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'21 Strong: Dr. Terri Wade-Lyles inspires Cleveland school district students to dream big

Discouraged from pursuing her own ambitions as a child, Wade-Lyles is determined to show students that anything is possible, even in a pandemic.

CLEVELAND — March 2020.

It started as an extended spring break for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District when nearly 40,000 students were sent home, and then didn’t return to the classroom.

"The reality set in is that this is real and it’s long-term, and we have children to educate," Dr. Terri Wade-Lyles, the K-8 Science Education Curriculum & Instruction Manager for the CMSD, said. 

Scrambling for equipment and searching for accessibility, the challenge of remote learning was daunting. But Wade-Lyles has never been one to be discouraged.

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"I love a challenge because I think about my experience as a child," she said. "That’s what really drives me."

Born in Cleveland, Terri’s love of science blossomed early. A little small for her age, she was the kind of girl who liked to dig in the dirt to make her own worm farm.

Credit: Dr. Terri Wade-Lyles
Dr. Terri Wade-Lyles as a child.

"I’d love to go to school because of science class," she recalled with a smile.

Terri was fascinated by the world around her, but she noticed it was a world that wasn’t always full of color. A career day in junior high changed that.

"There were astronomers," she said. "I remember it was a man and a woman…they had faces like mine. They were of color. I was completely fascinated."

That day expanded her horizons, and eventually, her growing fascination with astronomy evolved into an interest in psychiatry. Even though she still didn’t see any professionals who looked like her, she was determined to follow the light of her ambition. 

But not everyone supported her goals. She was attending high school in South Carolina, when one of her high school teachers made her dream grow dim.

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"She basically for the most part told me, 'Well, thank goodness you're cute, because you really should consider being something, um, on the lines of an airline stewardess and look for a good husband,'" Wade-Lyles remembered. "'Because women don’t become doctors, and plus, you’re Black and that wouldn’t be something of a career for you.' I knew not to tell my mother, but that happened."

That is the experience that motivates her.  

Instead of becoming an M.D., she is a Ph.D., and her passion is to make sure that children can see themselves as anything they want to be. Her challenge now is to keep that excitement in a virtual setting. For Terri, that means taking science students beyond the classroom.

Credit: Dr. Terri Wade-Lyles
Dr. Terri Wade-Lyles after receiving her doctorate.

"I think it’s critical that we move our students in CMSD into the community," she said. "I want them to see people who look like them. We have plenty of people here in the city. Things have changed since I was a girl, and we have a lot of examples of mentors and folks in science roles and leadership roles.

It’s a community she is relying heavily on. Through collaboration with community partners, Terri is showing students that innovation, flexibility, determination, and tenacity are key not only to a successful education but an opportunity to give hope and encouragement to the next generation. 

"Hey, guess what?" Dr. Wade-Lyles likes to say to her students. "I’m a scientist, I’m a doctor, and I am African American. I’m a woman, I look like you, and I’m excited for what you can learn here, and so it brings me great joy."

Credit: Dr. Terri Wade-Lyles
Dr. Terri Wade-Lyles is pictured with former students.