ‘80s, when he spent time as a classroom assistant with Seattle Public Schools, and continued through the ‘90s, when he worked with youth programs in community centers and public schools. But Little grew dissatisfied over the years. “I just wanted a place that treated kids seriously,” he says. “A lot of times, serious kids are mixed in with kids who are disengaged or discouraged, and they’re left to wither on the vine.” The program admits about 60 students each year. Teachers work with students through college, whether it’s after school, over the summer or via email. “They seemed to have gotten the most important thing right,” Little says, “and that was academic preparation.”
That dedication caught the eye of Rainier Scholars Executive Director Sarah Smith, who hired Little in 2003. From the first time they met, “it was palpable that he was going to take our kids very, very seriously,” Smith recalls. “Not only does he say it, but he means it. There’s no beginning or end to the day with Drego and his work.”
Little returned to the UW for Master’s in Teaching. His training from the College of Education and support from the Graduate Opportunities and Minority Achievement Program helped prepare him to engage with students across cultures and backgrounds to work through weighty issues like class, race and gender. Reading assignments typically revolve around questions like “What keeps people from being themselves? Or “How do people fight with integrity?”
The way Little sees it, his students might one day become city councilmember or his grandchild’s pediatrician. “I try to treat them like they’re going to be consequential,” Little says. “One of the things you do with consequential people is engage them in discussion about things that matter.”