Although he has earned five degrees, authored numerous peer-reviewed articles and books and is currently scholar-in-residence and director of the Institute on Education Equity and Justice at American University, Dr. Antonio Ellis considers his most meaningful accomplishment his graduation from high school. K-12 was his toughest challenge.
“My disability led to me being teased and bullied by both students and teachers,” Ellis recalls, explaining that he received special education services throughout his primary school years due to a stuttering disability. He says he was also often absent and failed second and fifth grade.
“Because of the teachers who blatantly told me and other teachers that I would be in jail before the age of 18 and would not graduate from high school, my primary meaningful accomplishment is earning my high school diploma,” Ellis adds. However, once he made it into high school, he began to realize his potential — and the importance of supportive educators.
“I met a teacher who saw value in me and made me believe that I could be an achiever,” Ellis says. “My music teacher, Mr. Linard McCloud, taught me self-determination, perseverance, tenacity and grit.”
Those qualities guided him through college and graduate school.
“He went from being a child-at-risk to being a K-12 school administrator, university professor and published scholar,” says Leon Burns, a business analyst in the Washington, D.C. area and Ellis’ Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity brother. Burns says Ellis’ journey has made him “highly sought after for support and mentorship by children and adults with disabilities.”
Ellis currently practices the principles he has researched by serving as director of special education for the District of Columbia Public Schools.
“His big thing has always been allowing students to get the help that they need and understanding that different people require different kinds of help,” Burns says. “He believes that no students should be written off but should have the opportunity to go as far as they can go.”
Much of Ellis’ scholarship has been grounded in his childhood struggles and his interest in promoting ways to improve the education of students with learning challenges.
One of Ellis’ recent projects is an upcoming book, Teacher Educators as Critical Storytellers: Effective Teachers as Windows and Mirrors, scheduled for publication in March 2021. Ellis, who is one of the co-editors, asserts that “effective teachers serve as windows and mirrors for students, meaning that teachers must reflect the student population in racial and cultural terms while also serving as a window for students to see opportunities that lie outside of their immediate context.”
Another project, “Motivation and its Relationship to Reading Achievement for Two Middle School African American Males,” is a multi-case study that uses the critical literacy framework, identifying motivation as an essential tool for reading achievement. It has been accepted for publication by the Journal of African American Males in Education.
Ellis has continued his own journey of self-discovery. While working on his Ph.D., he learned that “I speak more fluently in environments where loud noise or music is present. This was around the time when I was trying to brainstorm ways to orally defend my dissertation with a speech impediment. In order to increase my fluency, I started playing loud music with heavy bass through headphones while I speak.” Ellis says he uses the technique “at job interviews and on other occasions when verbal communication is preferred.”
Ellis has also examined social justice issues.
“I’m currently investigating the intersection between police violence, disability and mass incarceration,” Ellis points out, noting that according to a recent Bureau of Justice Statistics report, an estimated 32% of prisoners and 40% of jail inmates reported having at least one disability. He predicts that this “could be a possible social justice issue that is worth some attention, conversation and national action.”
Dr. Antonio L. Ellis
Title: Scholar in Residence and Director of the Institute on Education Equity and Justice, American University
Education: Ed.D., educational leadership and policy studies, Howard University; M.A., special education and human development, The George Washington University; M.Ed., educational administration and policy, Howard University; M.A. religious studies, Howard University; B.A., religion and philosophy, Benedict College and FAMU (dual degree).
Career mentors: Dr. Harry Singleton, Benedict College; Dr. Lillie Burgess, Benedict College; Dr. Ronald Hopson, Howard University, Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Dr. Lisa Maria Grillo, Howard University; Dr. Janeula M. Burt, Bowie State University; Dr. Ivory Toldson, Howard University; Dr. Robert T. Palmer, Howard University; Dr. Zollie Stevenson Jr., Howard University; Dr. William Tate, University of South Carolina.
Words of wisdom/advice for new faculty members: “Surround yourself with colleagues who will support you with praise and constructive criticism. Consult with senior faculty for wisdom and junior faculty for strength.”
This article originally appeared in the January 21, 2021 edition of Diverse and is one in a series of profiles about this year’s 2021 Emerging Scholars. Read about all of them here.