|Executive director of Teach For America South Louisiana|
Hometown: Baton Rouge
You came back to South Louisiana with Teach For America in 2007. Over the last five years, the public education landscape has shifted significantly. What difficulties do the students you work with face now that they did not have to face five years ago? What new opportunities do they have?
In 2007 I think we, as a community, recognized the need for progress in education but didn't know what that progress would look like and what it would mean for students. Today I think we are recognizing that every child can and should receive an excellent education; the question today for us now is whether we are willing to invest the people, resources and energy to make that potential a reality. I think parents, teachers, communities and our students are holding rightfully high expectations for education in Baton Rouge. The challenge today lies in doing the hard work that is needed to meet the needs of our students and communities today and in the years to come.
You're passionate not only about helping the Louisiana education system but about changing its culture of low expectations. How can we do that in Baton Rouge and across the region? Can parents really put their students in public schools and expect a quality education?
What changes expectations the most is seeing what success looks like firsthand. When my students didn't think they could accomplish a task, their accomplishing that very task was what changed their mind. I think about schools like KIPP Delta Public Schools or Northstar Academy in Newark or IDEA and YES Schools in Texas, where I've seen things that people once thought was impossible being done on a daily basis. In Newark I watched kindergarten students from a particularly tough area of the city outpacing writing that I personally did in first or second grade as a student at University High. Seeing is believing, and it dramatically changes expectations.
What is so hopeful to me about where we are today in Baton Rouge is the fact that schools like these aren't rare anymore. There are hundreds if not thousands of them across the country. More hopeful is the fact that we know what these great schools do: They get a great principal, they get great teachers, then empower both and hold them accountable with incredibly high expectations; and then everyone works incredibly hard to do everything to make sure students succeed. The work isn't easy by any means, but it's not as if mystery surrounds what it takes to create this sort of success. This can absolutely be achieved throughout Louisiana in public schools, in private schools, in rural and urban communities and everywhere in-between.
Before joining Teach For America in south Louisiana, you were with the organization in New York. How do the troubled schools here compare to the ones you worked to help in New York? What experiences did you have in New York that have helped you here?
In New York I was a high school humanities teacher and part of the founding staff of a new small high school. That school did incredible things for our students despite the fact that New York has all the challenges that you'd expect in any large urban area. What New York had that I think is powerful and that we need to develop in south Louisiana are the examples of success that I mentioned earlier. In New York, our students, our team and our community expected us to do everything within our power to ensure that students succeeded; as a result, we did and they did. When I compare Louisiana to the Bronx, there is no reason for me to believe we can't achieve the same level of success here if we're willing to do the hard work to make this happen.
This is the aspect of Teach For America that most people don't know. I think the general assumption about Teach For America is that we bring in really smart and very capable leaders to teach for two years in our community. The part most people don't know is that two-thirds of these folks stay working in education for a lifetime despite the fact that fewer than 1 in 6 started out thinking they were going to. Nearly the same rate (two-thirds) stay in Louisiana after their experience and grow to call this place home. We have more than 150 Teach For America alumni in the Baton Rouge area (up from just 30 a few years ago) and nearly a thousand statewide. Our alumni stay in Louisiana because this is place of incredible culture and community, but also incredible need and opportunity to have a positive impact. I hear from our alumni who taught here but who now live across the country about how much they'd like to come back for the right opportunities. These opportunities range from teaching to running schools to being involved in community leadership. Given this interest, I always ask community members to reach out and let me know about opportunities as they arise, since we have hundreds of Teach For America.
Teach For America South Louisiana has seen some growth in the last few years. How has that affected the impact you guys are capable of?
This past year Teach For America had more than 48,000 applicants for almost 6,000 slots. College graduates and leaders of all stripes are stepping forward to join the effort to ensure that all children get a great education. In south Louisiana we've more than tripled our presence over the last few years; in Baton Rouge alone we've grown from a community of 80 corps members and alumni to more than 300 corps members and alumni. This means that on a daily basis, our corps members and alumni positively impact nearly 15,000 children, but it also means that our alumni are increasingly in roles of leadership in education and beyond. Whether in founding new schools and serving as teachers in our highest-need schools or serving in policy positions, civic leadership positions, and roles in community engagement and academia, our alumni continue to be engaged throughout the community. Collectively this growth means that we are able to have a positive influence on even more communities and are able to work together to start making the progress that we all hope for in the years to come.
Why do you do?
I serve as the executive director of Teach For America South Louisiana, which means that, along with our advisory board, I'm responsible for raising the funds and building the community support to recruit, select, train and support Teach For America teachers for this community and that, along with my staff, I work to develop these teachers to meet the needs of our students today while also striving to keep these teachers as great leaders for our community in the long run.
What is your greatest professional accomplishment?
It's the collective success of my students and increasingly the success of our Teach For America alumni that I have helped to work with in the last five years. As a teacher, my students achieved results that many people would have doubted they were capable of. Seeing them become the young leaders they are today makes me incredibly proud. Similarly, seeing the development of our alumni whom I knew as first-year teachers and who today are taking on exciting and big tasks is something that I'm incredibly proud of.
What was your first job?
Working as a janitor for then STBP Architects.
What is the best advice you've ever received?
My principal, in advising me on this role, told me to make sure I really liked the people I worked with because I'd be spending more hours of my waking day with them than I would be with family and friends. In following this advice I've been blessed to work with some of the most remarkable people I've ever known.
If you could have any job other than your own, what would it be?
Governor of Louisiana. This state and our community have so much potential, and I would want to continue to push to make this state all that it can be. I think we've made some great strides in the last 10-plus years, and I'd want to continue that effort.
What is the greatest personal or professional obstacle you've overcome?
In hindsight, thankfully, most of my obstacles have been those that I absolutely could handle, although at the time they didn't feel like it. From moving to New York to teach in the South Bronx to taking on a role with Teach For America where I was told we'd never grow much larger than we were, among other things I was told could not be done, I've been blessed to be able to take on many challenges and learn and persevere through them, in many cases proving that the impossible is actually possible.
If you started over, what would you do differently?
Nothing. Like everyone, I can recall things I would like for a moment to have done differently or an opportunity I would like to have seized, but I tend to focus most of my energy on trying to take the next positive step as it comes.
What is your prescription for life?
I'm increasingly trying to live in the middle of two statements: The first is "We are what we repeatedly do; therefore, excellence is not an act but a habit," by Aristotle; and the second is "Achieving the impossible is sort of fun," which I heard at a recent education conference. Taking on the big challenge in a clear, disciplined and meaningful way is how I'm trying to live out the work I do on a daily basis. I'm far from calling it a prescription and far from living this well on a daily basis, but it's the way I'm thinking about my work and life at the moment.
What book are you currently reading?
Eisenhower in War and in Peace, by Jean Edward Smith.
If you could have dinner with any three living people, who would they be?
Malcolm Gladwell, Bill Clinton and Jim Collins.
Who would play you in a movie?
Good question. I'm not sure I'm going to be played in a movie anytime soon, so if you have suggestions please let me know.
What do you do to unwind?
Travel is my favorite relaxation. Thankfully my work takes me on the road a bit, and when I can slip away for an early morning run or get to see a new place it is absolutely a joy. I love learning new things, and getting to do so in new places is probably what I enjoy the most.
What is the most expensive purchase you've made for yourself?
My home and my car are definitely the most expensive. But in terms of just for fun, the vacations I take to somewhere new at least once a year are probably the most costly purchases I've made. Currently I'm working on a trip to Alaska.
What is your favorite weekend activity?
Sipping coffee and catching up on reading at CC's Community Coffee.
What's your favorite spot in Baton Rouge?
The bend in the river right by Southern University.
How do you take your coffee/tea?
What is your favorite movie? TV show? Band?
Movie: Braveheart; TV Show: The West Wing; Band: U2
What is your favorite gadget?
My BlackBerry, although I'm contemplating getting an iPad.
What is something that you can't live without?
Meaningful work to do and the people to do it with.
If you could change one thing about Baton Rouge, what would it be?
I'd like to see us take a dramatic and deliberate focus on improving education for all children. Specifically, I'd focus on getting the very best folks working in every school—make this our top financial, structural, and leadership priority—and then ensure we do everything possible to meet the needs of every student. I think currently we do what we can up to an unspoken limit, but I'd want to make doing everything possible for each student the very top priority.
What is your greatest hope for Baton Rouge?
That we will become a place where my children and grandchildren would want to live and raise their children: a place where businesses, where young people, and where a vibrant community thrive.
What is your greatest fear for Baton Rouge?
That we'll let our tendency to do things as they've always been done or our tendency to invest a little in a lot of places rather than concentrating for impact will prevent us from making the big and hard decisions that are needed to make real progress for our community and that, as a result, we'll continue to fall further behind.
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