After working in technology, Hughes began a career in K-12 education, drawing on her MBA education and a two-year urban education residency at The Broad Center in Los Angeles. The center is currently being transformed into The Broad Center at Yale SOM, which will continue to offer programs to bolster public education leadership.
By Rebecca Beyer
When Sarah Hughes ’97 began her career in K-12 education, she brought a set of skills and a way of thinking gained in the MBA program at Yale SOM and in the private equity and technology industries, but focused on a new goal.
In the private sector, she says, revenue provided a target for planning and measuring your progress; in her new role as chief of staff at the public charter school network KIPP LA Schools, improved student outcomes functioned the same way. “There’s a focus that comes from being in the private sector,” she says. “In education—the mission-driven piece of it—contributes that focus.”
For Hughes, a native of Newton, Massachusetts, it was a return to her roots. She comes from a family of educators: Her mom taught second grade for decades; her dad worked in higher education; and three of her four grandparents were teachers. “Education is in my blood,” Hughes says.
Hughes also began her career in education; after college, she worked in university admissions. Eventually she decided to pursue an MBA with the goal of helping colleges manage their endowments and expand access for students from diverse socioeconomic and racial backgrounds. She picked Yale SOM for its emphasis on leadership across sectors—in nonprofits, private companies, and government agencies.
“What I really liked—and still love—about Yale is the focus that, over the course of your career, you will work in multiple sectors and that you need the skill sets to be able to succeed in all of them,” she says. “That was very appealing.”
Hughes fell in love with her classes, including courses on nonprofit strategy with Professor Sharon M. Oster and on data modeling with Professors Arthur J. Swersey and Edward H. Kaplan. She did a summer internship in the marketing department of The New Yorker.
“That was the beauty of SOM,” she says. “The exposure to multiple ideas, career opportunities, and people of different backgrounds was really broadening for me.”
After graduating, she went into a private equity consulting role at PriceWaterhouseCoopers in New York. Two years later, she moved to Los Angeles to participate in the dot-com boom, ultimately landing at Overture Services, an early search-engine company that was acquired by Yahoo. Hughes stayed at Yahoo until “it was really clear that Google had taken the market share [of search advertising dollars] and no amount of investment was going to bring it back.”
Her daughter was starting kindergarten around the same time, and, after watching Waiting for Superman, a 2010 documentary about public education, Hughes realized she was ready for a change.
“I struggled knowing that my own child had the privilege of going to an amazing public school and not even10 miles away, that was not the case,” she says. “I thought, ‘I have this skillset I’ve developed; how can I apply it to right some of the inequities in my own backyard?’”
Hughes started a deep dive into public education, shadowing staff from the Los Angeles Unified School District and “having coffee with anybody” who worked in the field, including the chief executive officer of KIPP LA Schools, which was expanding. She was eventually hired as the organization’s chief of staff.
Early in her tenure at KIPP, Hughes started a two-year Residency in Urban Education at The Broad Center in Los Angeles. (Under the aegis of The Broad Center at Yale SOM, the residency will be succeeded by a Master’s in Public Education Management program, aimed at early- to mid-career school system leaders with extraordinary leadership potential who wish to increase their impact in key K-12 systems.)
“Systemic changes are really hard,” she says. “I knew I couldn’t take the Yahoo annual planning and performance management process and immediately go in [to KIPP LA’s system]. There needed to be some interpretation. That’s where The Broad Center came in.”
The residency included eight weeks on location in innovative school systems around the country. After learning about an effort to create a pipeline of future principals in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district in North Carolina, for instance, Hughes started building in more supports for young teachers in the KIPP LA system.
“If you’re thinking, two years from now, we’re opening this school, you have to look backwards and plan for how do we need to develop the talent over these next two years so a new principal is ready to go,” she explains.
Ultimately, during Hughes’ tenure, KIPP LA grew from seven schools serving 2,200 students to 17 schools serving more than 8,000 students, and three schools were recognized with National Blue Ribbons from the U.S. Department of Education for their performance.
Through it all, the Yale SOM and Broad Center alumni networks were critical, she says.
“I actually was going into a meeting Tuesday and got on the phone with five of my SOM classmates” before for “creative thinking,” she says. “They’re still my greatest resource and study buddies.”
She says she continues to draw on lessons she learned on campus, including Swersey’s analogy of Thanksgiving dinner as the equivalent of “multiple work streams coming together in support of a final deliverable.”
Hughes now works as an independent education consultant and advocate, with a particular focus on elementary education. “When you set high expectations, instill the foundation in reading and math, and create joyful learning experiences,” she says, “it sets kids up for a really long trajectory.”
Interviewed on May 21, 2020