I bring John, David, Ana and Sally into every training, strategy session and decision-making room I occupy. Well, actually I bring their stories, to remind myself and others of the students we are still failing and the significant work we still need to do to ensure excellence for all students.
John’s family immigrated from the Dominican Republic and he was assigned to a bilingual class where his teacher spoke only English. He’s Black, so in his mostly Latino school, adults often singled him out for being disruptive even when he acted similarly to his peers. Daily, he dealt with awkward and misguided questions about his identity: Are you Black or Latino? Despite the language barriers between John and his teacher and classmates, it was clear he was functioning several grade levels above his peers in pretty much every subject. His family lived in abject poverty, using a camping stove to cook dinner and rationing money for gas and electricity.
Mark appeared to be Brown and, because he was adopted and spent time in group homes, no one seemed to know his race or ethnicity. He’d been in multiple homes by the time he was 8, experiencing immeasurable trauma. He suffered from a degenerative hip disease—and had experienced significant physical abuse—that resulted in over a dozen surgeries and made it hard for him to walk. His school had meticulously spelled out all of his defects and problems and special education needs, in what educators call an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). But nothing in that document got at the root causes or pointed out his innumerable strengths, including his deep conviction about right and wrong, and his seemingly endless kindness and positive attitude.
Ana was raped when she was 14 by a family member whose father spent the better part of his childhood incarcerated. When her demons caught up to her, she tried to tell her story only to be put out by her entire family and their extended friends. With nowhere to turn, she ended up on the streets, living in a friend’s car and dropping out. Ana found her way to an alternative school for over-aged and under-credited youth where she also came out as a lesbian questioning her gender identity. No one at either of her schools knew her secrets: that she was the victim of a terrible act of sexual violence, or that she didn’t have a home. She was a good student, after all—compliant and quiet.
Sally’s family isn’t wealthy, but they don’t struggle economically. It became clear early in her life that she wasn’t growing, physically or emotionally, at quite the rate of her peers and she suffered from bouts of extreme exhaustion and frustration. Eventually, she was diagnosed with diabetes and also dyslexia. The process to obtain the medical services necessary to manage her diabetes was, simply put, a nightmare. Her parents were sent in circles and Sally spent as much time out of class checking her monitors and navigating bureaucracy as she did learning strategies to manage her emotions and learning how to read. And, when she was in class, Sally became increasingly frustrated as she fell further behind. Few at school seemed to connect the dots between her physical challenges, her learning struggles and her outbursts.
THE PROBLEM WITH LABELS
We have names for students like John, Mark, Ana and Sally. We identify them as belonging to a “specialized population.” By this, we might mean English-learning, special education, LGBTQQ, court-involved, homeless, over-aged, under-credited, medically fragile or Title I. God forbid you belong to any of these groups and are also Black or living well below the poverty level, which makes your chances of excelling in school almost non-existent. In that case, we label you “at-risk”—for struggling in school, dropping out or worse. We count the number of “adverse childhood effects” (ACEs) you have and record them in databases.
In other words, we spend lots of time describing the defects of students and very little time diagnosing the systemic issues that make their odds of success even longer.
Many traditional schools struggle to support students with these labels. Even our best and highest-performing schools, including those in the charter sector, are struggling with these very same students. When we disaggregate data, we see tremendous gaps in academic achievement between students with disabilities and their general education peers. We see huge gaps in achievement between Black students and their White peers. We see that students who are homeless, in foster care or involved in the court system master grade-level material at much lower rates than their peers.
For years, education advocates called these “achievement gaps.” Recognizing this term could imply that students are the problem, many have recently embraced the phrase “opportunity gaps.” Proponents in favor of this framing point out that students with particular risk factors have fewer opportunities than their more advantaged peers and this makes it harder for them to master academic content.
Most school systems not only fail to provide students in need of it with extra support, but actually implement policies and practices that make their chance of success even slimmer. Worse, some implicitly or explicitly suggest “we need to sacrifice the 20% to ensure the success of the 80%.” (I’ve heard this, multiple times.)
We need to stop finding labels for the students and start identifying the systems that make it damn near impossible for them to achieve. By using words that better reflect what the real problem is, we will start to shift our attention to the source of the fire instead of complaining constantly about the smoke.
STUDENTS WHO SYSTEMS FAILED THE MOST
I think we need a new way of talking about students who face barriers erected by adults and sustained by broken systems. So, I have taken to describing students like John, David, Ana and Sally as SSFMs—Students who Systems Failed the Most.
John’s family moved because of lack of economic opportunity and they were left even poorer by a broken and biased American immigration system. He faced racism, lack of support for learning English, and low expectations in a school and system that added roadblocks to his success. David was trapped in the child welfare system that created trauma and was transitioned into a special education system that piled on by further pathologizing him. Ana’s struggles were a result of someone else’s action and she was ignored by schools because she was compliant. Sally started failing in school because of the poor systems to support students with specialized medical and learning needs.
But John, David, Ana and Sally are not outliers or students we should consider around the edges of education policy and practice. They are our students, our friends, our family. John is my former student, who eventually did succeed despite our school and the broader system. David is my own brother, who survived school and is now an amazing dad and change agent in his community. Ana is a student I met as superintendent of alternative high schools in New York City—she excelled in her transfer school and went on to thrive in a prestigious university. Sally is like the children of so many of my friends who, despite the advantages of racial or economic privilege, struggle every day to advocate for their child’s basic learning needs.
It’s time we embrace a new mindset about these students. By calling them SSFMs, we are forced to grapple with how we must change our approach in pursuit of excellence for all students. It’s time to stop admiring that we have a problem and start addressing it.
My column, In The Room, has given me and my readers a front-row seat to important and poignant lessons on leadership. I’ve had the privilege of interviewing the first and only female president of Harvard University, the first and only African American woman to run the American Civil War Museum, the chief information officer of the CIA, the head of cybersecurity for Ernst and Young, and a national best-selling author and world-renowned psychologist.
I realized, though, during a recent run (where I do my best thinking), that everyone I’ve featured so far is American and either my age or older. Enter 31-year-old phenom, Larisa Hovannisian, founder of Teach For Armenia. Last month, Larisa co-hosted the Teach For All Global Conference in Armenia, which gathered 450 members of their community. Teach For All is a global network of independent organizations in 53 countries, whose shared mission is to develop collective leadership to ensure all children have the education, support and opportunity to fulfill their potential. We met for coffee to talk about leadership, lessons learned, and love.
‘Armenia Needs You Too’
While Larisa went to a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin and taught in Phoenix, Arizona, she spent most of her childhood in Russia. She shared vivid memories of her birthplace, Armenia, where she returned every summer to spend time with her grandmother. Her poignant stories about her early life reminded me of the challenging history of the region during that time.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Armenia became an independent country. As the fledgling government struggled to become a self-sustaining country, the region suffered a devastating earthquake that killed thousands. The conditions, in part, led to Larisa’s parents moving to Russia to build a “more stable” life.
But Russia, too, was reeling from the break-up of the Soviet Union. Relationships with former satellite states of the USSR were naturally tense and the country was in a deep financial and economic crisis. Terrorism was spreading, and children were being abducted for ransom money.
“This sounds like a lot,” I exhaled. She admitted that her parents were very protective, and she had very little freedom growing up. She was grateful that her father was able to provide a comfortable life because of his work as a lawyer for an international firm. But, she was well aware of the broader context and strife. Many of her friends lacked access to basic services, like education and food.
“I knew I would come back to do something to help someday,” she said of her home country. “I just wasn’t sure how or when.” When she decided to join Teach For America she remembered her Mom saying, “You know, Armenia needs you too.” The seed was planted.
Discrimination in Many Forms
As an Armenian in Russia, she was considered “dark” and “other”—and she felt the effects of this regularly. The unstable financial situation in Russia led to a lot of finger-pointing and resentment. “Armenians are taking our jobs,” she and her family would hear on a regular basis.
She was incensed by the inequities and the scapegoating, and it helped her develop a deep commitment to “justice and fairness.”
We talked about what it was like to attend a mostly white college in the United States. Many people “could not figure out what I was,” she recalls, because she was, literally, the only Armenian on campus. Luckily, she found a band of other women who became her best friends and a personal support group. “The token people of color bonded together,” she joked, but adds, seriously, that the tight-knit circle helped make her college experience. “People didn’t mean to be offensive, so we had to take it with some humor.”
She also felt a responsibility to educate Americans about the Armenian genocide (which was recently recognized as a genocide by the House of Representatives on October 29, 2019) and other aspects of her culture and country. “I ended up [engaging] in activism whether I liked it or not because no one else would.” In a way, she explains, she was grateful because her college experience thrust her into a leadership position.
I asked how she would compare conversations about race here with those in Eastern Europe. “It’s not that there is less or more in different countries,” she reflected, “but at least we live in a country where people can talk about it. In countries like Russia, it’s tough for this to be even acknowledged.”
Having lived in multiple countries, she is deeply aware of how discrimination shows up in so many different forms. “Discrimination [happens when one group considers another] to be ‘other’ or different or minorities…this includes race but also religious beliefs and sexual orientation.”
Focus on Being a Good Teacher
Larisa and I are both proud Teach For America alumnae, having joined the corps right after college. We were both called by the two-part mission: do everything possible to provide students in schools with a game-changing education, and take the lessons learned from the classroom to fight for equity more broadly. Being a classroom teacher and joining a mission-driven organization had a profound impact on my trajectory, so I wanted to know if it was the same for Larisa.
She initially was overwhelmed by the stories of her students, many of whom were living in abject poverty. For some, “the only hot meal they got was school lunch…so I started bringing bags of juice and sandwiches just to make sure my kids weren’t hungry.” Some would describe violence they witnessed in their neighborhoods in great detail. “I wasn’t sure I could do it,” she told me, because her heart would break a little every day.
“One day I talked to my dad,” she remembered gratefully. He gave her some simple and yet profound advice: “Focus on being a good teacher.” He helped her see that she was expending a lot of energy on things she couldn’t control, as opposed to investing in the one thing she could. “I had to reframe my mindset…and that is when I started having an impact.”
We talked about what a critical leadership lesson that was on two levels. First, it is important to focus on what is in your control and your own efficacy in fixing it. Second, the ability to shift your own mindset can, in fact, produce different results.
Her eyes lit up when she told me about her former students. One boy in particular had severe autism and entered kindergarten having not spoken any words other than reciting lines from cartoons. Within six months of being in her class, he started talking in short sentences and could hold a conversation. His mom told Larisa, “You’ve given my son an opportunity to talk to me and our family—and that is always something I’ll love you for.”
Asking Men to Be Allies
Shortly after her two years in the classroom, Larisa decided to start Teach For Armenia. She wrote a business plan, started assembling a Board of Trustees, and looking for money—at the ripe age of 23.
It turns out this was even more audacious than it sounds. “Back in 2013, not a lot of young women started companies in Armenia,” she tells me. “The idea of a young entrepreneur and underdog is an American thing…[Armenia] is very patriarchal and ageist.” But her own childhood adversity, college, and teaching experience gave her confidence, drive, and leadership skills. She laughed and shared, “Being young and naive—not arrogant or overconfident—I thought ‘the sky is the limit, why not risk it.’”
She tells me about many “nasty” attempts to prevent her from succeeding—from usurping her intellectual property to attempting to discredit her in key circles. She recalls plenty of meetings where prospective donors, policymakers, or powerbrokers cut her off in mid-sentence, posed questions to her male colleagues even though she was the CEO, or didn’t acknowledge her presence at all.
I got mad just listening to her, remembering my own battles. Like me, she learned how to advocate for herself. “I’ve gotten good at saying things like, ‘you cut me off, I need to finish my thought or it’s going to be tough for us to have a productive conversation,’” she tells me. “This may come off as me being curt or even mean, but we have to do things to make our voices heard.”
She also shares the important role others have played in addressing inequity. “I am lucky to have male colleagues who are real partners in the work…in one meeting, [my male colleague] said, ‘Actually I’m going to have my boss answer that for you.’”
Personally, I was struck by this example. I am hard-pressed to remember many times when a male colleague was this overt of an ally. Larisa reacted to my surprise. “Sometimes I have to ask or explain,” she said. “The men in Armenia often only shake the hands of other men. I now tell the men I work with that I’d like for them to shake my hand. They weren’t aware it was a problem.”
This exchange makes me wonder if I have been explicit enough with male colleagues about what allyship looks like—I always just felt it was my responsibility to figure out a way to be heard. “Maybe this is a sign of progress,” I remarked, “both that men have been such clear allies for you and that you are so clear about how they need to show up.”
Embracing Meditation and Love
I can’t help thinking about how much is on her shoulders, so I asked her what she likes to do outside of work and how she takes care of herself personally. She shared that for her first few years starting and running the company, she didn’t think much about this and she felt like she paid for it.
“At one point, it caught up to me,” she admitted. Like others I’ve interviewed for In The Room, she started to struggle with anxiety, and eventually experienced full-blown “panic attacks that would come out of nowhere.” They were so profound that the first time it happened, she actually called the doctor because she thought she was having a heart attack.
She came to cherish and prioritize people in her life who gave as much as they took. She embraces and understands the importance of sleep, which she said she took for granted when she was younger. And, she found transcendental meditation. She said she tried yoga, mindfulness, and other things—but meditation was what finally worked for her. It’s become an integral part of her day.
Our most intimate moment came when we talked about our respective life partners. Larisa married someone she describes as her soulmate, who deeply inspires her. She was “introduced” to him on the shelves of a Phoenix bookstore, where she spontaneously purchased a memoir he had written about his family.
Moved by his story—and the cute photo of him on the book jacket—she connected with him briefly online, but they never met. (I admit this highlighted for me the generational divide between me and Larisa!).
Three years later, while pitching a funder, she ran into him at a coffee shop in Armenia. The rest, as they say, is history.
They make time for each other, by scheduling calls and date nights, even it if is just 30 or 45 minutes. They make it a point not to get disconnected even as they are both working on literally solving the country’s biggest problems. “Like me,” she says, “he doesn’t distinguish work and life. It’s not one and then the other—just one big thing.”
Larisa makes me hopeful that the next generation of leaders is up for the task of solving big things.
Confession time: I ran a few minutes late for this interview with Kris Lovejoy, the global head of cybersecurity for Ernst and Young (one of the world’s largest professional services firms) and Juliane Gallina, the chief information officer for the CIA. But it turns out when you interview two sisters like these, there’s no need to worry. As I logged on to the video chat, ready to apologize for my tardiness, I found them so engrossed in conversation they hardly noticed I was there.
Fifteen minutes of get-to-know-you conversation later, I still hadn’t asked a single question about their accomplishments because I was so moved by their closeness. Once we started, though, it was a far-reaching and, at times, emotional conversation about leadership, loss and love. This is my first joint interview of the “In the Room” series, and I was interested to see how these two women had achieved such unprecedented success in notably male-dominated industries—especially because they both majored in English and were raised by their mother, a teacher. But it turned out to also be a great idea for a different reason. Like so many badass women I’ve known, Juliane (Julie) and Kris each play down their own accomplishments, and it was often up to the sibling to fill in the gaps. And it’s a good thing, because the full stories of each of these women are almost unbelievable.
Kris Tells Julie’s Story Juliane attended the US Naval Academy after high school. “I was fascinated by the shuttle program and learned that many astronauts had been Navy or Marine Corps aviators.” With only about 10% of the incoming class being female, this was hardly a conventional choice. The pair lost their father when they were young, so money was scarce and the desire for structure and certainty was strong. “I liked the fact that it was free—I could be self-sustaining after graduation. And I wanted a challenge.” During her senior year at the Naval Academy, Julie discovered she didn’t meet the specifications to be a pilot. “I had short legs and didn’t make the cut.” Julie tried to end her biography here and wrap up by saying she became interested in national security from a roommate. Fortunately, Kris was quick to say, “Julie is too humble.
Let me brag about her.” It turns out that during her time in the Naval Academy, Julie excelled. The Navy sent her to graduate school to specialize in space systems and national reconnaissance. Her experience in satellite systems and remote sensing led to her technical job at the CIA and her second master’s degree in Electrical Engineering. Julie explains, “As a kid, my favorite toy was Dad’s wood workshop at our cabin. He’d give us a hammer, box of nails and scrap wood and say, ‘Go figure something out.’ Looking back now, I had mechanical aptitude—but I wish I’d been exposed to engineering earlier so I could have fallen in love with it earlier.”
Julie Tells Kris’ Story
Kris went into public service after college, working on policy issues such as the housing desegregation case for the Yonkers City Council. After several years, she explains, “I was burnt out, so I escaped through marriage.” She and her husband, a Marine pilot, were stationed in a remote military town in North Carolina, where Kris struggled to find her place. “I was so bored that I started volunteering…trying to help improve communication between wives and their husbands who were deployed.” Again, it was the other sister who filled in the gaps for me. “It is incredible the determination and grit Kris needed to get herself out of the limiting situation [she found herself in],” observes Julie. “And she did it while raising two kids!” The internet was barely in existence at that point. “The idea of talking to a remote spouse was unheard of.” Yet, Kris taught herself an early form of coding and networking and discovered, “I have a knack for this.” When her then-husband was transferred to Washington, D.C., she got a job as a network engineer and never looked back. She helped build and sell three technology companies and served as IBM’s chief global security officer before her current role heading Ernst and Young’s global security.
Lines for the Women’s Room Are Getting Longer
It is hard to imagine two women breaking more ceilings than this duo: a naval officer and engineer for the CIA, and a self-taught technology entrepreneur and national cyber-security expert. “I imagine you’ve had countless instances where you are the only woman in the room,” I correctly assume. “Tell me about that.” Kris is first to answer. “In technology, less than 10% of leaders belong to a minority group.” She then jokes, “At least there are no lines in the bathroom!” She says she has always been aware of this imbalance, but became acutely aware in her first role as CEO of a start-up. At a technology conference break-out session focused on the lack of diversity in the C-suite, she was the only woman in the room, and there were only a few people of color. “A guy stands up and said, ‘I’m sick and tired of this conversation. There are no women in the room. We have to ask, is it us or them?’” Kris waved her hands demonstrably, “Like, hello!” Finally, one of her male colleagues reminded him that she was, in fact, in the room. He apologized: “Sorry, I thought you were one of those event people.” Julie was reminded of a time in her corporate experience when she showed up to a meeting early to set up her laptop for her presentation. A man walked in and she asked if he was there for the meeting. “Yeah,” he replied, “but I’m here for the technical meeting,” and walked out. “He assumed because a woman was in the front of the room, he was in the wrong place,” Julie reflected. In 1998, when Julie first arrived in D.C., she noticed that only 10-15% of the people in the room were women. “Most of the time they were running charts on the computer on the side. We called them the ‘straphanger in the meeting.’… Sitting on the back wall and listening to the executives.” Both sisters see progress. Julie observes, “The lines in the bathroom are getting longer … and every time there is a line, it almost always comes up.” 25 years ago, the rare women leaders were often childless. But she also notes that many emerging female leaders are also moms.
Motherhood While Leading
Both Kris and Julie bring up their kids long before I ask about them. This was also true of both Christy Coleman and Angela Duckworth, two great leaders featured in my previous “In the Room” columns. We all acknowledge that navigating motherhood and a career is always a challenge. Kris shares that she’s always had to work to help support her family and never had an option to think otherwise (the same is true for me). She recounts a time when she ran into her daughter’s Brownie troop leader at the grocery store. The troop leader said, “I don’t know how you do it … who takes care of your children?” All Kris could think to say was, “I give them a box of cereal and lock them in the closet.” She wasn’t just angered by the assumption that she had the luxury of not working—she resented the implication that she didn’t take care of her kids as a result of being a working mom. Julie recounts the difficult decision she made at one point to leave the CIA—she joined a private company before recently returning to the agency. “I had been traveling a lot, working on a cool project, and so wrapped up in myself.” She started to feel increasingly out of touch with her kids and felt like she needed a “course correction.” They are also both aware, though, of how their success in the workplace has also had a positive impact on their kids. Kris jokes that only recently did her son discover she is a “senior executive,” by Googling her. She repeatedly refers to how strong-willed and purposeful her kids are, and that’s clearly because of her example. “Even though part of me always feels like a bad mother, and will always feel like a bad mother, I think my kids are proud of me and they have drive, which makes me feel good.” Julie recently took her daughter to a high-profile conference. “What a gift to be able to take her with me,” she shares. “I love supporting my daughter by exposing her to a world of opportunities that I wouldn’t otherwise know about. I can use my experience to help my children find a path…whatever path that is.” “Being a leader is learning how to be a good mother,” Kris offers. “Despite having hard-headed kids, you want to lead them to success. You can’t be angry, so you just have to mold them.” Turning Anger into Empathy Sometimes the injustice of continually being treated differently based on your gender can simply make you mad—so we got to talking about anger. When Julie first got to the Naval Academy she found herself pretty frustrated. “People reduced me to a stereotype they could understand.” There were only three options. “I could be a butch and blend in with the guys, a slut, or a bitch. None of those fit me—and I resented [being put in those boxes].” Kris says she’s gotten feedback over the years that she’s “too aggressive or sharp-elbowed.” She admitted that she constantly balances being decisive and bold versus collaborating, but she feels these observations are often due to “unconscious bias.” Indeed, research shows that female leaders are criticized for the very qualities for which male leaders are lauded. The three of us bonded over how we have learned to turn anger into motivation and empathy, most days. “I came out of freshman year determined to not be defined by those stereotypes,” said Julie. “I realized that was not healthy to be angry all the time.” She accepted that she couldn’t change others, but she could change her attitude and chose to forge her own path. Kris has learned to empathize with others, including those who perpetuate stereotypes. “It is a matter recognizing that the people you’re working with are human beings and there is nothing fixed in humans,” she said. “You can help them see the world through a different lens.”
Shout Out to the Moms
“Shout out to Mom! Because anyone who takes the minute to read about us [should know about her].” (I couldn’t help but smile ear to ear when she said this, since I feel the same way about my Mom, so very deeply.) “Our mom was tough as nails,” says Kris. “And our maternal grandmother came to the U.S. from Germany during World War I and supported herself.” “We had no weak women in our life,” Julie piles on. “The idea of being female as a detriment never crossed her mind.” One story epitomized their deep regard for the women in their family and reduced us all to tears. In the mid-1990s, Julie was set to graduate from the Naval Academy. Her grandmother traveled from her apartment in the Bronx to see her graduation. Through a highly selective process, Julie was asked to serve as the brigade commander—the first woman to serve in that capacity in the Navy’s history. “I got to the point where I was in the front of the parade [with 5,000 people following me]. I could feel the students marching and the drums were beating,” she shares with deep emotion. “I made a turn onto a field and the entire parade field is open in front of you … an official was in front of me by himself on the field. And his guest of honor was my grandma.” “In her lifetime, [grandma] had seen the transition to motorized automobiles, she survived the First World War as a young woman, and watched the Second World War as a German immigrant in New York. She survived the Depression and saw the civil rights movement and the rise of feminism…She was so strong and resilient, that it meant a lot to me to make her proud of our family,” she says thankfully. Hold Your Head High Deep into the conversation, Julie and Kris reveal that their father was murdered when they were 11 and 7, under cloudy circumstances that called into question his integrity. They reflected on their mother’s powerful example in the face of such adversity. “Mom stayed in our community when she could have left,” shares Kris. Julie adds, “She held her head high.” Partly as a result of their father’s death, both women have grown up with a fierce commitment to “duty and ethics…a passion to be successful, ethical, smart and honorable.” Says Julie, “The more I worked, the more it felt redemptive…like distance between me and this evil past.” Kris continues, “Everything we have done is to define ourselves as honorable.” Wiping away my own tears for the second time, I wondered how they endured and accomplished so much. “It was just part of me. If you’re going to do it, you just do it,” explains Kris. “You don’t think about how far you’re going to go, you just get it done.” This reminded me just how humble they both are, and I felt grateful again for having them both present for this interview. There is so much I would not have the privilege of learning if each sister had not provided key details for her sibling’s story. I have six sisters and several friends who are like sisters. Having lost some powerful women in my own family this year, I quietly reminded myself at the end of the interview to actively support all of these women in my life, purposefully and regularly. As sisters, we share our successes and struggles. May we all strive to be badasses who lift up those we love as openly as Kris and Juliane.
Whether it’s at the Oscars, the statehouse or on the floor of Congress, much of our country’s ongoing struggle with racial hatred and racial healing traces back to how we memorialize our history of slavery, the Civil War and the Confederacy. Few are having such a direct impact on this critical and messy conversation as Christy Coleman, the first woman and first African-American to lead the American Civil War Museum. In fact, Time magazine recently named her one of “31 people changing the South.”
From her office in Virginia, Christy talked to me about leading and change, as well as life lessons from being in the room and pushing uncomfortable conversations.
Follow your passion, even when it means breaking with convention.
“I was born breach, so my parents knew I was destined to do things my way,” jokes Christy, whose personal decisions and career pathway haven’t always aligned with conventional wisdom.
Growing up in Williamsburg, Virginia—a city known for tourism centered on Revolutionary War artifacts and actors reenacting scenes from colonial times—Christy’s passion for how history is memorialized started at a young age. Though it wasn’t her original plan, by her late 20s she realized that “the museum world was for me.”
Christy knew it was necessary to pursue higher education to move up in the industry. Conventional wisdom says you should get a doctorate, but Christy elected to get a master’s degree instead, so she could stay close to the work. “The year I considered pursuing my Ph.D.,” she noted, she had already landed her first CEO opportunity.
Not only has Christy pushed for hard changes, but she’s also broken multiple ceilings. The museum industry, especially at the C-suite, is dominated by men and white people. As just one example, at this high point of her career, people still presume that her biggest career aspiration as a Black woman would be to run the Museum of African-American History—as opposed to any of the countless other esteemed museums she’s clearly qualified to lead.
As someone whose career pathway has also been described as “non-traditional,” I personally resonated with Christy’s story (even down to the detail of turning down a doctoral program). Research shows that women have to fight much harder than men to establish their credibility as leaders, regardless of their track record of success or qualifications, and that’s even harder for women of color.
Pushing change means embracing trouble, but only for a higher purpose.
Christy’s career is characterized, among many things, by a fearless spirit to ask tough questions and break barriers. “To paraphrase Harriett Tubman,” she says, “you want change in your life, don’t be afraid to trouble the waters.”
Early on, she became the director of public history for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and managed to convince the organization to allow her to envision, lead, and execute a reenactment of a slave auction. It was a remarkable achievement at an institution many think of as whitewashing history. “Uninformed people thought it wasn’t the appropriate place to deal with slavery…like Disneyland but without the rides.” But her rationale was clear: “American history is messy and we need to look at it to deal with it.”
Practically overnight, Christy became a sensation. Calls from TV networks and talk show hosts poured in. But so did calls from critics. Some questioned her motives, while others questioned her very right to expose this part of American history at all.
I asked her if she was hoping for the kind of attention she received, if it was purposeful. “No, [I was] purposeful at trying to be innovative and trying to find larger historical truths…[my goal was to] turn over the tapestry to see the threads on the backside.” Like former Harvard President Drew Faust, who I interviewed for another In The Room column, Christy has always been driven by a higher purpose and impact, not by fame or recognition.
Build a base of support.
Christy recognized early in her career that persevering through challenges requires support.
Her experience at Colonial Williamsburg was jarring. “I was 30 years old so it was really nerve-wracking…the Foundation chose to make me the face of the discussion because it was my program.” With that level of public scrutiny, she continued, “I had no experience.”
She relied on, “a skilled public relations team, a strong personal network, and the faith…humility that is required for the work.” She also garnered strength from the letters she received from people thanking her for her courage to speak the truth.
All along, Christy has always kept close, informal mentors who believed in her and set an example for what was possible. She mentioned two women in particular who “have passed on…but [their] legacies are blazed on my soul.” She credits a “sisterhood” of black women in particular who “gather over dinner and genuinely check in with each other.” She credits male mentors with “opening doors.”
This is about “building one’s base of support,” she said.
Christy also wasn’t afraid to seek professional help. For a period of time—partially because of the stress of public pushback—she developed a fear of crowds. With the help of therapy and her support circle, she got better. “[It] came down to having a sense of control,” she explained, “once I let go of that things got better.”
I’ve had so many conversations with leaders, particularly those from groups not traditionally represented in the room, about the stress and personal toll it takes to break ceilings. So many will benefit from how openly Christy shares her strategies for healing and self-care.
Make your own balance.
One of the most striking ways Christy tended to her own needs came in 2008. After making a name for herself at Colonial Williamsburg and later becoming the CEO of the Charles H. Wright Museum in Detroit, Christy affirmatively “stepped back to a smaller organization to be home with my children.”
After having her son, Christy was initially able to meet her career and mom goals. She brought her son on the road, took breastfeeding breaks at work (she could get home and back within an hour), and adjusted her hours to spend quality time with him.
But a more difficult pregnancy with her daughter and having two kids made the trade-offs between work and home more stark. So, she made the decision to spend a few years consulting and advising others as opposed to running something big. “I could not keep up the pace and I did not want to feel like I was not fulfilling my duties,” she shared.
“I had no interest in having it all,” she explained, “I had interest in doing what I love well.” She continued, “I want to be a mother, I want to be available to my children and my husband…with a fulfilling career.”
Plenty of friends and detractors warned her this would be a mistake, but Christy followed her path. At one point, a board member told her point blank that she needed to choose if she wanted to be a CEO or a mom. When she pushed back on the inappropriate nature of his remarks, many of his colleagues—even some of her own supposed allies—defended him.
I am blessed with a vast network of friends who happen to also be CEOs, both men and women. Every single one of my female friends has been given some version of this “talk” and none of the men, even those who prioritized fatherhood. When I shared this with Christy, she echoed my concerns, saying that unlike the treatment of mothers in the workplace, “We value men when they want to be both a parent and professional.”
She had people who supported her decision too. Her female mentors helped her understand the “balance was mine to make.” Several of her male mentors reassured her that she’d be fine and would be able to step back into a leadership role as long as she stayed connected to the work and kept her name in the space.
And that’s what happened. After a fulfilling several years prioritizing motherhood, Christy landed her most high-profile CEO role at the American Civil War Museum.
Have a sense of purpose…and a sense of humor.
We ended our conversation talking about her current work. For some, the fact that Christy, a Black woman, is leading a museum about our country’s most troubling legacy causes discomfort. She also leads a commission in Richmond, Virginia—not far from recent white supremacy rallies—that seeks to update and add context to Confederate monuments.
She shared, “If my presence helps people understand [racism’s] impact is still relevant, then I’m fine with that.”
Ever the philosopher, Christy added, “The good lord has an extraordinary sense of humor with me.”
Despite her obvious fortitude in the face of criticism and her bold leadership in breaking barriers, her one piece of advice for aspiring change agents is simply to listen. “Sometimes the best thing to do is sit down, shut up, and listen…I practice listening. Not just listening for agreement but for better understanding.”
Throughout, but especially at this part in the conversation, I am struck by her moral clarity and personal purpose, but also her willingness to be vulnerable. “I am exactly where I need to be,” she says. And boy, are we lucky that’s true.
By Layla Avila, Evan Stone and Cami Anderson
As education leaders, we take our commitment to students and families very seriously, not only to provide them with an excellent education that affords them access to the fullest range of life’s opportunities but also to ensure they are emotionally and physically safe and supported.
That’s why we are dismayed at the Trump administration’s decision to dismantle protections for our most vulnerable students by repealing much-needed federal guidance guarding students from discriminatory discipline practices. This damaging move was announced just before Christmas, even though thousands of teachers and more than 100 educators, advocates, district and state leaders, charter school operators, unions, and other education leaders called on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the U.S. Justice Department to maintain the guidance protecting all students — particularly students of color, students with disabilities, and students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning. Educators are not alone in our concern: DeVos also received letters from a wide swath of groups on this issue, such as state attorneys generaland the civil rights community.
Over the past year, DeVos met with teachers from across the country and promised to listen. But the concerns of families and educators clearly fell on deaf ears. Rescinding the guidance without putting forward a concrete plan for schools to end unjust discipline practices is another baffling example of how the Trump administration is abandoning students and families.
The problem: Too many of these practices are the exception, not the rule.
While there has been progress, a steady drumbeat of data reveals we have miles to go. A study by the bipartisan U.S. Government Accountability Office last year found persistent racial disparities in student discipline. And the 2015-2016 federal Civil Rights Data Collection showed the same trend. Black students are three and a half times as likely to be suspended from school than their white peers — often for the same behavior as their classmates. Latino students also saw troubling disparities compared with white students. Students with disabilities, who make up about 12 percent of public school students, account for nearly a quarter of students referred to law enforcement, arrested for a school-related incident or suspended.
The consequences of inaction are dire. Students who’ve been suspended just once are three times as likely to be incarcerated later on. Continuing to use biased and harsh discipline with students from historically underserved communities — students who probably already have a mountain to climb to succeed in school and beyond — limits their trajectories in life.
The good news is that some schools are pioneering innovative practices — rooted in research — that point the way forward on school discipline:
- Training can help educators build empathy when it comes to student discipline and form productive partnerships with families before incidents occur.
- Schools can build positive cultures that include rigorous academic work in which students hold one another accountable.
- School staff can help students learn social and emotional skills, such as self-management and conflict de-escalation.
- Administrators can focus on hiring and retaining staff members who build strong, inclusive classroom cultures and who reflect the diversity of students.
- States and systems can provide mental-health professionals, counseling staff and other support systems.
- Schools can introduce alternatives to suspensions — such as restorative circles and in-classroom interventions — that address student behavior and help them learn to make better decisions without excluding them from school.
We believe the federal government has an important role to play in safeguarding students’ civil rights, which can be accomplished without stifling state and local decision-making or teachers’ autonomy in their classroom. Without federal action, it can be easy for systems to lose sight of these disparities and their long-term effects. Or schools and systems may choose what’s politically easy and expedient over what’s best for students. Despite this setback, our coalition will continue working in cities and states across the country to effect change — and the federal government must continue to enforce laws that ensure all students have the opportunity to thrive.
We can and must do better. Our students’ futures hang in the balance.
Cami Anderson is the founder of the Discipline Revolution Project.
Layla Avila is CEO and executive director of Education Leaders of Color.
Evan Stone is co-founder and co-CEO of Educators for Excellence.
By Laura Faith Kebede
As the top schools chief in Newark, Cami Anderson was horrified at the strict discipline policy she saw in one of her high schools. Since then, she has left the New Jersey district and taken her ideas on the road about reducing suspensions and moving away from exclusionary discipline practices.
This week, Anderson came to Memphis as part of her Discipline Revolution Project at the invitation of Stand for Children Tennessee, The Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, School Seed, and Shelby County Schools. The New Teacher Project is partnering with her on the national tour.
Anderson has been meeting with Shelby County Schools administrators and board members as well as charter school leaders, philanthropists, education advocates, and students. Her time will culminate in a public event hosted by Stand for Children on Thursday at the National Civil Rights Museum.
Chalkbeat sat down with Anderson after she explained to a group of about 40 charter leaders her six focus areas to reduce classroom disruptions while also preventing sending students home when they’re in trouble. (This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.)
Question: How did you land on student discipline as an area you wanted to focus on?
Answer: If there’s actually a thread in my career, it’s this. I essentially ran the system of supports for the kids in New York City who are on their last stop on the train, so to speak. I’ve always worked with kids who are marginalized, the ones who really struggled in school. So, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what we need to get better at collectively to serve all kids, to really embrace the “all means all.” That’s been my lifelong question.
The three areas to me where inequities are most obvious are: enrollment policies, how we handle discipline, and mobility and how a kid stays connected to school. Discipline is where it comes to a head. It’s both a place where our collective inability to reach all kids shows up and it’s also an opportunity if we actually figure out how to prevent young people from misstepping in the first place, but then respond in healthy ways when they do Then we’d actually start to solve the broader equity issues.
Q. School leaders say they don’t want to have a lot of suspensions because students miss out on class. But they’re also not sure what to replace suspensions with to manage student behavior well. What would you say to them?
A. That’s one of the main reasons we started Discipline Revolution Project. We don’t want you to do X, whatever X is: suspend kids, use corporal punishment. But educators are saying, rightfully so, then what are we doing? Our whole framework is trying to answer that question and give them tools to get to the “why” behind finding alternative responses.
Most people who use punitive or exclusionary discipline don’t actually think it works that well. They just don’t have a lot of other tools. So, when you give folks a lot of other tools and they find that it works, it’s a very powerful thing. When people try out a restorative conference, they say “Oh, I feel better. The kid feels better. And we actually got back to the lesson faster.” You can’t just be against something. You have to be for something.
I’ve heard a lot of demand for basics of restorative practices (conflict resolution between students and students and teachers), though I don’t think they should stop there. They want training for student support teams. And overwhelmingly, the places I’ve been want to talk about how teacher bias plays into who gets disciplined, but they don’t know how to start the conversation and for it to be productive.
Q. Memphis’ two school districts have emphasized a bottom-up approach on discipline reform: adding behavior specialists, school counselors, soliciting support from principals and teachers. How have you seen other districts do it?
A. I’ve seen districts lead with policy and only make statements declaring they will cut suspensions in half or put a moratorium on suspensions or rewrite their policy. Policy-level change is critical but insufficient if you only do that. What you see is folks who are actually on the ground working with students may not have the strategies to replace it with something productive. That causes people to be more entrenched in their views that discipline reform wouldn’t work, some schools subtly pushing kids out, underreporting discipline data, all that.
I’ve also seen the opposite where it’s all about professional development and capacity but at no point is there is any accountability for those same schools, for example, that suspend 90 percent of the kids. People watch what you do, not what you say. If you don’t align your policies and your actions with your values, then you also have limits to the impacts you have for kids.
I’ve come to believe you need all of it and you need everyone working together. Stop admiring the problem and get on to the solutions.
Q. What pushed student discipline practices more widely into the national conversation? What have you observed from the conversation here in Memphis?
A. People are looking at data, which is a good thing, and seeing patterns like everyone else. Another thing is I believe a lot of people who got into education reform are completely dedicated to equity. And now they’re seeing this side of it, and like someone said in the training today, they feel a sense of “healthy guilt.” I think it’s great they’re having the courage to be honest. And then a lot of folks had kids. You start thinking, “Do I want any of that happening to my own kid?” I’m personally heartened and encouraged and motivated to see a collective sense of responsibility and focus on this.
There’s a lot of energy and candor in Memphis about this issue. Some other cities I’ve been in think they have it figured out when they don’t. When there’s that much energy, I think anywhere — including in Memphis — people can be tempted to devolve into the blame game, no matter what district or charter hat you wear. That energy can be the greatest asset or greatest liability.
Q. The school shooting in Parkland has been a catalyst for more conversations about the trauma students bring into the classroom — conversations that were already happening about violence in low-income communities of color. What would you say to school leaders on how to address that?
A. I’m most interested to know what adults can do to mitigate those risk factors for young people who experience trauma. I feel like it could take us down a very bad path to just observe that there are things called “adverse childhood experiences.” To me, that’s not enough. The question then is what are the environments and strategies that we can put in place as educators and adults to mitigate the impact of those traumatic experiences. Things like relationships, trust, consistency, high expectations, high supports, and support healthy identity development especially in times of conflict. We know from research that young people who face long odds who ultimately prevail, they are exposed to environments that really embody those things.
You can both be aware of and acknowledge those experiences that make it harder for them to succeed in school. But if you stop there, I don’t think you’re doing justice to young people. There are things we can do in schools to help create the environment to help them succeed.
By Cami Anderson
“When a black or brown youngster is shot — apparently for no good reason — by a law enforcement officer, there is a public response to that violence. And that response is fierce. That response is strategic. And that response, on occasion, makes sure that justice ultimately be done.” — Dr. Clement Price, Rutgers University – Newark Distinguished Professor of History, WBGO News, August 13, 2014
Last month, Newark Public Schools (NPS) participated in a Rutgers-Newark-hosted summit sponsored by America’s Promise, a national non-profit organization that has helped put the goal of increasing graduation rates for all students at the forefront of public discourse. The conversation was rich, positive and solutions-oriented, but I could not shake my angst about what it all meant in the context of the grand juries’ failure to indict the officers responsible for the tragic deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. As impassioned organizers and mourning community members took to the streets in demonstrations against a range of injustices, the words of the late Dr. Clement Price, a beloved professor of history who recently and unexpectedly passed, rang in my ears.
What responsibility do educators and administrators like myself have to the African American and Latino students Dr. Price spoke about? How do we ensure that education systems equip all students with the skills to access their dreams and not replicate cycles of systemic oppression?
Among education professionals, the term “disconnected youth” refers to young people who are of school age but dropped out, are about to drop out, and/or are trying to return to school. Nationally and in Newark, this group is comprised disproportionally of boys of color, not unlike our juvenile and adult justice systems. Unless you believe that African American and Latino boys are just more naturally prone to struggle in school than their female or white peers — which I obviously do not — it is incumbent on school systems to take an honest look at these persistent inequities and aggressively work to change them.
Consider these alarming statistics. Nationally, about 10 percent of high school students were suspended in school year 2009-2010, but for African American and Latino boys that number is 1 out of 3. These figures mirror research that consistently demonstrates how African American and Latino boys are far more likely to be reprimanded for the same “misbehaviors” as their white peers. 30 percent of all students arrested in school were African American, but this group accounts for only 16 percent of enrollment. Of the high school students who disconnected from school in Newark during the 2012-13 school year, roughly 51 percent were African American and Latino boys even though they only make up 45 percent of the high school student body. Though imbalanced, Newark’s data isn’t as stark as the national average where African and Latino students are three times as likely to be disciplined as their white counterparts, often for the very same “offenses.” Schools and school systems should be places where playing fields are leveled. Education, as Horace Mann said, should be “the great equalizer” and instead, the school-to-prison pipeline that funnels a disproportionate number of African American and Latino students into the justice system is alive and well.
So, what have we done in Newark and where do we need to go from here? Our approach distills to four distinct strategies: (1) focus elementary and middle schools on strengths-based early warning systems, (2) rethink high schools to prevent students from disconnecting, (3) create better on-ramps for students to reconnect, and (4) radically change discipline policies.
Too often, elementary and middle school principals and teachers think of the “drop out problem” as a high school issue despite research indicating that a student’s academic performance in third grade is a strong predictor of his/her likelihood to stay in school. This is no longer true in Newark, where all schools, including elementary schools such as Quitman Street, are accountable for equity. Every Newark public school has chartered a Student Support Team comprised of teachers, administrators, guidance staff, and relevant service providers, trained in a “case management” system to identify and discuss students who begin to struggle academically, behaviorally, or both. This case management system trains educators to notice when students are performing at their best, and to replicate that success by developing an action plan with clear milestones that build on the student’s strengths, rather than overemphasize a student’s shortcomings. Our approach requires adults to challenge themselves continually to find new and improved ways to reach, not blame, students. This system only works if schools are staffed with faculty who regard students’ academic, social, and emotional well-being as their responsibility, and who look to improve their own practice as opposed to assuming an irreparable shortcoming in a struggling student. At NPS, this commitment is reflected in our nationally-recognized teacher contract, which places a high premium on recruiting, selecting, and rewarding best-in-class educators. It is also reflected in school-based professional development and additional support provided by partners and NPS coaches who have a particular expertise in motivating students and creating purposeful, respectful, and culturally-competent classroom cultures.
“Old-school” comprehensive high schools simply do not work for most students — but they are categorically detrimental for students who struggle. Given that 2/3 of Newark students come to the 9th grade at least one grade level behind in reading and/or math, we had to ask some tough questions about how our high schools are designed. We divvied many of our schools into smaller learning communities — in some instances creating academies within large schools and in others actually splitting individual schools into multiple schools. We invented and adopted new models, for example an all-girls school, an all-boys school, an early college model, as well as a sports and careers academy. We rescheduled 9th graders into longer literacy and numeracy blocks, so students are exposed to rigorous content through small groups, one-on-one instruction, and computer-assisted software, making a bet on depth rather than coverage. We worked with schools to develop “graduation trackers” that provided each student with clarity around where they were and how they were progressing towards graduation. We adopted the ACT to afford us a better measure of college-readiness, and we again used our teacher contract to reward and attract the most effective and talented educators into our hardest-to-staff schools.
When traditional schools — even those that have been redesigned — do not work, we need different and new models with even more intensive academic acceleration, time on task, and social-emotional support. During my tenure in New York City, I worked with a group of people to found a network of high schools for court-involved youth called ROADS (Reinventing Options for Adolescents who Deserve Success). ROADS — and other schools like them across the country — are building models that combine intensive counseling, extended school day and year, career connections, and cutting-edge work on literacy and numeracy for students who either struggle academically or who have missed many years of school. In Newark, we have created two “transfer high schools” that are building similar capacity. Every day, young people who have previously dropped out of school decide to reconnect. Too many systems either make this impossible and/or afford these students low-quality options that do not respect their intellectual abilities. Cities and districts need to work together to provide high quality, academically rigorous, and well-designed pathways for young adults. These pathways need to go well beyond helping young people “get a job” and should prepare them for a 21st century labor market where being able to read, write, and do math at high levels is critical for long-term success.
Most importantly, if policies and beliefs around discipline unduly punish a specific group of individuals, then radical changes are necessary. We’ve affectionately begun calling our approach “zero tolerance for zero tolerance.” Without a doubt, student safety is paramount and all students deserve safe and peaceful learning environments. At NPS, we believe this can be accomplished while avoiding the costly outcomes that come with biased school discipline systems. We started by training teams of police, school safety officers, central staff, administrators, teachers and student leaders on “restorative justice” practices that allow groups of students to hold one another accountable for missteps in a healthy and solutions-oriented way. We worked with partners to identify and model responses to misbehavior that show care for all students rather than derailing learning. We’ve rewritten policies to institute new checks and balances around who is at the table when a decision is made to put a student out. This decision is one not to take lightly because statistically, it is a very clear indication that these students will ultimately drop out and/or become court-involved. Similarly, we’ve revisited the policies around who is empowered at the school level to call police to arrest a student — another life-altering decision that too few adults were seeing as such. Research shows that fair, non-biased, restorative discipline policies that seek to support all types of students will lead to improved outcomes for all kids, not just those who adults perceive to be “behavior problems”.
While we admittedly have considerable distance to cover before reaching the goal of a 100 percent graduation rate, we are proud of our progress to-date. The percentage of graduating students who also passed both sections of our graduation exam has increased by 11 percentage points. Last year, 68 percent of our students graduated — up from 54 percent in 2009. This rise is particularly notable because it was achieved while reducing the number of dropouts by 500 students since 2011, applying more rigorous metrics than most districts and yielding 7 percent more actual graduates.
Equally significant is how dramatically our suspension rates and policies differ from years past, with NPS reducing the occurrence of extended suspensions while also proactively monitoring the issuance of suspensions with regard to race, gender, and for other historically over-represented populations such as students with disabilities. From school year 2012 to 2013 there was a 37 percent decline in the number of suspensions within NPS, for a total of 1,305 fewer suspensions. In addition, the District now conducts quarterly meetings to review trends in discipline and school culture to bolster efficiency and accountability. Our celebration of this progress will not distract us from the huge challenges ahead. We have much more work to do, to ensure that elementary schools put all students on a level playing field, that high-schools support all types of learners, that “second chance” options meet students where they are and help them attain previously unthinkable outcomes, and that school-based discipline policies are unbiased and support all students.
I must admit, I am impatient and I take this work personally. As the sister of two men of color, the life partner of one, and the Mom of another — this progress, in Newark and around the country, feels inadequate. At NPS, our incredible team goes to bed every night trying to challenge conventional wisdoms and dismantle the structures that hamper achievement, perpetuate oppression and prevent students from realizing their dreams. We are fiercely driven by the notion that justice should ultimately be done — and that education systems can either continue to cement cycles of systemic racism, or boldly break them.
A version of this article appeared on The Huffington Post.
By Cami Anderson
Anyone who has attempted reform work knows that there is a vast difference between community engagement and local politics. This critical nuance is completely missed in Dale Rusakoff’s assessment of the progress made, and still being made, in the quest to improve Newark Public Schools in The Prize. While the book is part of an importation conversation about equity and education, it simplifies matters for the sake of a dramatic narrative about school reform and attempts to villainize those working to fix inherently broken systems.
When I arrived in Newark five years ago as superintendent, less than 30 percent of the student body was reading and doing math at grade level. Ineffective teachers received job security and high salaries while more impactful teachers with less seniority, were ignored or laid off as the district lost students to a growing charter sector. Administrators abused power and funds. Graduation rates were terrible. Buildings were crumbling, enrollment was done through pen-and-paper transactions, transportation options were limited, and most schools were not Internet-wired. With a $1B budget, Newark Public Schools was the largest local industry in a town where the average income is about $17K. Politicians and local powerbrokers coveted contracts, grants, and jobs that weren’t’t delivering results for kids. Families were on waiting lists for charter schools and polls showed the community was deeply dissatisfied.
Despite these stark realities, our efforts to meet this mandate for change evoked defensiveness, intimidation, and worse. Groups and leaders that should have been allies resisted anything that would upset the status quo because they benefitted from trading favors. Education reformers worked against each other to advance competing priorities rather than banding together around a unified theory of change to spur innovation and ensure equity. Unions fought to keep ineffective staff members, who in some instances verbally or physically abused students, and formed alliances with public officials they help elect. Ugly politics injected money to pay for organizers and ad campaigns that spread misinformation and fueled mistrust. Community members who dared to voice support were targets of intimidating phone calls, threatening home visits, and public bullying.
In the face of these challenges, we made substantial progress. Newark’s lowest performing schools improved dramatically. We recruited transformational school leaders who worked with families to completely reimagine their school, added time for students to learn and adults to collaborate, and invested millions to upgrade facilities and technology. The majority of highly effective teachers were retained and we exited low performers because of our new and nationally-recognized labor contract. A restorative justice approach helped adults better reach struggling young people and reduced suspension rates. We created unprecedented partnerships with the charter sector to bring transparency to how we measured progress and equity to enrollment. Test scores improved. Enrollment increased thanks to One Newark, a groundbreaking approach to working with charters to transform an entire system. Graduation rates rose by 12 percent.
Despite these clear successes, The Prize insinuates that the jury is still out on whether we had an impact. Some changes will take years to fully materialize. But others couldn’t be clearer. To the students who avoided suspension and the devastating repercussions of juvenile detention thanks to our social justice programs, it’s the difference between two very different futures. To the students who graduated instead of dropping out, it now means that college is a possibility.
Engaging families is different than managing politics. The forces for status quo are currently better at politics than those of us who believe we must deliver different outcomes for kids. The Prize trivializes and ignores our persistent, though perhaps imperfect, efforts to find new and creative channels for dialogue when traditional paths were blocked. My team and I spent the vast majority of our time talking to and listening to people in schools, at big public meetings, and also at the grocery store, in small roundtables, and at local hang-outs. In these intimate discussions, we heard and felt support and enthusiasm for change.
A version of this article appeared on The Hill
By Cami Anderson
The debate over the future of our nation’s education system continues to divide the country. On one side we have advocates of market-disrupting charters looking to eliminate the bureaucracies they believe inhibit education. On the other, public school activists are committed to preserving a system that has failed many students for decades. There is, however, a third option that would allow both charter and traditional public schools to thrive and serve students with diverse needs across educational levels.
Cities like Newark, N.J.; Washington; and Denver are pursuing groundbreaking approaches by embracing both charters and traditional schools. Leaders from both sides have begun to step up and assume collective responsibility for providing a quality education to all students, regardless of which school they attend. They are building a mixed education market that draws on economic principles of competition and our country’s founding commitment to equity so that all families have access to a variety of great educational choices.
The original concept behind charters was sound: Create new options in poor communities with low-performing schools so children have an immediate chance for success. Charter schools would be held accountable for results and their leaders freed from antiquated policies and practices. Charter proponents hoped this flexibility would create the conditions for higher student achievement outside of district schools and generate promising practices for reform more broadly.
And the initial plan worked. In places like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Houston, high-performing charters serving student populations similar to traditional schools delivered radically better results. Excited by early successes, reformers and advocates pushed for more charters, faster. Private-sector funders cheered because it meant injecting competition into a broken monopoly.
But charters are not a silver bullet, and their expansion can create unintended consequences for communities. In my time as the superintendent of schools in Newark, I came face to face with the realities of aggressive charter-market-share expansion. While high-performing charters offered better options to lottery winners, their rapid growth had the potential to make things worse for families that lost.
An analysis for our One Newark plan projected that over the course of seven years, charters would grow from serving 5 percent of students in 2010 to 40 percent of students in 2017. This trend threatened to leave more than half of Newark’s students in dysfunctional schools that were, at the time, losing students and resources, while being staffed by the most senior—but not always effective—teachers.
When students leave a traditional school to attend a charter, the money goes with them, along with jobs and contracts that sustain fragile economies and fuel local politics. My team and I needed to find a way to help charter schools increase their positive impact while lifting up traditional schools so that all of Newark’s students and neighborhoods thrived.
“Charters are not a silver bullet, and their expansion can create unintended consequences for communities.”
The first step was to level the playing field so everyone had an equal chance to get into a good school. Traditionally, each charter ran its own lottery, which resulted in confusion and difficulty for already-burdened families. We created a one-stop enrollment system that every school—charter and district alike—was required to participate in, giving all families access to the same options.
This universal-enrollment system, staffed with family advocates, began to change the dynamic that favored charter-school-lottery winners and left everyone else—often those schools with the fewest resources—with the leftovers.
Next, we worked to give district schools the same flexibility and tools that allow charters to succeed. We overhauled our teacher-evaluation system to retain high performers and let go of low performers. Excellent teachers were included in the process, and passionate leaders with entrepreneurial spirits and effective management skills were installed in schools. Our focus on best-in-class training and coaching encouraged teachers and leaders to move the district toward the future.
Finally, we sought to end the divide between the district and charters by aligning charter-growth plans with community needs. We asked charters to take over schools in the toughest neighborhoods with high family demand, instead of growing one grade level at a time in new buildings where they got the best real estate deals. Charters agreed, renovated historic buildings, and kept the traditional school names. Schools that would otherwise have closed, hurting our poorest neighborhoods and making politics even tougher, are now community anchors.
Our mission from the outset was to ensure 100 percent of schools in Newark were excellent, located in thriving neighborhoods, and supporting all students. The early results are encouraging. Graduation rates are climbing. Overall enrollment is up for the first time in over a decade—a critical sign of health. A recent study by the Center for Reinventing Public Education showed that 40 percent of Newark students are enrolled in “beat the odds” schools—those that outpace demographically similar schools statewide—far above the average of only 8 percent across the 50 cities studied.
Even with this progress, cities like Newark and states like New Jersey have miles to go to truly create the charter-like conditions necessary for district schools to compete. This will take courageous public policy and leaders to completely rethink laws governing tenure, civil service, and service contracts. Ironically, those organizing to protect a broken status quo are creating the very circumstances that make charters feel like the only option for advocates and families who want results now.
Cities and states across the country can embrace and build on Newark’s example to foster a diversified market with more choice, higher quality, equal access, and a community focus.
The mixed-market approach will work only if we redefine success. It is not about expanding charters or saving districts. We all need to stop the polarizing discussion and come together to create a blended model, a third way, of giving all students in all neighborhoods access to the best education possible, rather than treating children like pawns in our political games.
Ms. Anderson is a former superintendent of Newark Public Schools (2011-15) and former superintendent of Alternative High Schools and Programs in New York City (2006-11). This article originally appeared in Education Week.
By Cami Anderson
I didn’t have the most conventional upbringing. As one of 12 kids (now with 15 nieces and nephews and growing), I know that my family has always turned heads on volume alone. If you add to the mix that nine of my siblings are adopted, most of us are within four years of each other in age, and our family portraits represents the best of our country’s diversity, this has shaped my views as a person, educator, and activist. Sports and substance abuse, racism and roses, homophobia and honesty, incarceration and ice cream, poverty and privilege, trauma and joy were all frequent topics of discussion at our weekly family meetings. Members of my family experienced school differently, often based on how much adults perceived they could achieve. What would it take to build a school system where all of my siblings and their kids would thrive? This question drives me to this day and pushes me to ask myself and other reformers what the next phase of the work to ensure excellence and equity should look like, based on what we have — and have not — tackled in the past 20 years of reform.
Recently, the education community has been barraged by sobering — but not surprising — news. In recent national studies, we (again) learned that students who drop out of high school do not have access to 21st-century jobs. We (again) learned about how homeless students fall between the cracks and how schools struggle to support them or, worse, don’t even know they sleep in a car. We (again) learned that students who were adopted or grow up in foster care, even in wealthy communities, experience more challenges in school than their peers, as issues around healthy identity collide with systems ill-equipped to support nontraditional families. We (again) learned that students of color, who are suspended at rates far higher than their peers for the same infractions, are far more likely to leave school and become incarcerated for major portions of their lives. We (again) learned that students who identify as LGBTQ are less likely to graduate or have a positive school experience.
Despite our best efforts, there are too many children whom schools and school systems, charter and district, are struggling to reach. They are students whom adults perceive as “hard to serve.” Far from being the great equalizer they can be, schools are too often the places where kids facing the most significant risk factors have the worst experiences. Challenges these students experience in life, often because of the failures of other systems like child welfare and criminal justice, are exacerbated instead of ameliorated in their school experience.
Undeniably, as a reform community, we have created more excellent schools serving poor students. But, equally undeniably, we have not changed the hard fact that if you are a kid facing significant risk factors, you are not likely to excel. More deeply diagnosing the root of problems is the first step to effecting meaningful solutions. But, as one of my favorite coaches used to say, “So what? Now what?”
If we truly believe that all students, regardless of their circumstances, deserve excellent schools that give them the widest range of life options, then we have to do more than admire the problem.
School leaders and reformers must be willing to ask ourselves tough questions and rethink what we are doing and not doing to truly support all students, especially those caught in circumstances that make school harder. I suggest we look unsparingly at how we approach our work along four dimensions: people, practices, policies, and power.
As a reform community, we have embraced a simple but important truth: People matter. We’ve maintained a laser-like focus on recruiting, selecting, and coaching excellence in the classroom because we know the single most important school-based factor is teacher quality. As was the case in our groundbreaking contract in Newark, we’ve created incentives to retain and reward the best teachers while fairly moving out those we wouldn’t want teaching our own children. We’ve changed the definition of what it means to be a principal and embraced the critical role assistant principals, other administrators, and teacher leaders play in building excellent schools.
But in order to really reach all students, we have to make sure we are giving teachers the tools to support students’ academic and social and emotional growth. We need to celebrate and develop teachers who build deep relationships with their students, who know what motivates and triggers them, and who form true partnerships with the primary person in their family, whether that is a parent, grandparent, neighbor, uncle, foster parent, or case worker. Great teachers skillfully plan rigorous lessons and know their students as unique individuals. It’s also critical that our teaching population better mirror the diversity of our students.
We need an equally deep focus on how we recruit, select, coach, and evaluate guidance counselors and social workers. Non-teaching staff, from counselors to peer coaches to teaching assistants, who help students set and attain personal goals, are critical. Adults whose full-time role is to support the social and emotional growth of students must be experts at developing trust to help students reflect openly on their hopes, fears, strengths, and weaknesses. They need to be highly skilled, for example, in motivational interviewing techniques to help students persist in the face of obstacles. Even the most empathetic and dedicated educators have blind spots about how students who are struggling experience unconscious biases and low expectations. All adults need high-quality professional development experiences that help put them in the shoes of students and how they perceive school.
As a reform community, we celebrate practices that we equate with high-performing schools. We celebrate carefully planned and purposefully reinforced school cultures that have “no excuses” for students to operate below grade level. High-performing schools have rigorous curricula, carefully planned units and lessons, meaningful ways to measure student progress, and time to adjust teaching where needed. Adults are accountable for upholding school values and continuing to perfect their craft. Leaders sweat the small stuff and create environments that communicate respect for families and students.
Effective school-wide practices that result in tightly managed school instruction, data, and school culture should be maintained, but they will be insufficient to reach all students. Teachers need tools to prevent students from being off-task and to redirect them in non-punitive ways when they are. School-wide procedures and rituals must repair trust while helping students learn from missteps and engage in reflection to keep growing, rather than simply trying to remove the problem, and this extends beyond individual classrooms. Curricula, standards, lessons plans, and qualitative assessments focused on teaching productive habits of mind must be as rigorous, thoughtful, and valued as those teaching algebra.
Student support teams should push adults with different roles to find new, innovative strategies to reach students well before they are critically off-track, behaviorally or academically. When students begin to struggle, adults should have structures and protocols to ask themselves and each other, “What have we missed?” or “What specific strategies and interpersonal approaches will coach this student to peak performance?” rather than “How can we describe what is wrong with this student in greater detail?” or “How can we punish this student more?”
Therapeutic learning centers should be special places where students engage in one-on-one coaching or clinical services. Student-led groups and activities should provide students with opportunities to lead and see their impact, regardless of their personal circumstances. Memorandums of agreement should spell out when and how law enforcement, family support, child welfare, and probation staff partner with school staff to make sure interagency gaps aren’t making things worse for our most vulnerable students and families. School teams must have the skill, will, and capacity to operationalize a new set of tasks too many previously thought was “not my job.”
We have to take a hard look at policies that have had some positive effects but also some unintended consequences. High schools should be accountable for graduation rates. But, we should focus on publishing five- and six-year graduation rates so schools retain students and persist in lifting them to a level of academic competence they need to access 21st-century jobs, rather than just incentivizing them to coach students to pass the GED to grow their graduation rate. (A lot of students, by the way, call the GED the “Good Enough Diploma,” and scores of research shows that students with GEDs have worse life outcomes than students who drop out.)
Our goal should absolutely remain to get every student to proficiency or above on rigorous standards — and let them decide if they want to go to college after they have the skills to access the full range of life options. But we should stop publishing “percent proficient” by itself without any growth data. I have seen firsthand the powerful incentive this creates for schools to retain students within striking distance of the proficiency line and to find ways to eject those really far behind. Getting students from their own 20-yard line to the other team’s 20-yard line is harder than getting a student from the other team’s 20-yard line into the end zone. Our current proficiency-based accountability systems only count when we score — which means we are ignoring a lot of students while celebrating false gains.
Every city in America should publish a “school mobility rate,” overall and by school, so the public can plainly see how many students who started the school year in one school actually finish the school year there. As educators, we often tell ourselves that “we don’t have what it takes to serve this student” or “this student could use a change of scenery” or “this student needs to get away from his friends — they’re a bad influence.” The truth is that every time a student who is struggling moves to another school, that student becomes three to five times as likely to not finish school at all, and we know what that means for later life options. This is not a “charter problem” — it’s an education problem. Too many students are moving from school to school, a practice that makes it more difficult to help all kids, particularly our most vulnerable, reach excellence, and we do not focus on the epidemic of mobility enough.
Finally, we have to get real about who has power to influence systems. Too often, the loudest microphone is held by a vocal and connected educator or parent who is resistant to enrolling a student returning from Rikers, an openly transgender student, a 15-year-old girl who is pregnant, or a magnet school student who is perceived to not have “earned” a spot. Students and families who are more marginalized, therefore, are too often on the receiving end of enrollment, policy, and other practices in systems and schools that families with more power would never accept. Equally problematic, some local and national funders are so focused on having more schools with more students reading at proficiency that this has eclipsed equity, fixating on student growth, and supporting the hardest-to-serve students. Most troubling, some of the most innovative and successful change agents in education do not think they should have to focus on what too many regard as “niche issues,” like serving students with disabilities, students who are homeless, students who are returning to school, or students who are growing up in a nontraditional family. I would argue that truly understanding these issues is what will help us get to the next level of education excellence for all students as well our most struggling communities. Somehow, when it comes to serving our toughest students, reformers who advocate for more charters by harping on the fact that districts are irreparably broken still want to relegate students to subpar “alternative schools.”
If Reform 1.0 was about creating more great schools and proof points, I think we can safely say we’ve done that — and we should all celebrate the blood, sweat, and tears it took to get here. I remain a fierce believer in the positive impact of high standards, fair choice systems, rigorous curricula, top-notch talent strategies, and high-quality accountability data — and would not support any new direction that walks back the key lessons we’ve learned on these fronts.
But I believe we should embrace Reform 2.0: a movement to ensure excellence is really reaching all students. In my estimation, that’s going to require some serious rethinking of people, practices, policies, and power. I wonder sometimes if we are as committed to equity and serving all kids as we are to saying we have more excellent schools or even preserving choice. I wonder what it will take for me to sleep well knowing that my son and all of my nieces and nephews — white, black, brown, academically gifted, those with learning disabilities, transgender, differently abled, compliant, challenging, and everything in between — attend schools that deliver on their potential.
For nearly 10 years, Cami Anderson served as a superintendent of schools, first overseeing alternative high schools and programs serving 90,000 young adults in New York City and then supporting 45,000 pre-K–12 students in Newark, New Jersey. She is the co-founder of ROADS, a network of charter high schools dedicated to court-involved youth, and was recognized by TIME magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people. A version of this article appeared on The 74 Million.