Jefferson County Public Schools has tapped April Brooks as its new athletic director. Brooks, currently principal at Lyman T. Johnson Traditional Middle School, will become the first woman director and the first Black woman to hold the position when she takes the helm in January 2022. She’ll replace longtime former athletic director Jerry Wyman, who retired in February 2021.
Brooks has been a JCPS student athlete, a teacher, administrator, coach and parent. She ran track and cross country for Louisville Male High School, where she graduated in 2000, and continued as a college track athlete at the University of Kentucky. She coached both the boys and girls track teams at Eastern High School during her tenure there, and now has three children who participate in JCPS sports.
WFPL talked with Brooks about her goals for her new position, and what it means to become the first woman to lead the state’s largest K-12 athletic program. Questions and responses have been lightly edited for clarity.
WFPL: You’ve said one of your goals is to reduce barriers that girls and students of color face in accessing more kinds of sports that are often predominantly white or predominantly male. Getting girls into football or kids of color into lacrosse, field hockey and swimming. How did you become aware of these barriers? Is that from your experience as a student, or from the perspective you got as an educator?
BROOKS: Both. I wasn’t really exposed to other sports. Like, I never knew anything about lacrosse or field hockey as a student athlete. I don’t know if I would have been good at those sports, but it would have been nice to be able to try those. And I’ve seen how JCPS has really enhanced its athletic programs since I graduated in 2000. And just to see more and more female athletes, and more and more students that are from marginalized groups, get access to these different kinds of sports that could be life-changing as far as getting an athletic scholarship and going on to college.
WFPL: What do those efforts look like to increase equity and access?
BROOKS: Well, I’m very proud of JCPS, because I think they’ve already started to really lay down that foundation, with Central High School now having a swimming pool that’s been refurbished. And then also Shawnee High School has the new swimming pool. So all of those things, I think, are going to help us make sure that we have access in communities that may or may not have a local pool.
I also think that starts by informing students about those sports. So I think that our coaches and athletic directors will have to have meetings with kids, informational meetings, about what these sports are all about. Talking to the community as well. I think I’d really like to make connections with the Urban League to talk to them about informing families about what these sports are about, and how we can get marginalized groups into different sports, and that we don’t always just have to play, as African Americans, football and basketball.
Our skill sets could be used in other sports, but that’s usually what’s happening at the Boys and Girls Club or at the rec centers. And so just making sure that they realize, ‘Oh, there is a swimming pool at Shawnee,’ for example. I believe there’s already a group that’s reached out to me that does free swimming classes for groups that have been marginalized. And so there are already community partners that are reaching out that said that they want to help me with this equity goal. So I’m excited about that.
WFPL: You’ve also talked about more closely tying athletics to academics. How do you plan to do that?
BROOKS: The first way I want to do that is have some sort of summer camp that may start with elementary or middle school students to help prepare them for high school, but also to learn athletic skills and core values like teamwork and perseverance and determination, and marrying those two things.
I also want to increase “Backpack Artifacts” for student athletes, where they’re writing about being an effective communicator, etc., because you learn a lot of these skills through athletics. [“Backpack Artifacts” are a relatively new way JCPS is measuring academic progress. Students are responsible for putting so many “artifacts” into a portfolio each year to show what they’ve learned.]
I think with the help of coaches and athletic directors we can help kids understand that being in the classroom and being a stellar student is the foundation to being an awesome athlete.
WFPL: This has been a very difficult time to make decisions around athletics because of COVID-19. How do you balance safety with wanting to give kids opportunities to play?
BROOKS: I believe safety first. I think the district has already implemented a plan with test-to-play to make sure that students’ health is the number one thing, and now that we’re testing so frequently, we can figure out if a student is ill and make sure that they’re quarantining properly.
I think that it’s important that we do take COVID-19 seriously. And sometimes doing the right thing will cause people to get upset, and I’m okay with dealing with those comments. Because at the end of the day, I’m serving the students and families.
WFPL: You are JCPS’s first woman athletic director and first Black woman in the role. Is that meaningful to you?
BROOKS: It’s really powerful. It’s a great gift. I remember just going home and telling my kids about this—that I was the first female. My daughter is a basketball player, and she said, “Mom, that’s gonna mean a lot to the girls on my team.” And so that was a really emotional moment for me.
I remember being a little girl going to games and only seeing male coaches, only seeing male athletic directors and wondering, “Is there a possibility for me to be a coach?” Eventually, I coached track and field at Eastern High School. I was able to coach the female and the male teams, and that was a great opportunity. And so I think every time a woman steps into a position that is male dominated, that says, “Okay, we can shatter those glass ceilings.”