Tamika Olszewski has made history as the first Black woman elected chair of the Newton School Committee, breaking barriers during an election year that put women of color in local political positions around the Boston area.
Olszewski, who represents Ward 4, won the position over the current vice chair, Emily Prenner, in a School Committee caucus on Nov. 15. She will take on her new role in January.
“It’s a big job,” said Olszewski, who only had “a feeling” her fellow committee members would nominate her for the role. “And the pendulum swung very quickly from ‘Oh my gosh’ to ‘Yay! Now, let’s get to work.’”
Born in Jamaica, Olszewski immigrated to the United States when she was 5 years old. She said she grew up economically disadvantaged in upstate New York before going to college in Pennsylvania and law school in Maryland. She moved to Auburndale with her husband, Albert, eight years ago, wanting their twins to have the best education.
Olszewski first ran for Newton School Committee in 2019 to advocate for students and “give back” to the community. Olszewski said she was in “full crisis-management mode” for the bulk of her first term, assisting with the district’s “return to learning” through the pandemic.
As chair, Olszewski will inherit a school system still battling the pandemic. She said she is prepared to continue supporting students and excited to take on some “interesting initiatives.”
Olszewski said she plans to collaborate with school officials to close the achievement gap and improve academic excellence in the Newton Public Schools. She said she also dreams of finding an “equitable and sustainable” strategy for the district to absorb school fees.
“She listens to all sides and then will push forward,” said Newton parent Karen Carroll Bennett, who has worked alongside Olszewski for more than five years in community programs such as the Newton Coalition of Black Residents. “But at her heart, it’s about what is best for our students in Newton with a particular interest and zeal for our students of color. It’s just so great and reassuring to know that there is somebody who is thinking about our needs.”
Olszewski is also a board member of the Newton area Families Organizing for Racial Justice, a commissioner for Newton’s Human Rights Commission, and a founding member of Newton Coalition of Black Residents.
“I can be a pretty fun-loving, even, silly person,” Olszewski said. “But at the same time, when it’s important enough — when something really matters deeply — it’s time to just roll up the sleeves; put aside the ego; and have tough, rigorous, frank conversation.”
Mayor Ruthanne Fuller said in an e-mail that Olszewski’s experiences and “track record of asking probing questions will be important” as Newton Public Schools are challenged with closing the opportunity gap and supporting students’ social and emotional wellness. The mayor said she will work with Olszewski and the School Committee to “seize the moment at this crucial period for our students and educators.”
Newton’s School Committee is a nine-person board with the mayor and elected representatives from each of Newton’s eight wards. Every two years, a citywide vote decides the next committee. Olszewski was one of four incumbents to win reelection on Nov. 2.
School Committee turnovers will go into effect on Jan. 1. Four representatives will join the committee, taking over for Wards 1, 2, 6, and 8. Incumbent Ward 7 representative Kathy Shields will be the new vice chair.
Outgoing Ward 1 representative Bridget Ray-Canada said she looks forward to seeing the new committee move forward. “Hopefully we’ll see some change coming through as far as the students and the race and achievement work that they’re doing in the district,” she said. “I look forward to seeing the progress.”
Jazmyn Gray can be reached at email@example.com.