40 Under 40 Distinguished Alumnus builds equity in education

WMCAT’s Daniel Williams makes his mark guiding students in middle and high school.
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Daniel Williams Courtesy 616 Media

For such an influential figure in the field of education, Daniel Williams admitted he didn’t feel like he did well in school.

Williams instead made up for it by being engaging and outgoing, and he was able to get into college on an athletic scholarship, but a significant injury ended his sports career.

“I think with anybody, there are moments where you identify yourself, however that is,” Williams said. “For me, I had to rethink what my identity was and what were the things that I was really passionate about that gave me energy, and it was working with kids.”

The Business Journal selected Williams as this year’s 40 Under 40 Distinguished Alumnus, which is a former member of a previous 40 Under 40 class who addresses each year’s gathering.

After a career in sports was no longer possible, Williams moved to Hampton, Virginia, and worked as an admissions counselor for Hampton University, a historically Black college.

In his work, he was faced with the disparate nature of the educational system for many young people based on their districts.

“You go to one district and kids had a six-inch binder full of all the stuff they were doing, and they were taking SATs 12 times, and then you go to another school and talk to another kid who was brilliant and hadn’t even taken the right courses to be able to apply,” Williams said.

Williams started his career in Detroit working in the K-12 system and trying to reimagine an equitable education system that benefits the most students possible. He served at Detroit University Prep High School, where he designed and implemented a leadership through internship curriculum and culture-building program.

He also served as principal support at Detroit U Prep and facilitated and oversaw students’ project work, helping them to identify, organize and execute many high-level, inquiry-based and in-depth projects.

“We were doing some really innovative things there and had some incredible student outcomes with things like graduation rates, test scores, acceptance into college,” Williams said.

Williams’ success eventually caught the eye of leaders in West Michigan who wanted to replicate that model with Grand Rapids University Preparatory Academy. In 2008, he led the first Center of Innovation school in the Grand Rapids Public Schools district, bringing the charter model to the state’s third-largest district, developing a nontraditional program at the middle and high school levels, integrating it into the existing public school structure and training staff in the new model.

The project originally was going to keep Williams in Grand Rapids for a few months, but he ended up staying and being principal of the school for its first seven years.

“What’s really stuck with me and why it’s felt so great to call West Michigan home is how connected and engaged the community is,” Williams said. “It’s an incredible place and one that’s large enough that there are exciting things happening … but it’s small enough that you can engage and help support so many different projects.”

West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology appointed Williams to lead the organization in 2015. WMCAT was named one of the top 12 youth arts organizations in the country during a 2016 White House ceremony.

“This work with WMCAT has been incredibly fulfilling and exciting for a whole host of reasons,” Williams said. “The opportunity to continue my passion with schools has been great, although it’s not as a high school principal, but creating engaging spaces with middle schools and high schools and leveraging arts and technology to help them build creative confidence … and using those skills sets to wrestle with important issues that they’re working through … is an incredible thing,” Williams said.

Don’t miss Daniel Williams’ address to this year’s 40 Under 40 Business Leaders on Oct. 28. Click here for more information.

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