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When Ashley Gray was selected in 2016 to be the new principal of Peacham Elementary School, officials from the Caledonia Central Supervisory Union knew they were fortunate to have found such a strong candidate. “Ms. Gray possesses strong leadership skills and a desire to work with the community,” officials wrote.
It’s no wonder that Ashley is passionate about the Peacham community, since she was born and raised about a half-hour from there. However, her journey to Peacham School was much longer than the 30 miles, as the crow flies, from her childhood home – taking her through Massachusetts, Spain and Seattle — and her choice to venture outside of Vermont for college informed a broad and worldly perspective that she can now pass along to her students.
Ashley grew up in Lunenburg, a town of 1,300 mostly working-class people in the Northeast Kingdom. Her mother had six brothers and sisters, and they all lived in Lunenburg, as did her grandmother. “It was that kind of town,” she says, “a ‘you grew up there and you stayed there’ kind of a place.”
But Ashley’s parents, both of whom had never gone to college, encouraged her and her sister to spread their wings in a way that previous generations hadn’t. “It was never really a choice about whether I was going to college,” she recalls. “They were very supportive, but they didn’t know how to navigate the process.”
That’s where VSAC came in. “My sister and I both worked with Marti Kingsley,” a VSAC outreach counselor, starting in 6th grade at Gilman Middle School. “Marti spent a lot of time with me, figuring out how to narrow my choices, and working with my dad to figure out the logistics of college visits — how to get there, were we going to stay overnight, and did we need a hotel room or could we stay in a dorm — as well as the actual application and financial aid process. I can remember her coming to our house and sitting with us for a very long time going through tax documents,” Ashley recalls.
Paying for college was also a challenge for Ashley’s dad, who had a job in a paper mill, and her mom, who worked as a waitress. So, when she received the Vermont State Grant, “it was huge.” The grant, funded through an appropriation from the Vermont Legislature, is one of few need-based grants in the nation that is offered through state funding, but can be used at colleges outside that state.
Which worked out well, since Ashley, who contemplated the “safe, familiar choice” of St. Michael’s College, decided instead to go outside her comfort zone and attend Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, where she earned her undergraduate degree in Spanish in 2009. Worcester introduced Ashley to inner-city life, and she says that living there felt, at first, more foreign to her than living in Spain for a year (which she experienced her sophomore year through a study-abroad program).
“I chose Clark because there was so much more diversity, and I’m so glad I made that choice,” Ashley recalls. One of her favorite college experiences was being able to use her Spanish on a regular basis while working at the YMCA and with the Regional Environmental Council. For most of the families and individuals she worked with, Spanish was their first language.
“It was this really cool experience where — here I am in the United States — but there’s a huge need for me to use this language. That was not the case for me in Vermont at all,” Ashley says.
While she and her then-partner (now wife) Rebecca lived in Seattle for a short time after graduation, “we knew that when it was time to think about a house and a family, we wanted to do that in Vermont.”
That move ended up happening sooner than they expected. After an exhaustive but ultimately unfruitful search for teaching gigs in Seattle, one day Ashley pulled up job openings in Vermont, and lo and behold, Barnet Elementary School was hiring a Spanish teacher. She applied, Skype-interviewed, and was hired, and the couple moved back to Vermont. Ashley spent her next seven years teaching in Barnet, and in 2018, the couple had a son, Rio.
When asked if she ever envisioned herself coming full-circle as a principal in the Northeast Kingdom, Ashley says: “I thought I would be a teacher in Vermont, but I didn’t know where. I didn’t necessarily envision myself in the Kingdom, but now, with a different lens around equity, I realize that rural populations are the most underserved. I feel a real call to support underserved areas – which, looking back, I actually grew up in.”