Patty Williams-Downs, 37, began her career in education almost by accident. After graduating with honors from Fordham University in New York in 2004, her plan was to go to law school, have a family, and settle down somewhere in Maryland. She had it all figured out. But then she landed in Houston for a short two-year stint at Teach for America, and after teaching her first class of fourth-graders, what was temporary became her lifelong passion.“I’ve always asked myself the question: What more can I do?” says Williams-Downs.
So after teaching a group of 30 fourth-graders, “more” meant moving up to teach 120 middle-schoolers. That beautiful rabbit hole led her to become a campus administrator at KIPP Houston Public Schools, and later an instructional and leadership coach at YES Prep Public Schools. “I started to ask myself the question: What happens to these kids beyond these walls? Beyond 12th grade?” she says. The sad truth is it’s a coin toss whether kids pursue a secondary pathway after high school, even for the highest performing schools in the city. Williams-Downs came face to face with a new challenge. And that hunger for more is what eventually led her to OneGoal Houston. “We support charter management organizations (CMOs), and also students outside CMOs. I want to obliterate those statistics,” she says.
Williams-Downs’ passion for unlocking a kid’s potential was born and raised in her underserved hometown in New Jersey. “I was that kid, I know what it feels like to feel like you could strive, put in the effort and still not be there,” she says. “All kids have a beautiful genius inside of them. It’s not our job to say ‘this is what’s for you.’ What OneGoal does is say we cannot know what you know, but we can help you figure it out. We reaffirm that they are capable of whatever they want to accomplish.”
It is this very motto that inspires her to lead her One Goal team with grace and endurance. “It is incredibly important that they can see you as a human, as a servant leader, and someone who will take risks on behalf of the mission,” she says. She couples this strife with her own family values, which are freedom, independence, and love. “My husband and I are first-generation college graduates, and we need the freedom to choose our path — we instill that in our kids.”
Not only does One Goal instill those same values to its students, Williams-Downs makes it her mission to build practices and systems for her staff that says they’re intelligent, and their life is their own. “I have to have a really strong and bold vision and direction for my entire region,” she says. “I also hire incredibly well. I’m the most public ambassador, but most of what happens is not me. I create the space, the inspiration, and the practices behind the organization, but there are 20 other people behind me that do the incredible work.”
Sometimes her workday entails answering emails from her kitchen counter; other times, it means staying up until late in the evening. But to Williams-Downs “there is rhythm, there is rhyme and there are seasons.”At least she’s now mastered the art of “getting out of her own way.” “I think women face a lot of self-imposed — but very real — barriers to actualize who we really are,” she says. “I have a daughter, and I’m expecting another girl, and I want them to believe in their own greatness more than anybody else in the world; to put their insecurities and mental roadblock aside and walk forward unapologetically and fiercely.”
That includes making time to champion other women facing their own mental and professional challenges. “There is room for all of us,” she says. “I think it’s important to make room for the multitude of who we are.” Mother, entrepreneur, wife, daughter, business owner. “We are all here for a purpose, and we can help each other, side by side, hand in hand, to elevate our spirits, our talents, our grace, and our purpose.”
Ask yourself: What more can you do? They say good questions inform, but great questions transform. Williams-Downs is a true, living example.