Barbara Sizemore
National Visionary

December 17, 1927 - June 24, 2004
Born in Chicago, IL

Educator, First African American woman to head the public school system of a major city

Pioneering educator and school administrator Barbara Sizemore was born in Chicago, Illinois to Sylvester and Delila Lafoon. Her father died in a car accident when she was eight years old. Her mother remarried and the family moved to Evanston. Growing up in the 1930’s in the Midwest, Sizemore experienced Jim Crow whose laws were adopted and enforced. Although her elementary and middle schools were segregated, she had highly educated African-American teachers and received an excellent education.

Sizemore as a young girl
In 1944, Sizemore enrolled in Northwestern University and graduated with a degree in classical languages in 1947. She dreamed of being a translator for the United Nations but because there were few professional opportunities for black women at that time, she began teaching in Chicago public schools that led her to her life’s calling.

In 1954, Sizemore earned an M.A. in elementary education from Northwestern. She left teaching in 1963 to become the first black female to be appointed principal of a Chicago school. In 1965, she became principal of Forrestville High School and initiated efforts to turn the school from a haven for gangs into an innovative educational experiment. By 1969, she was named director and district superintendent for the Woodlawn Experimental Schools Project and instructor at Northwestern’s Center for Inner City Studies, an innovative multi-disciplinary, multi-ethnic graduate school program in Chicago’s South Side.

In 1973, Sizemore was elected as superintendent of the District of Columbia Public School System. This was the first time an African-American woman had been chosen to head a public school system in a major U.S. city. During her tenure, Sizemore tackled highly controversial and polarizing issues such as the abolishment of standardized testing whose “Anglo-Saxon bias” she believed put African American students at a disadvantage. Sizemore’s educational views challenged the more traditional views of the school system and she was fired in 1975. Her book, The Ruptured Diamond (1981), chronicles her experiences in Washington.

This interview has
been archived in the
NVLP Collection of
African American
Oral Histories at the
Library of Congress
American Folklife
After leaving Washington, Sizemore taught at the University of Pittsburgh where she conducted research on schools that served low-income African-American children. In 1992, she assumed a professorship at DePaul University in Chicago. As dean of the School of Education, she created her School Achievement Structure (SAS) program. SAS was designed to enable black students to compete successfully on any standardized exam. This was a radical departure from her earlier belief in abandoning the tests. Sizemore now argued that integrating SAS into a school’s curriculum would help low-achieving schools in Chicago become high performers. The program is used in many school districts around the country.

Sizemore served as Professor Emerita at DePaul University. She earned a Ph.D. in educational administration from the University of Chicago as well as four honorary doctorate degrees. She was a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, the Urban League, NAACP and Phi Delta Kappa. In the last years of her life, she advised the Chicago public school system and continued to write and speak on educational issues.

Ms. Sizemore died from cancer in June of 2004. She was the mother of six children and had seven grandchildren.



Barbara Sizemore's biography on Answers.com

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