Haley Taylor Schlitz wants to change a system that tried to hold her back. The 19-year-old will be the youngest person to graduate from the Dedman School of Law at Southern Methodist University (SMU), a private school in University Park, Texas.
According to research done by her family, she is also the youngest Black student to graduate from any law school in the United States. Now she wants to use that education and her own personal experiences to reform the public school system.
“All school quality, obviously, should be equal because we want all of our students and all of our next generation to get a great education and move our country forward,” Schlitz told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.
“What we can’t do is have part of our country moving forward and part of it not able to because of the education that they were provided, based on absolutely nothing.”
Taylor Schlitz is set to graduate on May 13, but she had to battle and eventually leave the Texas public education system to do it.
Racism in the classroom
Growing up, Taylor Schlitz’s mother believed her daughter excelled as a student, and wanted to get her into classes for gifted students. But the school refused and even mentioned possibly holding her back to repeat a grade.
Leading up to that, Taylor Schlitz said she experienced racism and micro-aggressions in the classroom. During a school play called “Northern Aggression”, as the only Black person in the class, she was cast as the only Black slave in the production.
“My parents lost it and they were like, absolutely not. So they moved me to the Northern family as the abolitionist. So I guess it’s better, question mark? But I’m not really sure why they decided to do this in the first place. It was a terrible idea,” said Taylor Schlitz.
She also recalled classmates making racist comments to her in class.
“The other students would look over at me and say: ‘If we lived back in that time, I would own you.’ And of course, as a 10-year-old girl, what do you say to that?” she said.
So at Grade 5, Taylor Schlitz’s mother pulled her out of school and started homeschooling her.
“She’s like, there’s no way I can do worse than this, and pulled me out,” said Taylor Schlitz.
While homeschooling, Taylor Schlitz says she was able to focus on her weaknesses to become a well-rounded student. She says the setup also allowed her to improve skills such as time management and self-accountability.
And she soared. By 13, she had completed all the requirements she needed to finish high school. By 16 she had finished her undergraduate degree in education at Texas Woman’s University.
Now she’s graduating from Southern Methodist University at 19. The CBC reached out to SMU for comment.
Even after powering through school, Schlitz is far from done. She’s going to spend the summer studying for the bar exam, and then she wants to pursue a career in educational policy.
“Some of the biggest issues that I see in public schools, specifically relating to gifted and talented, dual enrolment, AP and honour courses… is equity and access. There’s really not a lot of diversity in those programs,” said Taylor Schlitz.
“I should be able to be a law school graduate at 19, even if I stayed in the public school system, and I would not have been able to. Absolutely not.”
She says that if she had stayed in the public school system, she may have been able to skip a grade or two, but likely wouldn’t have even started law school at this point.
And she has a number of different routes she’s considering, including working for an elected official, non-profit, school district, education law firm, or teaching.
She feels there are two ways to impact the education system.
“One is from inside the system, being a teacher of colour, being that good influence, creating that environment of good learning for the students. And one is from outside the system, being somebody who changes the nuts and bolts and foundation of the educational system,” she said.
“I feel called to teaching, but I would also love to serve the community in any way that I can and really change the educational system.”
Written by Philip Drost. Produced by Kate McGillivray.