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D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles Speaks as Bragdon Fellow

Genevieve Moriarty
November 30, 2015

Niles (right) discusses education with students in Social Ethics: Values in a Changing America.

Hoping to harness the power ”of 1,000 big brains” to help create a more just educational system, speaker Jennifer ”Jennie” Niles ’84 posed a series of challenges to the students gathered in Assembly Hall recently.

Niles, who is Exeter’s 2015 Bragdon Fellow and was appointed Washington, D.C.’s deputy mayor for education last year, argued that equality in education is the ”fundamental component . . . for all sorts of social justice issues in this country.”

Presenting a series of disheartening statistics about the state of public education in America, Niles encouraged students to ask themselves about the impact of having so many people who are not college and career ready and not living up to their potential: ”What [does it] mean . . . to them individually, to not have a rich life . . . [and] what does it mean to our economy?”

Niles has spent her career pursuing better educational outcomes for all students. In 2004, eager to discover ”how Exeter could exist as a public school for all kids,” she founded E.L. Haynes Public Charter School, which has been recognized as one of the District’s top-performing public schools. As deputy mayor for education in D.C., she is working to build bridges between proponents of public neighborhood schools and public charter schools — two groups that have frequently been in competition with one another.

Drawing on the work of Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Niles told students, ”Getting smart [is] actually a matter of effort rather than what you were born with.” She urged them to help combat the systemic racism ”undergirding” our educational system by encouraging collaboration and creative problem-solving, helping to guide conversations, and working to shape more just institutions.

During her visit to campus, Niles visited two classes — REL310: Social Ethics: Values in a Changing America and HIS440: American Politics and Public Policy. Students had the opportunity to engage in a Q&A session over lunch with Niles, and she met with several faculty members as well. Principal MacFarlane hosted a dinner in her honor on Monday evening. Attendees included Niles’ parents, Maggie and Nick Niles ’57.

The Henry Bragdon Public Service & Interest Fellows Fund, started in December 2006, brings to campus speakers who have demonstrated special accomplishment and prominence in their professional and personal lives. The objective of the visits is to encourage discussion of issues relating to public service. Bragdon was a revered instructor of history and renowned scholar who taught at the Academy from 1945–72. He instilled in thousands of Exeter students a great sense of the American experience and a deep appreciation for public service. Previous Bragdon Fellows include Dr. Margaret Hamburg, Rep. Patricia S. ”Pat” Schroeder, Rep. Raul Ruiz, the Honorable Judd Gregg ’65, Rev. Jim Wallis, Col. Dallas Brown III ’74 and Ward Chamberlin Jr. ’39.

Interested in learning more?

Learn more about Niles’ appointment as deputy mayor for education in Washington, D.C.

Watch the assembly speech.