By Ben Mattison
Educators, administrators, superintendents, advocates, and others committed to strengthening public education convened on January 14 in a virtual forum to discuss ways to make America’s school systems work better for every student, amidst a time of unprecedented challenge and turmoil. Titled “Leading Forward,” the event was the first Broad Center Forum hosted by the Yale School of Management and drew more than 350 alumni of The Broad Center (TBC) for the virtual gathering.
The previously independent Broad Center in Los Angeles, which has run education leadership programs for more than 15 years, is currently being transformed into The Broad Center at Yale SOM. The long-running TBC Forum gives graduates of the programs the opportunity to come together and hear from each other and from other experts and pathbreaking leaders in the field.
Welcoming the alumni, Yale SOM Dean Kerwin K. Charles said that when he attended the 2020 Forum, the importance of the event became clear to him. “It was obvious that the Forum was a place for reconnection,” he said, “But it was not mere socializing; there was also productive engagement. I watched people learn, one from the other, and exchange ideas and insights.”
The 2021 gathering, he said, exemplified how Yale SOM will draw on the expertise of TBC alumni as it applies its approach to education leadership.
“We have this unique and distinctive mission that emphasizes leadership for not only business but business and society,” he said. Yale SOM, he noted, has long experience in “training leaders in multiple spheres—and what more important sphere than education?”
But, he added, “I enter this enterprise with a huge amount of humility. Any serious scholar is aware of what he or she does not know. There are things we have to learn. There are partnerships we have to form… We’re proud of [our academic expertise]. But we’re going to rely on you too. This thing can only work if what we are doing in the classroom is contributed to and critiqued by the people on this call.”
Hanseul Kang, the inaugural Anita and Joshua Bekenstein ’80 B.A. Executive Director of The Broad Center at Yale SOM and an alum of The Broad Center, echoed Charles’ theme. “We will continue to draw inspiration and strength from what The Broad Center has been historically,” she said, “Our engagement with all of you in the alumni network is going to continue.”
“Ultimately, we all do this work on behalf of students,” she said. The center will draw on listening sessions with alumni and other key stakeholders as it forges a “theory of action” to “make sure that we are leveraging the strengths of the Yale School of Management and The Broad Center to have as big an impact for our students as we possibly can.”
Kang described the new leadership development programs that will be offered by The Broad Center at Yale SOM, in addition to research and policy engagement: the Master’s in Public Education Management, a 14-month Master’s in Management Studies (MMS) program designed for early- to mid-career school system leaders, and the Fellowship for Public Education Leadership, an executive leadership program for senior-level public education leaders. She noted that the first cohort of the fellowship, which will begin coursework in June, was participating in the Forum, giving students their first opportunity to connect with the alumni network.
The Forum’s keynote was a discussion between Kang and the leadership of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), the child advocacy organization founded by civil rights leader Marian Wright Edelman LAW ’63 in 1973. Like The Broad Center, CDF is undergoing a transition; in 2020, Edelman became president emerita and was succeeded as president by Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson.
Edelman traced the founding of CDF back to her upbringing, noting that her parents had founded the first Black home for the aged in their South Carolina town. “I do exactly what my parents did,” she said. “When they saw a need, they tried to respond… Service is the rent we pay for living, is the message in my family.”
Wilson, a faith and philanthropic leader who co-chaired the Ferguson Commission in the wake of the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, drew a parallel between the creation of the CDF and the present moment—and said that the organization serves as a bridge from one revolutionary movement to another: “Literally, CDF was founded as an extension of the civil rights movement and its work, and it is transitioning in the midst of the movement for Black lives… We are transitioning but also carrying forth the DNA.”
“What are we building now,” he asked, “that will last, and bridge to the next?”
Asked what gives him hope during a difficult year, Wilson pointed to the importance of focusing on individual children. “You can’t transform the situation of all children if you’re not willing to serve each child,” he said, “and you’re not willing to serve each child if there’s not one child that makes your heart beat.”
At the same time, Edelman said, leaders must engage with administrative details. “Whoever controls the budget controls the policy,” she said. “You’ve got to do the technical, dull work.”
The two urged education reformers to remember the broader factors that shape children’s education.
“Children don’t come in pieces,” Edelman said. “You’ve got to look at the whole child. Good policy should mirror what every parent wants for their own child.” Wilson emphasized the importance of raising the minimum wage: “Putting more resources in the household are the things that will make a difference in education.”
As the keynote discussion unfolded, an enthusiastic parallel conversation took place in the Zoom chat, with participants quoting Edelman and Wilson and expressing appreciation for the opportunity to hear from them.
“I couldn’t agree more about the privilege to spend time in the presence of these extraordinary leaders,” wrote Chelsea Banks (The Broad Residency 2017-19). “They somehow have overcome the distance of Zoom to create the feeling of being in the room with all of you to reground, recharge, and inspire us to get back to work.”
The forum’s breakout sessions looked at college access, the post-COVID future for schools, and NXTHVN, a New Haven art center that gives local high school students the opportunity to apprentice with experienced artists. Despite the virtual format, a number of traditions were carried forward from previous forums, among them cohort reunions and Leadership Stories—brief, candid reflections by TBC alumni about their personal and professional journeys. Leadership Stories were presented by Alicia Prince (The Broad Residency 2018-20), chief of staff of the School District of Philadelphia, and Pedro Martinez (The Broad Academy 2009), superintendent of the San Antonio Independent School District.
The Leadership Story “is an opportunity to stand in front of your peers and share your story,” said Chaka Booker, the managing director of The Broad Center in Los Angeles. “It is an opportunity to reflect and practice that vulnerability that strengthens you as a leader.” Booker served as emcee of the forum alongside Margie Adler, Yale SOM’s managing director of alumni relations; both have served on the team managing TBC’s transition to Yale SOM.
At a final session, hosted by Becca Bracy Knight, executive director of The Broad Center in Los Angeles, TBC alumni offered reflections on the past year and the future. Speakers included Hrag Hamalian (The Broad Academy 2019-20), CEO of Bright Star Schools in Los Angeles; Leslie Torres-Rodriguez (The Broad Academy 2018-19), superintendent of the Hartford Public Schools; Jorge Robles (The Broad Residency 2013-15), chief operating officer of the Tulsa Public Schools, and Carrie Douglass (The Broad Residency 2007-09), co-CEO and co-founder of School Board Partners.
Shelton Jefferies (The Broad Academy 2019-20), Midwest superintendent of Learn4Life, said that during the pandemic, “the brutal reality is that there’s a continuum of impact dependent upon the resources you can bring to bear,” with many more options for wealthier parents. He and his team have focused their attention on the “disappearing families” who have lost their connection with school entirely. Going forward, he added, “trauma resilient educators are a strategic imperative now more than ever.”
Traci Thibodeaux (The Broad Residency 2013-15), CEO and superintendent of Rêve Preparatory Charter School in Houston, said, “I love to plan everything five to ten years in advance, and what I learned in 2020 is that change is the only thing that I can plan. When I look going forward into 2021, I recognize that my mindset has to be a growth mindset. There is no normal anymore. We have to create that new path.”