Kentwood — When Brookwood Elementary School Principal Lorenzo Bradshaw learned he was the winner of the 2020 NAACP Role Model Education Award from the local Grand Rapids chapter of the association, he tried to decline the honor.
“I was really trying to encourage them to give it to someone else. I do believe service to others should come without recognition,” he said. “There are a lot of great educators who have helped me along the way, and I stand on their shoulders.”
Plus, he felt he was already awarded enough. “Every day that I see kids learn, grow, dream and inspire is rewarding to me. The joy and the smiles on their faces when we create opportunity and experiences is what I am awarded with daily.”
Bradshaw finally agreed to accept the award after representatives told him they had put a lot of time and effort into the selection process. He was honored virtually with the award in October during the 54th Annual Freedom Fund Gala & Awards. The Role Model Education Award recognizes a well-respected and admired individual who has qualities and values that reflect a state of excellence and consistently demonstrate positive and distinctive characteristics, according to information from the association.
Students at Brookwood understand why Bradshaw earned the award. They know the man with the big beard and big smiles as a jokester, a responsible authority figure and someone who is there for others.
“He is a role model. I want to be a principal, too, when I grow up,” said fifth-grader Shawntae Washington, who has had Bradshaw as a principal since second grade. “He inspires me because he cares about other people’s feelings. I do that too, and I like helping people. He’s a great principal.”
Said fifth-grader Leoncia Bukasa: “I would describe my school as pretty good because everything we have done here is fun and educational at the same time. It’s really cool to have a lot of friends at your school, and when your principal is the best principal.”
Fourth-grade teacher Todd Jongekrijg said Bradshaw is effective at leading powerful conversations that help build an understanding and deep appreciation for others.
“He is a great leader to our community, families, staff and students. In our diverse community, he leads by creating an environment with equity for everyone. On a personal level, I really appreciate how he pushes our staff to have a better understanding of other cultures. In staff meetings, he often says, ‘You don’t know what you don’t know.’”
Seeing Himself in His Students
Bradshaw, a 1992 graduate of Ottawa Hills High School, has served as principal at Brookwood for 12 years. He has also worked as an elementary principal and teacher in Grand Rapids Public Schools. He has an elementary education degree from Johnson C. Smith University, a historically black university in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Bradshaw is also a deacon at Pilgrim Rest Missionary Baptist Church, where he works with the youth ministry, and is a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, through which he works with the initiative to mentor African American boys in fourth through 12th grade and to award scholarships.
Bradshaw said he grew up in a single-parent home and experienced poverty and racism. He can relate to students facing similar circumstances. He was a first-generation college student, with teachers and community members serving as his role models.
“The mere fact that I am in my position helps me to have empathy in understanding where a lot of our students come from,” he said. “It’s also a story of resilience — that all things are possible when you have a growth mindset and a village around you that flows into you and supports you,” he said.
Kentwood Public Schools is the most diverse district in Michigan with many languages spoken and many nationalities represented. As an African American male educator, Bradshaw sees firsthand how diverse educators benefit all students.
“At Brookwood, diversity is our strength, but diversity can also be challenging because you are meeting a broad spectrum of needs and, truly, it takes a servant’s heart to go above and beyond and ensure equity and excellence for all students. I think we have to distinguish between equality and equity because equity means leveraging resources to position all kids to be successful,” he said.
He said daily exposure and experience with diversity is the antidote for alleviating toxic divisiveness present in today’s political climate.
“Look at the playground and how the kids engage with each other– you are just my friend– it’s the perfect prescription,” he said. “A lot of times people are afraid of what they don’t understand. A lot of stereotypes and biases can be alleviated just through experience and engaging with people. Our kids have those experiences every day.”
For the students, having fun with one another and Bradshaw is just part of being a Brookwood student.
“He is awesome. He is very fun. He tells jokes at lunch time, which are so cheesy,” said fifth-grader Kamryn Kruisenga. “He’s very responsible and he’s been mostly like a friend to me.”
Kamryn said Brookwood is a great place to be. “It’s definitely special for everybody here, and I think he makes that happen.”