Jillian Stockmo Chapman ’13 greeted me with a warm smile in the middle of a busy Saturday morning. It was only the night before that we had decided on this time to meet over Zoom, and when I apologized for it being so early, Stockmo Chapman laughed and reassured me that her 10-month-old son had already kept her awake for quite some time.
Stockmo Chapman is currently obtaining her Doctorate in Education (Ed. D.) and transitioning to work in Bloomington Public Schools. Her personal ties to this district are strong: Her son will one day attend a Bloomington school, and Bloomington lies just outside Stockmo Chapman’s hometown, Minneapolis, where she herself attended public school before Amherst.
Her passion for education grows out of the points of intersection between her own experiences, her love for her family, and her identity as a Black woman. “I entered education in the first place to make a difference for students of color and low-income students, for students who I believe should be most served by public institutions,” Stockmo Chapman explained.
“[Working in public schools] wasn’t something I had really dreamed was going to be my path,” Stockmo Chapman admitted, “but once I found it, I knew the work I needed to do was in my community, making sure that education outcomes for students who look like me and for my … children alike are not predictable.”
Stockmo Chapman cultivated an academic and extracurricular experience at Amherst that instructed her in the importance of balance: between idealism and realism, feeling and nuance, exploration and stability. Even years prior to the institution of the Education Studies major in 2021, Stockmo Chapman used her time at Amherst to prepare herself for a career in public education, where she has to work within a system toward which she feels a complex ambivalence.
Systemic Problems, Systemic Solutions
After Amherst, Stockmo Chapman did a stint at Teach for America in Minneapolis, and she ended up staying with the organization for five extra years, doing work for their Community Partnerships program. She left right around the time she started her Ed. D., when she realized that she couldn’t effect systemic change by working at the level of individuals, alone.
“I worked with them coaching teachers in the Twin Cities, and I kind of came to an understanding of systemic problems,” Stockmo Chapman reflected. “There can be so many amazing, strong, wonderful people working in education … But systemic problems require systemic solutions, and I believe that education in the United States is doing exactly what it was designed to do,” she asserted.
The systemic problem that Stockmo Chapman is currently focused on in Bloomington schools is the inequitable identification of elementary-age students for the gifted and talented program — an accelerated academic track that provides students with exceptional talents the resources they need to enrich these gifts. According to Stockmo Chapman, the failure on the part of public schools to equitably identify BIPOC gifted students widens education gaps along racial lines.
In thinking about this inequity, Stockmo Chapman has to balance individualistic and institutional ways of thinking about systemic oppression. These forces coalesce in the ways Bloomington teachers choose kids for the gifted and talented program.
“[Two] of the big things that they [teachers] rely on are IQ tests and academic achievement,” Stockmo Chapman explained. “So I’ll be working with kindergarten[ers] and first graders and their teachers to think about alternative means of identification and how we look at other aspects of creativity.”
“How do you identify a student who is a creative problem solver in physical education? How do you then give them the academic support that they need to thrive in gifted education, because they should be offered that same opportunity?” In all, Stockmo Chapman hopes that casting a wider net will create a gifted and talented program that is more inclusive of BIPOC and low-income students, and therefore more representative of the Bloomington district it serves.
The distribution of funding also plays a major role in the systemic problems in public education. Stockmo Chapman’s Ed. D. focuses on the interaction between the state forces that “prescribe” funding allocations and the decisions that are left up to local administrators. According to Stockmo Chapman, the metrics that public officials use to determine the success of funding allocations are, at best, only superficially indicative of their actual impact on students.
“One of the funding brackets that they [Minnesota] have is called achievement and integration revenue. We fund them [integration programs] on the premise that you just need to integrate buildings,” Stockmo Chapman stressed, “not learning from Brown v. Board that you have to integrate students but you also have to change your system.”
Along with state funding, public schools receive philanthropic grants. Up until recently, Stockmo Chapman was working with the Graves Foundation, a Minneapolis-based trusteeship focused on funneling their money to imminent community needs, where she managed the foundation’s education portfolio.
The inclusive relationship between state funding and educational equity is paralleled in philanthropy. “I think I saw both the good and bad of philanthropy. If philanthropy is treated as an innovation space, it’s amazing, but if it’s treated as a [resource to] plug the holes [left by state funding], then it’s extremely problematic.”
Stockmo Chapman said that this misconception equally manifests itself in politics, and contributes to a stalemate around public school funding. “In Minnesota, Republicans are like, ‘We give [public schools] too much money, and there’s no accountability,’... and then the [Democrats] say, ‘We need to invest in our schools!’ But it’s a balance — both of these things can be true,” Stockmo Chapman concluded.
According to Stockmo Chapman, gifted education is one aspect of public education where these tensions arise. “We should be putting money towards gifted education. And also we should understand that when it was invented, it was in essence exclusionary and problematic,” she elaborated. “And I like to think about exploring that nuance.”
Authenticity and Anthropology
To Stockmo Chapman, Amherst was a training ground for learning how to deal with even the most thorny or emotionally-taxing nuances. She specifically points to the three years she spent as a Resident Counselor (RC), a role replaced by the Community Advisors in 2020, and a Student Health Educator (SHE) as integral to her learning how to thoughtfully engage with communities and institutions.
Speaking about her experience in the first-year dorms, Stockmo Chapman let me in on her RC philosophy. “I really wanted to make sure that halls that I was on, were just a safe … place where you [could] be who you needed to be. And I’m not a crazy extrovert, but I do hope that my authentic self … at its best, like, makes you feel heard, makes you feel respected, and that builds a sense of community,” she said.
“I think I take pride and I took pride as a RC that like you could come to me when things were great, and then you could come to me when things weren’t, because guess what — for me at Amherst things weren’t always great,” Stockmo Chapman said. “And I think that that’s an important function [of the RCs], especially as a Midwest girl who was miles miles miles away from her family. Being able to be that person [for the first-years] was huge.”
Just as Stockmo Chapman was learning the intricacies of community in the residence halls, she was studying them in the classroom. As a Religion and Anthropology double major, Stockmo Chapman was able to explore from numerous different angles the reasons why people interact with their peers, communities, and institutions in specific ways.
Although she now views these disciplines as relevant to her work in education, the relationship between her academics and her career wasn’t always so clear. “I had a very traditional understanding of what college was,” Stockmo Chapman said. “I remember the day I called my parents and told them I was going to declare religion and anthropology — I think my mom actually thought I was going to be a priest.”
Stockmo Chapman’s thesis, “Revitalizing Political Rhetoric: Religious Narrative in the Career of Barack Obama,” is an academic point of pride for her. “I looked at Obama’s career from when he started in the political sphere as it led up to the presidency,” she explained, “and how his conversations of God became more explicit, versus how they started as conversations of morals and values.”
“I think writing my thesis at Amherst gave me the confidence — as someone who came in and wasn’t the strongest writer — to continue that into my professional years,” Stockmo Chapman reflected. “I wrote a graduate thesis, and now I’m writing my dissertation.”
Stockmo Chapman’s education was supplemented by extra-academic experiences that greatly exceeded her expectations of college as a place for career preparation. Over winter term one year, for example, she went to India through a Smith College program for Tibetan Buddhist Studies.
“I got to meet the Dalai Lama,” she laughed, in disbelief. “As a public school kid, I never imagined this was something I’d be able to do.”
A Balanced Life
Looking back, Stockmo Chapman has a great appreciation for certain aspects of her Amherst experience. In particular, she recognizes that the college’s need-based aid was integral to empowering her to continue her education. “There were things that Amherst afforded me because of essential assistance that I wouldn’t have had access to other colleges. It’s something that you don’t understand how amazing it is until you’re graduating and you’re taking on your graduate school,” Stockmo Chapman said. “I took on graduate school loans without undergrad loans — that’s insane.”
But, Stockmo Chapman’s personal attitude towards Amherst is, in many ways, similar to the ambivalence she holds towards public education. And, as in her career, this nuance serves a purpose. “As you go off into your professional career and your personal life you want true anchors and core experiences,” she said. “Core experiences are ones of nuance; they aren’t ones of perfection or ones of prestige.”
Rather than romanticizing her time at the college, Stockmo Chapman carefully holds the authentic contours of her Amherst experience in her memory. Similarly, while she admits that her life since Amherst is not “prestigious” by typical accounts, Stockmo Chapman takes pride in its balance.
“I have no dreams of being a superintendent, but I do have dreams of making a difference,” Stockmo asserted. “I have dreams of being an amazing mother and an amazing partner to [my husband] Tyler. I think that that’s something I didn’t understand at 21, when I just wanted to achieve, and I think I have a better understanding now.”
“It’s something we should be shouting from the rooftops, because it makes people healthy,” she said. “And my story is one I’m proud of because it’s passionate, it’s true to who I am, but also it’s balanced.”