Dr. Cynthia Warren: A Voice for Women

This profile is part of a series celebrating Women's History Month.

Dr. Cynthia Warren can’t say no. When it comes to service, she hasn’t figured out how to turn away. Now, when she is supposed to be retired at last, she is on the brink of taking on another big challenge. Her intention had been to return to one of her great joys, international travel, now that COVID-19 has subsided quite a bit. She also wanted to start riding horses again and to keep up with zumba three times a week because it puts her in a happy mood. But on her daily forays to the YMCA, she saw the need to assist in the Early Childhood Center from 6:15 a.m. to noon. And there goes retirement.

Cynthia’s many years of immersion in educational service seem predestined by her upbringing. The daughter of a pastor, Nathaniel Smith, and a deeply religious mother, Mary Smith, she went on to marry a church member, Gregory Warren, who was teaching Sunday School at her church, San Francisco Christian Temple in St. Louis. Some years later, she was to earn a doctorate in theology and become a preacher herself, but she always kept up her career with St. Louis Public Schools and her work with the Administrators Association of the St. Louis Public Schools, AFSA Local 44.

“I’m the oldest girl in a family of seven children,” she says. “My parents were pillars of the community and all the kids turned out to be high achievers. But I was the one who took on a lot of the child-caring responsibilities when I was very young. Then I went into my teens as a babysitter. I love children. I love the age when you can still have an impact on them. I would always ask them what they wanted to be, no matter how young they were, and they liked that.”

Along the way, she earned degrees in music education, counseling and media communications, and certifications in special education, education administration, advanced administration and career counseling. Before becoming a principal, she was a teacher and a counselor, always in elementary schools, Emerson, Clark and Ashland. Serendipitously, she had a long line of principal/mentors whose names started with B—Miss Brooks, Miss Brasfield, Miss Bratcher and Mr. Busch, “with one E in the middle," Mr. Edmonds, who was “one of the first to see my leadership qualities and made me a team leader and a parent liaison.”

But it was Mr. Busch who turned her into a principal before she knew what hit her and convinced her to say yes in spite of herself. As her principal at Emerson, he had her working on teacher evaluations, payroll and solo lunch duty. Then, one day he took ill and said he had to be out for two weeks and asked her to take over as acting principal. Feeling totally unequipped, she would have preferred to say no, but she didn’t know how to say it and she plunged in.

“Of course, he never came back, and I became principal,” she said. “He knew he couldn’t come back, but he was afraid I’d say no if he told me.”

Her schools were not in easy communities, but the great rewards include “Running into people who beat the odds.” She recalls going to an Auto Zone to get her car serviced.

“This child of about 20 came up to me and said, “Dr. Warren, you don’t remember me, do you? Emerson Special Ed.”

She suddenly remembered a troubled child from her counseling days. Today, he was the manager of Auto Zone and had a wife and family whose pictures he was eager to show her.  His many responsibilities made him very proud because he said his parents had always told him he’d amount to nothing.

“Another time, I was at a music concert and a young woman popped up and asked if I remembered her,” Cynthia recalls, and then she laughs: “I sure did. She was a terrible behavioral problem when I was a principal. Now, she was at a community college, and she poured out her history as a victim of unimaginable childhood challenges."

“I didn’t realize how bad things were and I didn’t realize the influence I had on them,” she says. “It feels great when you find out later.”

It is particularly bittersweet for her to remember her time as a guidance counselor to young children, which she says was a wonderful experience, although she was mostly writing IEPs.  Her real counseling work involved “kids caught in the middle,” the children of parents who were divorcing. The kids felt responsible for the divorce or like they had to choose between parents. And often the parents weren’t on the same page and had a “he’ll-bounce-back” attitude. But they were usually wrong.

Funding for that program ran out. Not only did funds evaporate for desperately needed counseling programs, but also for traditional teaching. “I’ve had to raise funds for afterschool programs to teach children what they really need to know beyond the prescribed ‘benchmarks’ for passing standardized exams.”

She says, “The biggest challenge for principals is that creativity was taken away from the teachers. District mandates came down that had very little to do with what the kids really needed to know.”

Since COVID-19, she hears through active principals that the situation is now much worse. “They don’t have the capacity anymore because teachers are leaving,” she says. “They’re not paid enough for the work they do. It is now missionary pay. It wasn’t like this when I came into the profession in 1977.”

After Cynthia had retired from the school system, Dr. George Edwards at Lindenwood University encouraged her to teach at Lindenwood while earning her Ed. D. in instructional leadership. At that point, she didn’t think she needed another doctorate, but, true to form, she let Dr. Edwards talk her into it. She taught school law, administrative leadership and educational research.

“The concept was different because the students were actually paying to get their education,” she says. The welcome challenge was “how to help make them educational leaders who serve? Servant leaders. How do you make yourself known through the positiveness of your work? How do you make sure that the children and parents know your name?”

Today, Dr. Cynthia Warren remains a passionate union activist. For years, she was president of AFSA Local 44, vice chair of the St. Louis Public Schools Retirement Pension Board and a national vice president of AFSA for four straight terms. 

She says, “The union is the voice of the working people.”

Her greatest union role models are the late Crystal Boling-Barton of Buffalo, a prominent vice president of AFSA, and the late Diann Woodard of Detroit, former AFSA president. 

“They both taught me to be an outspoken leader,” she says. “Women must speak up. Even though sometimes we are in the minority, we know that our voices often lead others through turbulent times. A great leader knows her strengths and uses them to make positive change. I am a voice for women.”