My Story: Donna Stone, Making it to the Finish Line

About the RIMA Staff Stories Series:

Often the people behind “education reform” are painted with broad strokes and labeled as against what we are most for: great teachers, equal education for all, and kids first. Our response to these misconceptions is to tell our personal stories about why we became involved in education and social justice work. The faces behind RIMA are varied, passionate, and dedicated to improving education for all kids. We hope you enjoy our stories!


Growing up, my parents believed it was my and my siblings’ responsibility to succeed as students. However, that success was outside of their own frame of reference. My parents quit high school as teenagers. They married and became young parents.

College wasn’t something that was ever discussed in my home. It wasn’t an expectation, nor did we really consider it an option.

College wasn’t something that was ever discussed in my home. It wasn’t an expectation, nor did we really consider it an option.

Modeled within the walls of my home was a strong work ethic. My father had one beyond compare and was able, even with his limited education, to work his way up from sweeping the floors of the Cott Corporation, a large soft drink manufacturer, to becoming the plant general manager. He went on to run other big-name companies in the south and northeast. My mother, an avid reader and artist, was a homemaker until my parents divorced in the late ‘70s. In the era before computers. she often editted my father’s work. After the divorce, she worked hard to earn her GED, enter the job market, and support our family.

They both made good lives for themselves without college, at a time when that was still possible. Thankfully, I would find myself on a road to college, but getting there would be fairly happenstance.

Personally, I always loved school (except perhaps during the first couple of weeks of kindergarten when my sisters stayed home, while I inconceivably couldn’t). As a student, I neither excelled or struggled, but I enjoyed learning new things. I started in Woonsocket public schools, spent the majority of my-school-aged years in the Woonsocket-based Catholic school system, and then finished in the North Smithfield public schools when financial hardship made religious education too expensive. All in all, I received a decent and fulfilling education.

It was by pure chance that the group of girls I befriended in high school had college-educated parents who expected them to get a higher education. They filled out applications, so, I did too. They were going to college. I just followed suit. My family was struggling financially, so we could only afford one application fee. I was all in for the $15 fee to the University of Rhode Island.  Luckily, my bet made good and I was accepted.

It was by pure chance that the group of girls I befriended in high school had college-educated parents who expected them to get a higher education. They filled out applications, so, I did too. They were going to college. I just followed suit. My family was struggling financially, so we could only afford one application fee. I was all in for the $15 fee to the University of Rhode Island.  Luckily, my bet made good and I was accepted.

Having been introduced to simple programming in high school, I was interested in computer science and engineering. But, in the early ‘80s, that field was truly a man’s world. Since no woman in my family had ever gone to college, I had no real guide. No one was telling me to “follow my dream”  and I somehow found myself a fashion merchandising major.

With financial aid, grants, loans, and a part-time job, I successfully made it through three years of schooling. However, at the end of my junior year, I realized I hated fashion merchandising, had overwhelming loan payments pending, and needed to work more than a part-time job to afford to stay in school. I quit.

I spent the next year working full time as a bartender. Having acquired my father’s work ethic, I quickly became the restaurant manager and enjoyed hiring and training staff.  Colleagues often told me that I should “be a teacher” because I had a knack for imparting knowledge.

Shortly after, while working full time, I went back to URI and earned my BS in human development and family studies. I successfully earned my college degree, but still had not quite landed on my passion. That refrain of “be a teacher” was nagging at me. So, during the first year of a new marriage, I juggled home life, working, and a full-time school schedule to earn a K-6 Elementary Education Certification. I finally was on the right road for me.

But, life happens when you are busy making other plans. God blessed me with an equally important dream. In the last few weeks of my student teaching, I discovered I was pregnant with my son. My husband and I were told we would never have children. Against all odds, I was going to be a mother.

My pregnancy was not easy. Due to serious health issues, I had to fight for my son’s life monthly and ended up hospitalized for much of my pregnancy and all of the last few months. When my son was born early, but healthy, it was a miracle. I spent a few years at home raising my miracle and counting my blessings.

When I did enter the classroom as a proud fifth grade teacher for the North Smithfield School District, I felt like I had come home professionally.

When I did enter the classroom as a proud fifth grade teacher for the North Smithfield School District, I felt like I had come home professionally.

Teaching was amazingly fulfilling and truth be told, the hardest job I’d ever had. For the first time, in the classroom, I was able to connect the work I was passionate about to my interest in computers. Over the next twelve years as a fifth grade and then, second grade teacher, I was able to introduce instructional technology to my students and colleagues. I was active in all aspects of school life. I sat on multiple committees, was a board member for our union, a mentor for our school, and a technology trainer for the district. I was successful and happy in my job.

However, something was missing. I wanted to take what I was doing in the classroom and make it bigger. My desire to share my interests and talents for integrating technology into instruction on a larger scale was overwhelming me. Our district leadership tried to help me by proposing a technology/curriculum position. Six years in a row it was cut from the budget.

At the end of my twelfth year of teaching, I made a huge leap of faith and took a leave of absence so I could earn my MA in instructional design and technology.

If has been five years since I left the classroom. In that time, I’ve completed my MA and earned an administrator certificate in curriculum and instruction. Most importantly, I’ve seen all my dreams come to fruition.

If has been five years since I left the classroom. In that time, I’ve completed my MA and earned an administrator certificate in curriculum and instruction. Most importantly, I’ve seen all my dreams come to fruition.

I’ve traveled throughout New England as an instructional technology trainer and worked for the Rhode Island Department of Education as a educator quality specialist. Both positions allowed me to see the great work of, and learn from, hundreds of other teachers.

Today, I joyfully spend my days working for a district-charter school collaboration that gives students from all walks of life and from all types of districts a chance to learn in a truly personalized learning environment.

My path to this work, which allows me to impact teaching and learning on a larger scale, was not straight and narrow.  What I hope my story shows others—especially my students and burgeoning teachers— is that following your passion and reaching your goals doesn’t have to follow a linear path. It can be messy and challenging, and have lots of setbacks. None of those things mean you won’t make it to the finish line.

Donna Stone is the executive director of RIMA.