News

Mold in the cafeteria: Schools’ crumbling infrastructure needs Congress to invest in kids

Every student deserves to attend a clean, healthy, safe and technologically rich school. Yet, we are far from that reality.

It has never been more clear how much our country needs infrastructure repair. While cities from New York to Lafourche, Louisiana, face catastrophic flooding and other once-in-a-generation damage, the multitrillion dollar legislative packages working their way through Congress can’t come soon enough.

As we consider these critical investments in our country’s future, we cannot forget the infrastructure necessary to support the education of nearly 50 million children each year.

While politicians can’t seem to agree on the meaning of the word “infrastructure,” too many students attend schools where it rains inside the building when it sprinkles outside – let alone when it rains with the dangerous ferocity we are experiencing with increasing regularity. Children in far too many communities drink water from corroded pipes and eat lunch in cafeterias replete with mold.

Every student deserves to attend a clean, healthy, safe and technologically rich school. Yet, we are far from that reality. The inequity of a school funding system based heavily on local property taxes has been well-documented, but when it comes specifically to school facilities, the inequities are even more flagrant.

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In Guilford County, North Carolina, increasingly warm summers are routinely shutting down schools where antiquated heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems are no match for the sweltering weather. On the first day of classes for Baltimore City Public Schools, 24 schools were dismissed early or closed because of air conditioning issues. Many school buildings, from Texas to Iowa, don’t even have air conditioners in places where temperatures reach more than 90 degrees several months each year.

In Newark, New Jersey, one elementary school was erected 13 years before Abraham Lincoln became president. Some basements still have boilers and insulation that became obsolete in the 1950s. Flooding and floating rats are common on a sunny day – imagine the conditions after a hurricane.

In Chicago, the school district has a whopping $3.5 billion in deferred maintenance. In Guilford County, that number is $2 billion, and for Newark it is more than $1 billion.

An elementary school teacher in Browning, Mont., on Aug. 24, 2021.
An elementary school teacher in Browning, Mont., on Aug. 24, 2021. Rion Sanders, AP

And that’s not simply for nice-to-haves like a new stadium or a state-of-the-art science lab. We’re putting off basic repairs and upkeep to ensure our buildings are safe and healthy enough for hundreds of thousands of children to spend their entire day inside for most of year.

Neglect is wide spread

Sadly, this level of decay and neglect is not unique to Newark, Chicago or North Carolina. Nor are these the most appalling examples: Schools run by the Bureau of Indian Education have cracked floors and no internet.

Despite the best efforts of many leaders, school infrastructure woes have persisted and accumulated for decades across the country. According to the U.S. Census of Governments, school districts reported spending nearly $600 billion in capital expenditures from 1995 to 2004, yet students in the poorest communities and the most decrepit buildings received the least investment.

2006 public school construction report states, “What was true in 1995 is still true today: a school with large minority enrollment, in a district with a high percentage of students from low-income families, is still most likely to be in the worst physical condition.”

There is little to suggest that we have improved upon this disparity even 15 years later.

COVID dollars aren’t enough

The federal COVID-19 stimulus dollars were helpful in terms of mitigating the recent impact of the pandemic, but grossly inadequate in the face of decades of accumulated infrastructure deficits.

By the time districts (especially, but not only, those that serve poor communities) pay for devices for families, tutors for students, personal protective equipment for staff, reconfiguring spaces, ventilation workarounds, staff and contractors for testing and contact tracing, and other emerging needs, the money is spent.

How did it get so bad? When it comes to schools, too many poor communities sit downwind from decades of inequitable public policy. States grossly underinvest in the kind of proactive work anyone who owns a house knows is crucial – like replacing roofs, floors and pipes well before there is an emergency. 

The result? Communities with higher tax bases either invest the money they collect or exert pressure to get this work done. Communities without a local tax base or access to the statehouse experience a compounding effect of dangerous decay, year over year. Districts in poor communities are forced to choose between things like buying textbooks or replacing a roof.

You might be inclined to blame states and local districts for failing to spend money wisely and think long term. Why should the federal government bail them out? But just as the federal government is stepping in to improve bridges, roads and communications infrastructure across the country, we need federal intervention now to bring schools up to modern safety standards. It’s unconscionable to send students to buildings with unhealthy air and water.

Can’t we all agree that our children are worthy of our investment? Can we agree that we want future generations to prosper, and we want our children and grandchildren to live fulfilling lives?

With trillions of dollars on the table, let’s bet on the next generation.

Cami Anderson is former superintendent of Newark Public Schools and Alternative High Schools in New York City. Sharon Contreras is the superintendent of Guilford County Schools in North Carolina. Janice Jackson is former CEO of Chicago Public Schools.

This previously ran in USA Today’s Opinion section on September 27, 2021

Discipline Revolution Project – Member Update, January 2021

Discipline Revolution Project Members:

Happy new year. 

We wrote this organizational update before the horrifying violence in the capital last week. As you know, everyday, we partner with schools, systems, organizations, and leaders to develop anti-biased, anti-racist cultures and to advance racial justice in communities across the country. The events of this past week — fueled by the cancer of white privilege and supremacy — have given us even greater urgency.  In that spirit, we share this summary of our work in 2020 and invite you to continue on this journey with us in 2021.

Our 2020 can be described in 4-3-2-1…

We partnered deeply with four public school districts — two traditional and two charter. We supported their work to create anti-biased, anti-racist school cultures. We helped them intensify their focus on student well-being, supports to prevent incidents from occurring, rooting out biases in their organization and schools, and radically rethinking how to respond to conflict.

We planned, facilitated, and hosted three virtual “communities of practice.” Leaders from the greater Houston Area, The Broad Center alumni network, and New Leaders gathered to discuss research and promising practices about de-criminalizing and de-policing how we handle school discipline. Participants shared what’s worked and surfaced common struggles.

We consulted with two states about their approach to putting discipline reform at the core of their agenda, even as they responded to COVID. We became an approved provider by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSO) to support states in implementing their child and family well-being guidance.

In every engagement, we had one singular focus: to spur deep, lasting, and real change by acting as truly trusted partners to our clients. We’ve woken up every day and thought about how to help leaders resist the urge to settle into old ways of being — and to use this moment of inflection to tackle past patterns that cement inequities. We’ve coached, laughed, pushed, planned, and helped execute big things.

Our CEO, Cami, wrote several pieces to help move the national conversation including ‘Police-Free Schools’ Vs. ‘Chaos’ Is a False Choice. Here’s What Districts Must Do to Implement Real Discipline Reform,  COVID-19 Presents a Chance for Bold Reform of Schools That Have Long Failed High-Needs Students. Louisiana Can Lead the Way, and We Need a New Way of Talking About Students Who Face Barriers Erected by Adults and Sustained by Broken Systems. She was also interviewed by Huffington Post, Bloomberg News, and Instruction Partners about how to think about discipline reform and police-free schools. She joined DRP coach April Dinwoodie for a conversation about the role family diversity plays in the work and The Line for a conversation about the critical need for social-emotional supports for adults and kids right now (see Episode 5: The Path Back to School).

With all of the individual and collective trauma we’ve experienced, our work at DRP is critical. We will either have the courage to transform classroom and school environments, including de-criminalizing our approach to student behavior, or we run the risk of further disenfranchising students and communities we were already failing.

Here’s to effecting deep change in 2021,

Cami and The DRP Team

P.S. ThirdWay Solutions (DRPs umbrella organization) is hosting a webinar on How to Raise Anti-Biased, Anti-Racist Kids on January 19th. You can register by clicking here.

P.P.S. Cami writes a blog for Forbes about trailblazing women across sectors. Last month’s edition focused on three female Superintendents. We though you might enjoy reading it.

Hyperlinks may be broken in forwarding this update – please use this address to access the document with the links included: 

DRP Update: Three Quick Things and Opportunites (October 2020)

DRP Members:

We hope you are staying as safe and productive as possible as the reach of the pandemic continues to grow. We are grateful for educators like you, who are out there making it happen for kids and families in the face of so much adversity.

We are writing to share three quick updates:

  • This Thursday, our CEO, Cami Anderson will be participating in an important discussion about attending to students’ social and emotional well-being right now. Connectivity and on-line learning have taken front stage for much of 2020 and that is, to some extent, necessary. At DRP, we believe that schools should be thinking just as deeply about how to support students’ social and emotional needs. The Path Back to School – Episode 5: Social Emotional Learning will be on Oct 21, 2020 01:00 PM Eastern Time. You can register here.
  • An important article by Erica Green, Mark Walker, and Eliza Shapiro ran in the New York Times about the microaggressions and outright racism experienced by Black girls in school. An equally critical study by Dan Losen and his colleagues came out this month showing that in 28 districts, middle and high school students lose more than a year of instruction due to suspensions. Both are a must read.
  • This Thursday, DRP Contributor, April Dinwoodie ,will be hosting a panel about multi-racial and multicultural families and our CEO, Cami, will be on the panel. Race & Culture in Adoption and Foster Care – Virtual Series, sponsored by the Center for Advanced Practices at Adoption RI and NAACP. To register, click here.

We have three new offerings we want you to be aware of:

  • DRP is launching Communities of Practices in cities and states across the country.  Groups of district and charter systems come together and participate in a 5 to 10-part virtual series.  The learning series helps system leaders (with teams of 4 – 6 people) explore what needs to be true to shift away from harsh, biased, punitive discipline practices. We explore research and promising practices that help create conditions that prevent students from using negative behavior to communicate and build systems that help schools respond to struggle, incidents, and difference skillfully.
  • Furthering our core mission, DRP is taking the lead in rethinking, reimagining and eliminating the need for school resource officers and/or school police.  Our team partners with systems for 12 -18 months, helping build systems tailored to the needs of each unique community where all students feel psychologically, physically and emotionally safe.
  • Our core model of helping systems conduct EQUITY audits using our framework that has proven successful across the country can now be done virtually. Our team has updated our tools and products to ensure clients can access the learning even while travel is limited.

Happy Fall,

Cami and the DRP Team

Time to Act: A Letter to Our Community

DRP Members and Partners:

Like many of you, our team experienced horror and sadness as videos and audio tapes revealed Breonna Taylor and George Floyd being murdered by police. Black Americans — sisters, fathers, friends, and partners — living their lives, sleeping in their homes, going for a jog, and running errands are no longer with us simply because of the color of their skin. These are not isolated incidents.

Black people were 24% of those killed by police last year despite being only 13% of the population. Indeed, we all breathe poisonous air polluted with anti-Blackness that manifests in so many ways, including in education. To our Black colleagues and friends, we are sending you extra love, knowing you have to show up for your students while taking care of your families and yourselves.

Our mission at The Discipline Revolution Project (soon-to-be-named The 20% Project) is to (1) support schools and systems leaders to build anti-racist/anti-biased, high expectation, high support cultures, (2) put in place robust family and student supports, and (3) actively tear down policies and practices that cement inequities. Our work has never been more urgent.

We are glad to see the outrage about racial disparities in policing and we know the same biases that exist in broader society play out and, in some cases are exacerbated, in classrooms and school buildings. This isn’t a time to point fingers, it is a time to act within our own sphere of influence. Many of you have reached out for ideas and resources and, in that spirit, our team is sharing what we call a “2x3x1.” In keeping with our EQUITY Framework and our organizational values, we are sharing two things we recommend you do now, three things you should think about over the summer, and one thing we hope you do personally to help realize racial justice.

Right Now:

  1. As educators, do not look away, don’t say nothing. All of your students are watching the news, scanning social media, and talking to their friends about the events that led up to this week and how things are unfolding. If you are still in school, create a safe container to talk about what is happening with your students — some good resources are from Teaching Tolerance and Morningside Center.  If you are already out for this term, use the time to prepare so you are ready when you do reconnect with students.
  2. Combat existing narratives that Black residents are somehow to be “blamed” for dying at the hands of police or expressing outrage. White, Black and brown young people might be hearing this from the media, friends and family. I’ve had piercing questions about this from all the young people in my life — my son, nieces, nephews, students, and mentees — across socio-economic and racial lines. The narrative is prevalent. Read this piece by Adam Sewer that talks about America’s racial contract. Or, consider this piece about the context behind the rebellion in Ferguson. Facing History and Ourselves compiled data on the history of policing to help put this moment in broader content.

This Summer:

  1. Look at your discipline data, practices, and policies as urgently as you call for police to change their ways — build the skill and will of educators to de-escalate conflict, build healthy relationships with an understanding of how power and race plays out, facilitate community, partner with families, and actively interrogate their own biases; consider:
  1. Rethink “escalation protocols” and when and how you involve law enforcement — negotiate memorandums of agreement, engage in joint training about relationship building, de-escalation, and anti-bias work, build shared values and language around how to engage young people; consider:
  • 50% of school-based arrests are of Black students even though they make up 16% of the student population
  • The connection between school discipline and problematic policing is tighter than we think. It’s time for educators to step up. It is our moral imperative.
  • School and systems leaders must be active in pushing law enforcement to take a proactive, developmentally appropriate and anti-racist approach to engaging young people, not simply call them when things get “out of control.”
  • Overall, we should severely limit the amount of police interaction that occurs in schools (only when absolutely necessary) – and we should be working proactively to build shared value for our children’s psychological and physical safety.
  1. Actively examine your instructional practices — the who, what and the how — pick content that is pro-Black/Latin-X/Indigenous, recruit and retain educators of color, give all kids access to rigorous and culturally competent instruction and assignments, and prioritize building school and classroom cultures; consider:
  • We see and hear Black (and brown) students less than their peers: in almost every school climate and culture study, Black students report they feel less safe, less connected to school, and less connected to a caring adult than their White peers. This can be soul-crushing for students and have profound effects on their school experience and their life prospects.
  • We expect less from Black students: Black students are exposed to content and assignments that are far below grade-level. Black students report that adults underestimate their intelligence and expect less of them.
  • Black students rarely “see” themselves accurately represented in history or in any materials. Little, if anything, is taught about great Black civilizations, leaders, and contributions. And, to the extent we teach about the founding of our country or the civil rights movement or slavery, our curricula too often leaves out the tough stuff about the role institutional racism has played throughout. Curricula, books, and supplemental materials present White people in a favorable light and Black people in an unfavorable light. We need to seek and create better and more pro-Black content.
  • Having even one Black educator can increase a Black student’s likelihood of graduating by 13%.

Personally:

To our White colleagues and friends: Let’s not make Black people do all the work right now, or ever. Let’s take time to further educate ourselves and others, reflect and “be the change”.  I am happy to schedule a call if you want a thought partner, but here are some initial ideas. If you haven’t already (I know some of you have) let’s commit to:

  • Continually educating ourselves about how our country has promoted a White-normative culture that has perpetuated White supremacy — and how that influences all of us. Kendi put together an anti-racist reading list here. Consider what we gravitate towards as we consume narratives, content, and products. Our choices could be causing “confirmation bias” (e.g., if all you read or experience is from a White perspective, you are likely missing something).
  • If you are raising kids or play a primary person role to any kids, consistently practicing (you never “arrive” — I read and practice every single day) raising them to be race-conscious and anti-racist; some good and comprehensive resources (including readings, blogs, associations, children’s books, podcasts and more) are found here.
  • Getting in the arena — pushing ourselves not only to be an allies but rather co-conspirators — and knowing the difference. Not just talking, but acting — including and especially when it is uncomfortable.
  • Actively engaging other White friends, colleagues, and family in everything we are learning – and encouraging them to learn and discuss with their circle too. As educators, we cannot see this work as “nice to have” but as essential and urgent if we are going to do right by all of the students.

To all members of the DRP community: We believe biases exist in all of us and that we all have an obligation to understand how implicit biases are cemented — even in “good people.” Cumulative “micro aggressions” cause students to shut down, disconnect, or worse. Too often, Black students experience toxic or unsupportive school cultures and so do students who are LGBTQQ,  students who are growing up in non-traditional family structures, students with disabilities, and students whose families are immigrants.

We need to make this a moment of real change. We also can’t make this only about police reform — because we have so much to do in education too. And we have moral obligation not just to critique and observe problems, but to actively solve the ones within our control.

As always, we are here to support you and your team as you navigate these rough waters.

In partnership, Cami and the DRP team

Analysis: COVID-19 Presents a Chance for Bold Reform of Schools That Have Long Failed High-Needs Students. Louisiana Can Lead the Way

The exterior of the Supreme Court of Louisiana 24 August 2007 in New Orleans. AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

As our country and communities begin to pivot from the initial phase of fighting the horrifying impact of COVID-19 toward the future, we hope education and other leaders will remain focused on realities brought into stark relief over the past six weeks. COVID-19 has forcefully called our attention to glaring inequities in many areas of life, including education. We have two choices. We can ignore the obstacles that have only gotten more perilous for poor, black and brown students. Or, we can own up to inequities and forge new pathways rooted in racial justice and a genuine commitment to the well-being of all children.

Reforming the systems, practices and policies that were failing our children before COVID-19 should be at the core — not the periphery — of recovery and reentry planning. We hope states like Louisiana will continue their fierce commitment to the academic needs and growth of all children and make even deeper investments in their emotional and mental health as well, choosing leaders who will make that a key priority. We also hope that commitment to bold progress is sustained, and even accelerated, in the face of leadership changes.

In Louisiana, 71 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged and 41 percent are black. Before COVID-19, 22 percent of black students were mastering grade-level materials, compared with nearly half of their white peers. Black students were suspended at nearly double the rate of white students. Children with disabilities had a 22 percent gap in their graduation rates, English learners a 45 percent gap. Louisiana was making steady progress in closing opportunity gaps as compared with other states, but state and local leaders need to double down on strategies that were working pre-COVID and invest in innovative strategies to help the most struggling learners.

These painful statistics should motivate a new normal. As federal stimulus money begins to flow, resources are being dedicated to new devices and better instruction using technology. Policymakers are discussing adding time to make up for learning loss. Educators are focused on making sure they know where students are academically when they return. All these things are critically important.

But in order for all children to thrive, we must also and pursue bold new ideas. This is not a moment to rearrange the furniture and apply a coat of paint to the Titanic.

We must focus on the social, emotional and mental health needs of students and families — and to do so with care not to go back to old ways. We need to increase the skill of educators in building deep and trusting relationships with students. We need to ensure that our teaching force of mostly white educators working with mostly black and brown students are aware of potential biases and have the tools to truly see and hear students. School systems need resources to help students and families access high-quality, culturally competent, school-based and community-based mental health and social services. Schools will need to dedicate time to nurturing the social and emotional health of students, and board members, state leaders and superintendents must value and prioritize this work. School cultures need to have high expectations for students, and lots of supports to catch them if they struggle, academically or otherwise. The partnership between schools and families must be nurtured.

We also hope the state and districts will take this time to continue rethinking discipline and expand new approaches already underway. If we want to stem the school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately impacts black and brown students, now is the time to take a different approach. The data is clear: We cannot suspend and expel our way to a successful system. More is required. Boys and young men of color must be seen as assets and not liabilities. Students should get a fresh start, and we should aspire to support each and every one of them to succeed.

Attending to the well-being of all children cannot be left to the school system alone. Community and faith-based organizations, and neighbors can, and must, help schools. These are our schools, and our community’s children. We no longer have the luxury of blaming others or simply shuffling leaders. This moment presents the opportunity to recognize that some of the resources our children require are not found on school campuses. Access to health care, behavioral health services, support for families and caring adults must be derived from our larger community.

We should not go back to old ways of doing things that failed too many. Louisiana can continue to lead the way in putting the needs of our most marginalized students at the forefront as we rebuild.

Cami Anderson is the CEO of The Discipline Revolution Project, an organization working to realize equity across the country, including in Louisiana. She’s the former superintendent of alternative high schools in New York and Newark.

Raymond A. Jetson is chief executive catalyst at MetroMorphosis, an organization focused on transforming inner-city neighborhoods from within. He’s an Encore Public Voices and Forward Promise fellow.

Resources: Distance Learning During COVID-19

TIME SENSITIVE MATERIAL AND HEADLINES

PLANNING FOR RE-OPENING

  • A set of equity questions for systems leaders to consider by the NYC Leadership Academy
  • An excellent article about what we can learn from systems who successfully and quickly transitioned to distance learning
  • A detailed reopening roadmap from a set of operations, public health, and education experts working together
  • Catalyst Education released a comprehensive planning tool for systems. Including one focused on the social and emotional well being for students and families; note, we do not necessarily recommend all of the resources they link to, but the tool itself breaks down essential element that need to be considered alongside instruction, talent, and operations
  • A excellent piece by Transcend Education about the three jobs systems leaders have right now: responding, recovering, and reinventing. Makes a strong case for not returning to the status quo
  • A great article about assessing student learning right now
  • School closures — a collaborative of over 20 organizations — is a one-stop website with a treasure trove of resources for SEL and instruction

LEADERSHIP

ACADEMIC CONTENT

READING

SCIENCE 

SEL SUPPORTS

ENRICHMENT

PARENTS

DISTRICTS AND CHARTER MANAGEMENT ORGANIZATIONS

Districts and Charter Management Organizations are putting their plans online; following are links to various plans:

HOW TO BE AN EFFECTIVE ONLINE TEACHER

BUILDING ONLINE CONTENT

DAILY OR WEEKLY CONTENT

  • The Robertson Center will be sending out daily emails to interested educators and parents with a “Thinking Job of the Day” for students who are learning remotely. This will include a math activity that students can work on at home. Link to sign up to receive these resources here.
  • The New York Times is publishing a daily set of learning activities for students and updates for adults — they have also taken down the paid firewall.  It has writing prompts and kid-friendly articles.
  • Jarrett J. Krosoczka, whose book Hey Kiddowas a National Book Award finalist, is going to have live, daily drawing lessons on Youtube starting March 16th.
  • Ed Navigator is sensing a really helpful daily parent email
  • Harper Collins: HarperKids is having storytime at noon ET on Facebook
  • Weekly activities for little kids by Tinkergarten
  • Weekly math activities by Stanford-based You Cubed

-Cami Anderson

Q&A with ThirdWay CEO Cami Anderson

In addition to being the CEO of ThirdWay, Cami Anderson is a former superintendent of Newark Schools. Photo Credit: Cami Anderson

Former Newark Schools Superintendent Cami Anderson is now CEO of ThirdWay, an organization focused on solving problems of equity, specifically in regards to the treatment of marginalized students in school systems.

Discipline Revolution, one of her initiatives within ThirdWay, seeks to redefine the role discipline plays in the classroom, particularly in regards to the system’s disproportionately harsh punishments towards students of color, students with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ students. On Nov. 11, she sat down for an interview with The Daily Princetonian.

The Daily Princetonian: What made you become interested in education development?

Cami Anderson: I have 11 siblings — my parents had three and adopted nine. Most of my siblings joined our family because of some significant challenges, and I just saw at a really young age how school was different for me, who was able-bodied, heterosexual, not housing insecure, than my siblings, who did not have those privileges.

Just also seeing my siblings, some of them court-involved, kids of color, LGBTQ, just [seeing] all the ways in which schools made those labels worse instead of better. I’m just driven by this question of what … a better school system would look like, where all of my siblings could thrive … It’s been a burning thing for me since I was a kid, and it’s kind of what has driven my whole career.

DP: How does Discipline Revolution measure its success?

CA: We don’t just look at suspension, because if you do that, you can reduce suspensions but increase expulsion, or reduce suspensions and increase transfers or school-based arrests. For us, the ultimate measure of success is closing the opportunity gap.

We still have most school systems’ black students underperforming as compared to their peers, even when we control for poverty, students with disabilities who underperform as compared to their peers. In the end, we believe that all the things we’re doing close opportunity gaps, and you can see things like decrease in chronic absenteeism … and better achievement among groups of folks who have been underserved.

DP: What are some solutions or alternatives to punishments?

CA: We do a lot around ‘creating’ the conditions in classrooms and in schools where students feel seen and heard and whether their identities are affirmed and they’re busy doing meaningful work. So lots of stuff on prevention, high quality relationships between teachers and students, culturally responsive teaching so that students feel like they see their own culture and their own identity affirmed, de-escalation conflicts so that when young people inevitably challenge [the system], which is kind of their job, that the adults know how to meet them … We start with the premise that we shouldn’t think about discipline as a thing to do to punish kids, but rather as a set of things that adults can do to create the conditions where harsh discipline isn’t necessary.

DP: I want to talk about your departure from your position as Newark’s schools superintendent. What was the reason behind that?

CA: My team and I felt like the building blocks of the plan were in place. We had done a ton of great work to seed the long-term strategy, and that was just a good time to have a different and new voice.

DP: Talk to me about this plan.

CA: It’s called One Newark. We basically said, “10 years from now, what needs to be true in order for every kid in Newark to have a neighborhood school that is excellent?” Newark is a city that was built for three times the population it currently has. We looked at building quality — literally, there are some buildings in Newark that Abraham Lincoln visited. So, there’s just a lot of underinvestment buildings, too many schools for the [number] of folks living there now, and in the charter sector, there were thousands forming, but no coordination.

So, what we did was, we sat back, and we really did look at the long goal, looked at how many families were on the waiting lists for charter schools, what the characteristics of those families were in terms of special-ed status, ELL status, and created a whole plan. And it had all those tenets that I walked through: unifying the enrollment system so that we didn’t disadvantage families who couldn’t navigate 10 lotteries, creating a plan for every building — so before I got there, folks would just go to school and they’d just sit there, which is just not good for communities.

So we figured out how many schools we actually needed and which schools were inhabitable. We did some portfolio planning, built a bunch of new secondary schools because we felt we just didn’t have enough diversity of options for kids in high school, [created] a plan to help retrain folks who are laid off or impacted by the right sizing of the district … We had a whole thing on talent. We had a whole recruiting thing called Teach Newark.

So it was a nine point soup to nuts, from enrollment to talent, and it was a five-year plan with lots of milestones and lots of input. It was a good high quality plan, and it continued to be executed after I left. I just felt like it was time to have a different person for that phase of the work.

DP: Can you talk about some of the findings that suggested the plan caused massive layoffs among teachers?

CA: It didn’t. There’s a lot of misreporting about what was and wasn’t in that plan. So there’s about a hundred schools in Newark and because the charter growth was profound, they were going to end up running around forty percent of the schools based on the growth and that’s partly because of community demand — I think there’s something like 5,000 people on the charter school waiting list — which meant that the traditional system was shrinking. So it is true that there were fewer jobs available as a result.

The vast majority of those right-sizing, we were able to rely just through natural attrition because every year, when you have a system that big, x number of people retire, and we had an older teacher population to begin with. So I would say the vast majority of the right-sizing, we were able to realize just through natural attrition. So we had 100 jobs one year, 20 people left, and we just closed those positions. The reported massive layoffs are not accurate.

DP: I wonder if you could tell me a little bit more about why people are investing in charter schools as opposed to fixing public schools.

CA: Yeah, I see it as a “both and,” and we did in Newark, too. Charters have a lot of flexibility, and some use it to do many innovative, kid-centric things. With traditional schools, you have a lot more constraints … Meanwhile, the school itself is not good and families are frustrated. That’s what families in Newark would say all the time, like, ‘we want things fixed now. Don’t tell me that you have to negotiate with four unions to make it happen. I don’t care, my kid can’t read.’

Having said that, we also believe that there are things you can do from the traditional side, and we did them. In a bigger system, you can buy the best stuff, because you have the power of the purse. You have innovative collective bargaining agreements that allow you to retain the best folks and give flexibility to schools that are doing well.

DP: Do you have anything else you’d like to add?

CA: It’s good to be here, at Princeton. I’ve already met students … in the public policy space and beyond who are really thinking deeply about wanting to contribute to serving in a public policy type of role and trying to solve public policy issues. I think that’s great and the only thing I would say is that it’s not easy …

We have massive racial inequality as an example, and changing that’s going to be uncomfortable. So I’m glad to see there are people who want to be a part of the solution. I’m lucky that I’ve been at it all these years, and I plan to be at it for many more.

The Princetonian

We Need a New Way of Talking About Students Who Face Barriers Erected by Adults and Sustained by Broken Systems

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

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

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

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

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.

–Cami Anderson

Edpost.org

Meet the 31-Year-Old Founder of Teach For Armenia

Larisa spending time with students – Armen Anmeghikyan

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 Universitythe first and only African American woman to run the American Civil War Museumthe chief information officer of the CIAthe 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.

Forbes.com

If You Really Want To Know The Accomplishments Of A Badass Woman, Ask Her Sister

Badass sisters: Kris Lovejoy, the global head of cybersecurity for Ernst and Young, with her sister, Juliane Gallina, the chief information officer for the CIA.

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.