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Equal Access to Good Schools

January 9, 2015

The frontlines of education reform through the eyes of five alumni

By Katherine Towler

Education reform entered the national consciousness in the 1980s with the publication of ”A Nation at Risk,” a groundbreaking presidential-commission report that sounded the alarm about falling test scores and the ability of the United States to remain competitive as other countries pulled ahead in educational achievement. ”A Nation at Risk” made clear the need for reform and jumpstarted a movement that continues to this day. Three decades of local and national efforts have introduced such innovations as charter and magnet schools, brought attention to the needs of rural and inner-city schools, and generated plenty of debate. The Bulletin went in search of alumni who could shed some light on where we currently stand.

Five alumni on the front lines of education reform agreed to speak about what drew them to the field. Notable for their diverse backgrounds, they span five decades in their Exeter class years, from 1962 to 2006. Some knew from early in their careers that they wanted to work in education; others found themselves there through chance encounters and disillusionment with the private sector. However they arrived at their current work, they have one passion in common: the desire to impact the lives of underprivileged children for the better and to give them equal access to quality education.


Laurisa Schutt ’88, director of Teach for America- Delaware, did not set out to work in education. In her 20s she lived in Asia and ran her own design firm, selling feathered clothing and home decor to high-end stores such as Neiman Marcus. After the events of 9/11, she felt compelled to re-evaluate: ”I was listening to fashion designers in New York talk about the agony of a decision to pair this wrap with this pair of pants. I was making $350 pillows. I had two babies, a business plan that required a lot of travel and a distinct feeling that my work had absolutely no meaning at all.”

When she was asked to serve on the board of an urban charter school, Schutt says she was introduced to a world she had not known before. She mentored a 5-year- old who lived in a shelter and talked about being beaten. ”I began to understand how hard it was for her to learn — and the expertise and supports necessary for her success,” she says. ”It changed the way I see everything.”

Schutt came to Teach for America-Delaware in 2012 after serving on the boards of a number of schools and education and policy-related nonprofits. She manages a corps of 60 teachers — a combination of recent college graduates, career changers and military veterans. Established in 1990 with a mission that all children deserve the opportunity for an excellent education, Teach for America’s minimum two-year commitment of teaching in a low-income school is often the starting point for a career in education or a related field. Partner schools who hire TFA corps members routinely have child poverty rates of more than 70 percent, many as high as 98 percent.

”When you bring people into this movement, their eyes are opened about the need for equity,” Schutt says. The fact that so many Teach for America alumni stay in education speaks to the transforming power of the experience. Thirteen percent of those who sign up to work with Teach for America say they plan to continue working in the field, yet 67 percent remain in education afterward. This, Schutt notes, is even more impressive when you consider the hours and commitment Teach for America requires for content, technical and adaptive leadership instruction.

Teach for America is now recruiting college students in their junior rather than senior year and providing a longer training period in order to better prepare teachers. Another effort Schutt is excited about is the focus on recruiting more corps members from the neighborhoods and schools in which Teach for America partners so that these teachers are role models who bring to their work a complex and rich understanding of the challenges their students face.

There is an urgency to Schutt’s passion that gives her a clear focus: ”When we come from a world like Phillips Exeter, where we received the best education possible, it’s our responsibility to be aware of what is happening right here at home and to figure out the levers of change. It’s our obligation to serve. I like to think of Teach for America as non sibi in action.”

Bryan Contreras ’91 BRYAN CONTRERAS ’91

Bryan Contreras ’91 grew up on the north side of Houston in a low-income neighborhood where he now works to see that high school graduates become the first members of their families to attend college. As a first-generation college graduate himself, he knows how long the odds are and how much perseverance it takes to get there.

Contreras came to Exeter as a prep and struggled to find his place. He learned from this experience that fitting in socially is as important as achieving academically. When he decided to leave Exeter midway through sophomore year, his dorm mates stayed up all night trying to talk him out of it. He could not be dissuaded. After a year and a half back in Houston, Contreras returned to Exeter to complete his senior year.

”My father was incarcerated and I was distracted,” Contreras recalls of his first stint at Exeter. ”I could not focus and I isolated myself. I finally realized I needed to prove to myself that I could do it and came back for my senior year.”

Contreras works with the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) network of charter schools in Houston, serving as the executive director of KIPP Through College. KIPP was founded in Houston in 1994 and manages 141 schools in 20 states and Washington, D.C. In Houston, KIPP’s largest region, KIPP comprises 22 schools enrolling 11,500 students. KIPP schools work with underserved students in low-income neighborhoods and stay in touch with their graduates, providing significant support services for those in college and embarking on careers.

Contreras oversees the support services KIPP offers its alumni in college. ”Our graduates need a lot of social support,” he explains. ”They are adjusting to the academic pace in college and to being independent and on their own. It’s a cultural as well as academic transition.” KIPP helps students put together financial packages that minimize the number of hours they need to work while in college so they can focus on their studies, and sponsors social events that bring together KIPP alumni in a given area.

Contreras’ job also entails managing career awareness, college prep programs and college counseling for students in grades 7 through 12 in the Houston schools. In addition, he works with teachers and administrators in kindergarten through grade 6 on what their students need to do to get ready for a college preparatory program.

Many of KIPP’s students must overcome a great deal just to get to school each day. This is why, Contreras notes, KIPP emphasizes teaching social skills and building character. ”The challenge is helping students under- stand the importance of deferred gratitude. It takes multiple layers of work to be prepared for college, and they won’t see the results of some of this work right away. Our students need to be strong academically, but they also need to learn to be responsible and to be good citizens.”

In the neighborhoods where KIPP schools are located, only 8 percent of young people have completed a college degree by age 24, compared with 80 percent in higher-income areas. KIPP is exceeding that, with 54 percent of its graduates completing college degrees, and 98 percent getting high school diplomas. ”We have lots to celebrate, but still lots to do,” Contreras says. ”We need to see college graduation rise another 20 percent to close the gap.”

When Contreras applied to Exeter, he was interviewed by an admissions representative in Houston. He remembers telling the interviewer, ”I’m going to come back to this community and work here. I’m going to help make change.” Today that is exactly what he is doing.


Chester Finn ’62CHESTER FINN ’62

For more than 40 years, Chester Finn ’62 has been at the forefront of education reform. The author of more than 20 books on the topic, including Leaving No Child Behind: Options for Kids in Failing Schools and Charter Schools in Action: Renewing Public Education, he has spent his career researching and writing about education and advocating for change. A professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University from 1981 to 2002, he has also served as an assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education. In the past decade, he has headed the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C., where he currently serves as a senior fellow and president emeritus. He is also a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, where he chairs the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education.

Finn sees two significant changes in the field over the last 60 years. ”The national education picture is very different from life in the 1950s, when I was in school in Dayton, Ohio, before going off to Exeter,” he says. ”We measured schools by inputs then — how many subjects were offered, the facilities, and so on. Now we judge schools by outcomes — how many kids graduate and how much they learn. We have shifted to educational results as the key metric.”

The second change involves the increased choice families have in deciding where to enroll their children. In the 1950s, attendance at local public schools or Catholic schools was assumed, with a few students attending independent schools like Exeter. The effort being changed,” he says. A basic public school, he adds, does not have the resources or time to do this.

”There is a vast complacency in the United States,” Finn says of the overall picture. ”We don’t look at education as a national challenge. The majority of middle-class parents think their kid’s school is doing OK. They don’t know that kids in Singapore are doing better than kids here and they don’t know why they should care.”


Jenna Leahy ’06JENNA LEAHY ’06

Jenna Leahy ’06 became interested in education reform as an undergraduate at California’s Scripps College, when she signed up to volunteer at a school over the border in Tijuana, Mexico. ”I was blown away by the poverty,” she says of this life-changing experience. ”I became connected to the children and their families and to the Mexican culture, which is very warm and loving.”

Leahy received a grant from her college to return to Tijuana for the summer to teach at a mission school. She found that teaching came naturally to her, and on her graduation from college took a three-year assignment with Teach for America in Phoenix. For a day student at Exeter who walked to school throughout her four years at the Academy, this was a long way from home, but she knew it was where she wanted to be. The kindergartners in her classroom were all students of color and all on the free lunch program.

”My students arrived for kindergarten unable to count. Already they were so far behind,” Leahy recalls. ” But I knew they could do it. By the end of the year, they were able to do addition and subtraction, and to write a paragraph. This was a very powerful lesson for me. I saw that teaching these skills in kindergarten meant that students had a chance to get caught up and not get left behind.”

In January 2014, Leahy and a fellow Teach for America alumnus received a $690,000 grant from the Department of Education to open a charter school in a low-performing, high-poverty area after visiting 60 schools across the country and writ- ing a 400-page proposal. They received an additional $250,000 in funding from the Walton Family Foundation to establish CASA Academy, a primary school serving children in kindergarten through second grade in Phoenix. CASA opened in August 2014 with 136 students.

Leahy, who serves as the school’s director of students and operations (her co-founder directs academics), says they chose to establish a primary school because they wanted to address the performance gap early, when it can make the greatest difference. ”By age 3, students like those we enroll have vocabularies half that of their higher-income peers. I want to prepare students so they are at grade level in the first years.”

Like many charter schools in low-income neighborhoods, CASA has an extended school day, two hours longer than any other school in the area, and an extended school year, with students attending for an extra four weeks annually. Teachers put in long hours and make contact with each student’s parents at least once a week. With a staff of only seven this first year, Leahy admits that everyone is ”wearing a lot of hats.” There is a shared understanding that this is what it will take to give children with so few advantages a chance.

”This is not rocket science,” Leahy says. ”You have to believe that your students can do it and have high expectations.” Those expectations are conveyed to CASA’s students through college pennants on the walls of classrooms and hallways, and weekly pep rallies at which students chant the names of major colleges and universities across the country.

Leahy and her co-founder plan to expand CASA by adding third grade and expect to enroll a total of 400 students once the school is fully established. Fundraising will continue to be a major part of Leahy’s job, as the state provides only $6,000 per student annually and does not fund full-day kindergarten, which she sees as essential for CASA students.

Leahy describes CASA as not just a school, but part of a movement ”to raise the bar for education in Arizona. The status quo is not acceptable. There are thousands of other kids who need a school like this.”


Nate Brown ’95NATE BROWN ’95

Nate Brown ’95 went to work as an investment banker in New York after graduating from college. As a child he had spent time in Harlem, where his grandmother lived. Now he was living in a luxury apartment building downtown. ”After two years of working on Wall Street,” he recalls, ”I realized that I had not been north of 79th Street. There was the city of this privileged life I was leading, and the city of the projects I visited as a kid. The difference in whether you lived in one city or the other was education. I felt a need to give back.”

Brown planned to work in education for a year or two and then return to the private sector. But, as he says with a laugh, ”That one year of giving back has turned into 13, and I have no plans to go back to banking, ever.”

For the past seven years, Brown has worked for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where he is a senior program officer with the Empowering Effective Teachers program. Prior to that he worked as director of operations for the Department of Education in New York City and for EdisonLearning, a network of city schools operated by a for-profit.

Brown’s current project partners school districts in nine states and a charter school organization with the Gates Foundation to work on ways to improve teacher effectiveness. ”Research shows that the most important piece of impacting outcomes for kids is the interaction between teachers and students,” Brown says. ”The data shows dramatic differences in classrooms. One teacher gets the best out of kids while another does not. We know this, but school systems have traditionally treated teachers as if they are all the same.”

Instead of approaching the question of teacher performance punitively, as some efforts have given the impression of doing, Brown’s project starts with the empowering piece. He is quick to note that the system has failed teachers just as much as it has failed students. The partner schools Brown works with are testing new ways of evaluating teachers, including a more research-based approach. This approach broadens the measures of teacher perfor- mance, including student growth over time; offers more extensive feedback; and provides analysis that controls for the academic preparedness of individual students.

”These tools allow us to differentiate teachers based on their performance and provide targeted tools to help them improve,” Brown explains. ”Most of the debate focuses on the bottom of the bell curve but the majority of teachers fall in the middle. Our goal is to get more teachers from the middle to the top.”

Most teachers attend conferences, in what Brown refers to as the ”sitting and getting” style of professional development. However, research shows that peer-to-peer and job-embedded professional development are most effective. The Gates Foundation has turned the old model on its head by identifying leadership teachers and asking them to work with teachers in their own schools and offer workshops for other teachers.

Brown says, ”Letting teachers drive these workshops is changing how people at the district level see teachers. Administrators are asking for teacher input on professional development, for instance. When you put teachers in the driver’s seat, it makes a difference. I think teachers will be our way out of the challenges we face.”

When you look at the education reform debate, Brown points out, rarely do people talk about kids. This is not his experience when he meets with teachers across the country. Teachers know who they are working for — the kids. In the end, this is what education reform is all about, making a difference in the lives of children and their futures.

”Going to Exeter afforded me amazing opportunities and opened so many professional doors for me,” Brown concludes. ”’From those to whom much is given, much is expected.’ Bill Gates is known for quoting this. It’s essentially non sibi—different words but the same concept.”