changing of the guard

Kopp, Teach for America's founder, shifts to international role

Teach for America’s founding CEO, Wendy Kopp (center), is being replaced by two top executives at the 23-year-old nonprofit. (Photo: Teach for America)

Nearly 24 years after first sketching out Teach for America in her undergraduate thesis, founding CEO Wendy Kopp is stepping down from running the organization, according to a decision that its board approved on Tuesday.

Kopp will instead focus on running Teach for All, the nonprofit she launched in 2007 to support organizations in other countries as they adopt the Teach for America model of recruiting and training strong teachers to work in high-need schools. Two dozen countries currently have Teach for All programs.

Kopp’s departure marks the start of a new phase for Teach for America, which grew from 500 teachers in 1990 to more than 10,000 in 46 regions today, including nearly a thousand in New York City, along the way jumpstarting a paradigm shift in teacher preparation. Nonprofit organizations are notorious for tending to struggle after their charismatic founders move on.

But Kopp’s successors have been steeped in her leadership. The group’s board chose Teach for America’s top executives, Matt Kramer and Elisa Villanueva Beard, to share the CEO position starting March 1. Kramer is the organization’s president, and Villanueva Beard — who was a Teach for America “corps member” in rural Texas — is its chief operating officer.

And Kopp will continue to influence the nonprofit’s vision and direction as the chair of its board. Kopp offered one hint of what that direction might look like in an open letter last month to Gary Rubinstein, a New York City teacher who entered the classroom through Teach for America but has been critical of it in the decades since.

Responding to Rubinstein’s charge that the organization promotes only certain ideas about how to improve schools, Kopp said she had always worked to create a “big tent” for ideas, in large part by not asserting her own in many cases (but not all). She wrote:

However, I’ve learned the hard way that silence just reinforces misunderstanding. Going forward, our goal is to show the plurality of opinion within our community and provide more outlets to challenge one another and share our best thinking.

I believe there is real misunderstanding about what opinions Teach For America wants to hear – misunderstanding we haven’t done enough to combat. When corps members and alumni assume their opinions defy conventional wisdom and no one wants to hear them, they often choose not to speak up. This becomes a self-perpetuating problem. The people who do speak up express similar views, which reinforces the impression that we all think one way and discourages dissenting opinions.

Changing this will require more than providing discussion forums – it involves the difficult work of changing culture. As you’ve noticed, over the past year we’ve made a concerted effort to do just that by encouraging honest engagement and debate on several platforms, both inside and outside the organization.

Kopp’s successors appear to be carrying out that vision. Among the pair’s first acts, according to a letter they sent to Teach for America’s participants and backers today, will be a “listening tour” to solicit guidance from teachers, alumni, and supporters.

To support the board and the co-CEOs during the transition, one board member, Richard Parsons, is becoming an “independent lead director.” Parsons is also the chair of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Education Reform Commission, whose first report last month included a recommendation to expand the use of alternative certification programs in New York State.

Kopp’s decision to run Teach for All full-time suggests that she no longer sees being New York City’s schools chancellor as “the best job in the world” after being Teach for America’s CEO.

Teach for America’s full press release is below. (Disclosure: GothamSchools’ board chair Sue Lehmann is on Teach for America’s national board.)

TEACH FOR AMERICA FOUNDER VOTED CHAIR OF THE BOARD
— Teach For America’s COO and President to become co-CEOs —

NEW YORK, NY – February 13, 2013 – In a vote yesterday, the Teach For America Board of Directors named CEO and founder Wendy Kopp as board chair, succeeding Walter Isaacson, who will become chair emeritus after more than seven years as chair. The board also appointed Matt Kramer and Elisa Villanueva Beard co-CEOs of Teach For America, effective March 1. Kopp will continue in her current role as founding CEO of Teach For All, a global network working to expand educational opportunity.

As board chair of Teach For America, Kopp will work closely with Villanueva Beard and Kramer to inform the organization’s strategic direction. She will develop and lead the national board of directors, cultivate external support, and provide advice and counsel to the leadership team.

“Today’s announcement reflects Teach For America’s strength. Our dramatic growth over the past few years calls for more leadership capacity to respond to growing needs and opportunities,” said Isaacson. “We are excited to elevate two proven leaders who have a lot more to contribute and free up our founder to focus on the areas where she can add the most unique value.”

Elisa Villanueva Beard and Matt Kramer have served as senior members of Teach For America’s leadership team for eight years, and this transition is a natural evolution of their existing responsibilities. As co-CEOs, they will be jointly accountable for the organization’s performance and will assume the leadership role in charting its strategic direction, developing its team and culture, building external relationships, and raising public awareness.

Elisa Villanueva Beard will oversee Teach For America’s regional operations and represent the organization publicly. A native of the Rio Grande Valley, Villanueva Beard joined Teach For America in 1998, teaching bilingual first and second grade in Phoenix for three years. She then spent four years as executive director of Teach For America’s Rio Grande Valley region, before joining the national staff as chief operating officer. In that position, she managed Teach For America’s now 46 regions, which are responsible for the placement and development of more than 10,000 corps members, fostering the leadership of their local alumni, and raising 80 percent of Teach For America’s funding.

“Having grown up in the Rio Grande Valley, my life’s work is fighting for educational justice for underserved kids in my hometown and across the country,” said Villanueva Beard. “I am honored to continue this work as co-CEO of Teach For America, an organization that I know has such deep potential to move us toward the day when all children have the opportunity to attain an excellent education. Matt and I look forward to working together to take Teach For America to the next level.”

Matt Kramer will manage all aspects of the central Teach For America structure, including recruiting and admissions, corps member training, administration, development, marketing and communications, and central programmatic support of the regions. Inspired by his wife’s experience as a corps member, Kramer originally joined Teach For America as chief program officer in 2005. He then moved into the role of president, where over the past five years he has helped oversee all aspects of Teach For America’s national operations, from growth and strategy to performance and organizational culture.

“I am thrilled to continue my partnership with Elisa, now as co-CEOs of Teach For America,” said Kramer. “Teach For America plays such an important role in developing the leadership our country needs to live up to our highest ideals, and Elisa and I are eager to continue the hard work of ensuring that all children in our country have the opportunity to reach their full potential. I am also excited that we will continue to benefit from Wendy Kopp’s extraordinary energy and wisdom in her new role as chair of the board.”

To ensure strong governance, the board has created a new role of independent lead director and has appointed Dick Parsons, former CEO and chairman of Time Warner, to this position. As chair of the board’s executive committee, he will help ensure the effectiveness of the board, support the development of the co-CEOs, and provide additional support in cultivating external relationships.

As CEO of Teach For All, Kopp leads a growing global network of independent organizations that, like Teach For America, are enlisting their countries’ most promising future leaders to become lifelong advocates for educational excellence and equality. Now in its sixth year, the Teach For All network includes organizations in 26 countries worldwide. In the coming years, Teach For All aims to build support for the growth of the network and its partners, and to accelerate the growth and progress of its partners by fostering learning, sharing, and innovation.

“It has been my privilege to serve as CEO of both Teach For America and Teach For All for more than five years,” said Kopp. “Today’s announcement helps ensure that each organization has the leadership capacity necessary to meet growing aspirations. Elisa and Matt are exceptional leaders and great partners. They have already contributed immeasurably to Teach For America’s growth and impact and I look forward to supporting them as they lead Teach For America into the future.”

About Teach For America
Teach For America works in partnership with communities to expand educational opportunity for children facing the challenges of poverty. Founded in 1990, Teach For America recruits and develops a diverse corps of outstanding individuals of all academic disciplines to commit two years to teach in high-need schools and become lifelong leaders in the movement to end educational inequity. Today more than 10,000 corps members are teaching in 46 urban and rural regions across the country, while nearly 28,000 alumni are working across sectors to ensure that all children have access to an excellent education. For more information, visit http://www.teachforamerica.org/ and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”