Author Archives: Mary K. Wells

Honoring Women’s History Month: A Q&A with Prospect Schools’ Tresha Ward

We’re asking education leaders to reflect on their many contributions to the sector. From the “why” behind their work and what calls them to serve school communities, to where they draw everyday inspiration from and more, we’re featuring leaders’ perspectives on Ahead of the Heard in a series honoring Women’s History Month. 

Tresha Ward is a longtime educator, school and network leader, and a Bellwether alumna. Today, she serves as CEO of Prospect Schools, an intentionally diverse network of six K-12 charter schools based in Brooklyn, New York. With an International Baccalaureate, college-prep focus and a school community model rooted in antiracism, diversity, equity, and inclusion, Prospect is poised for growth and impact. I discussed her current role, approach to education, and what grounds her in this work over Zoom.* 

Mary K. Wells:
It’s so great to reconnect. Let’s start with you: Tell our readers a bit about how your identity and experiences shape your career and work at Prospect Schools. What calls you to this work?

Tresha Ward:
My identity, race, and gender are really formative to who I am. Growing up in the Bronx in New York City, I was fortunate to have parents who prioritized education and emphasized going to school. Despite that focus as a kid, I really struggled in college and it was a big turning point in my life. I didn’t want kids who looked like me or came from similar backgrounds to make it to college and realize that they didn’t have the tools needed to pursue their dreams. 

That turning point launched my passion for and focus on education. I started out as a teacher and then became a school leader before moving into other roles focused on impacting kids. In all that I’ve accomplished, there’s been a clear through-line to kids from similar backgrounds as mine. Direct alignment to a mission and to serving kids is at the core of who I am personally and professionally. I strive every day to live up to two guiding principles: 1) to make sure kids like me have an amazing education and can live a life full of choice and opportunity, and 2) to be cognizant of my role as a leader — often the only Black female leader in decision-making spaces — and how it can inspire others.

Over time, I’ve grown in my awareness of the impact many of my roles have had on other women of color and on kids that I didn’t know were watching. It’s a blessing to have opportunities to sit in a room and be a role model for underrepresented groups. But it’s also heavy. Though I’m excited to see more Black women and people of color in CEO roles, and have a contingent of colleagues I can reach out to, it’s still a heavy weight. Navigating spaces can be difficult as the sole Black female leader at times, but it’s ultimately an honor to be in a position of influence and to advocate for kids. It keeps me going.

MKW:
Tell us about Prospect Schools and how you’ve helped your team navigate the ongoing pandemic. How are you building a strong school culture with your team, families, and students?

TW:
I joined Prospect Schools in June 2021, after the team had already been through one year of COVID-19 and dealt with the ups and downs of figuring out in-person versus hybrid versus virtual schooling, and more. We have six K-12 schools in our network, and in the first year of the pandemic, some were fully remote, some were in-person, and some were hybrid learning environments. It was so hard for everyone in the Prospect community, especially for families with kids in different schools trying to make it all work. 

Heading into the 2021-22 academic year, we set three themes to guide our school experience: 1) emerge from COVID-19 as safely as possible by opening schools with in-person, consistent learning for students, families, and the team; 2) work on relationships and connections to rebuild our community, including adults within our network of schools; and 3) set up systems for future growth, while ensuring a strong base of operations.

So far, it’s been an up-and-down school year with some wins and some misses. We started to open for in-person schooling amid the Delta variant, rode that wave, and then the Omicron variant hit in winter, which was really hard on everyone. Our team has been resilient and focused on our kids and families but it hasn’t been easy. I’m proud that we’re maintaining a commitment to in-person learning in admirable ways despite ongoing challenges. 

In terms of culture, it’s been difficult to hold some of the special events and in-person staff gatherings that strengthen a community. Ultimately, everyone is looking forward to getting together in the next few months before the end of the school year now that things are starting to open up again. It’s not going to be how things were pre-pandemic, but hopefully we can return to a place of “normalcy” as we continue to navigate COVID-19. 

MKW:
When you think about growth at Prospect, what does it look like? What are you excited about?

TW:
We recently finished our growth plan and took time to step back and reflect on what it will look like coming out of COVID-19, especially as a network that added two schools during a pandemic (moving from four to six schools). As a network team, we’re focused on supporting our existing school sites and students, strengthening our foundation, and positioning ourselves for more impact on the horizon. 

We want to be thoughtful about growth as we emerge from the pandemic, and focus on growth that strengthens our current schools. So first-wave growth means a tight focus on our academic model at the elementary, middle, and high school level; ensuring that we are fiscally and programmatically strong; and ensuring that more of our high school students are set up to graduate with International Baccalaureate diplomas, among other things.

Through any growth, alignment around a thoughtful timeline is critical. We’ve been engaging a steering committee of key stakeholders from our schools to dig into Prospect’s growth plan and are including different voices and perspectives in our planning. We’re focused on that at the moment.

MKW:
We’ve been asking this question of a few women leaders in the sector in honor of Women’s History Month: Is there a particular woman who’s inspired you? Who and in what way? 

TW:
If you asked me that question a few years ago, I probably would have picked someone like Michelle Obama. Lately, however, I’ve been thinking a lot about my mom. 

It’s so easy to take your mom for granted. My mom sacrificed so much for me when I was little. She was also my first teacher — I have pictures of us as I was growing up, surrounded by her handmade posters on the wall with multiplication tables and letters. My mom actually changed careers, too. When I became a teacher, she became a teacher. And when I became a principal, she became a principal. She’s still a school administrator today. The older I get, the more moved I am by her influence in my life and by our parallel paths in education. I’m recently noticing that I constantly do things or say things that remind me of her, I call them my “mom sayings.” I’m so grateful for her sacrifice and all of her sayings that I didn’t fully appreciate growing up. Not to mention her persistence, stubbornness, and the example she still sets for me to this day.

MKW:
Do you have advice for other school or district leaders in the field? 

TW:
I think a lot about how to be true to yourself doing this work. It’s taken me a long time to see what that feels like and how to lead and make decisions based on what I believe. To women in similar roles, or those aspiring to lead schools and systems, figure out early on how to be true to yourself and have a clear vision for how you lead with your values. Find your voice and use it. And deliver that every day to your team.

MKW:
Tresha, thank you so much for sharing your perspective with our readers.

Read more in Ahead of the Heard’s Women’s History Month series. 

*(Editor’s note: Tresha Ward is a former Bellwarian.)

Bellwether is Growing: New Hires and Promotions

One of the best things about working at Bellwether is the diverse, passionate, mission-driven, brilliant people that work alongside me. I am delighted to welcome several new leaders into our organization. They will play vital roles in expanding our capacity and deepening our expertise.

  • Tom Gold joined Bellwether in April as a senior associate partner in our Policy and Evaluation practice area. For the past two decades, Tom’s work has been driven by the urgency to utilize research and evidence to advance social change and greater equity in education. He brings extensive experience as an independent consultant and education leader, including within the New York City Department of Education directing its external research team and as adjunct associate professor of education studies at New York University. His work will deepen Bellwether’s evaluative field impact.

 

  • Anson Jackson joined Bellwether in May as a senior adviser in our Academic and Program Strategy practice area. A seasoned educator and school and instructional leader, he was recently the deputy chief of schools for Uplift Education and the superintendent of Summit Public Schools in the Bay Area. In his education career, Anson has also overseen innovative school design, school turnaround, leadership development initiatives, and leading systems with an emphasis on equity. He brings an unparalleled insight into the inner workings of school systems to our Academic and Program Strategy team. 

 

  • DaWana Williamson joined Bellwether in June as a partner and chief operating officer. A chemical engineer and an MBA by trade, she has spent the past 15 years working for nonprofits in the education and technology sectors honing her operations and change management skills. Most recently, DaWana served as senior vice president of youth development operations for the YMCA of Metro Chicago. She currently serves on the Advisory Board of the David Lynch Foundation, Chicago, an organization dedicated to bringing the practice of transcendental meditation to at-risk populations. As Bellwether continues to grow, DaWana will play a critical role in supporting the evolving needs of our team.

 

  • Daniela Torre Gibney joined Bellwether in July as a senior associate partner in our Policy and Evaluation practice area. Daniela has extensive experience designing and implementing complex mixed-methods evaluations and research projects, and providing technical assistance to organizational leaders focused on using data for continuous improvement. Prior to Bellwether, she led foundation- and federally-funded evaluations at SRI International. Daniela’s work focuses on supporting programs and informing policies that improve teaching and school quality, particularly for multilingual learners and marginalized students. She will further enhance Bellwether’s evaluative expertise and field impact.

 

  • Alex Cortez joined Bellwether in September as a partner in our Strategic Advising practice area. He brings an extensive range of experiences, including as an operator, a consultant, a funder, and in nonprofit board governance. His most recent work, as a managing partner at New Profit, focused on parent power and systems change, scaling the direct and widespread impact of K-12 models and postsecondary success. He also previously served in multiple roles within KIPP, including with KIPP Houston Public Schools and with the KIPP Foundation. Alex sits on multiple nonprofit boards and the Massachusetts State Board of Higher Education. He will bring an operator’s sensibility to our work, a strong lens around inclusion of stakeholder voice, and an extraordinary level of strategic acumen to guide and shape our Strategic Advising work. 

 

I am equally delighted to celebrate recent leadership promotions of incredible team members who have raised the bar, every day, and who have been a critical part of Bellwether’s growth in recent years.

  • Melissa Steel King has been promoted to partner. She leads our Evaluation practice area and has been a key team member since joining Bellwether in 2015. Her leadership has grown Bellwether’s expertise in program evaluation, teacher preparation and training, whole child development, and evaluation capacity building. In addition to her expertise in conducting evaluations on behalf of client organizations, Melissa is particularly skilled in working with clients in building their internal capacity to measure impact, inform growth and improvement, and ultimately to drive outcomes for the communities they serve. Melissa’s deep expertise and dedicated focus on equity are evident both in her work with clients and in her many contributions to Bellwether as an organization.

 

  • Evan Coughenour has been promoted to senior associate partner in our Strategic Advising practice area. Since joining Bellwether in 2014, he has advised a diverse range of projects, building deep expertise in charter and parochial school growth and sustainability planning, long-term financial planning and analysis, and postsecondary access and success efforts. Evan is an exceptional leader of projects and teams and a skilled mentor to newer team members. His leadership will continue to be instrumental to the ongoing impact of our Strategic Advising team.

I hope you will join me in welcoming our new Bellwarians and congratulating senior team members who continue to grow and advance here on their new roles. Through client and field-facing work, our entire team is approaching this school year with a renewed focus and energy around helping the sector accelerate its impact for students who need it the most at this critical moment. 

We are also still growing and hiring, check out our open roles here.

A Statement on Solidarity

Friends of Bellwether, 

Right now we are searching for the words to describe what we are feeling: anger, frustration, and also a deep sense of urgency that America must be better than this. This most recent crisis comes in the midst of a pandemic that has robbed many children, often the ones who need great schools the most, of one-third of their learning this year. And on top of all that, Black communities are still being called to demand basic human rights that most Americans take as a matter of course. 

The most recent horrific acts of racist violence against Black citizens are heartbreaking and a painful reminder of the endless ways our public institutions and systems fail Black people and communities. What our country is experiencing is neither new nor unexpected. It’s important to be clear: The killing of George Floyd in Minnesota is not a random event that sparked a sudden or inexplicable backlash; it is part of an inexcusable pattern that must stop.

Our systems of education likewise systematically disenfranchise Black children as well as other historically marginalized students. Even as Bellwether works to address these issues, we believe more radical and broad-based change is required to realize the vision of an equitable and just society.  

We are making space for the visceral pain of our Black teammates and colleagues, and standing with communities across the nation, especially those most targeted by racial injustice. We stand with those fighting to address the ways racism destroys individuals and communities. They do not stand alone — it’s incumbent on all Americans, especially white Americans, not only to speak out, but to act.

Please Help Us Congratulate Our Newest Partner

As Bellwether marks our ten-year anniversary, building a team of talented, respected, and dedicated education professionals is one of the many things we celebrate. Today I am privileged to announce the promotion of one of my colleagues, Tresha Francis Ward, to the partner team. I am excited to watch Tresha’s contributions to the field and to the Bellwether team continue in the role of partner.headshot of Tresha Francis Ward, partner at Bellwether Education Partners

I have been privileged to work closely with Tresha over the years on several client engagements and to join with her to build out our academic and program strategy service offering. Tresha came to us as an experienced school leader, instructional coach, and expert in principal development. She brings years of hands-on experience with schools of all types, including turnaround schools. When we sit down with school and district leaders, Tresha’s obvious empathy and expertise quickly establish authentic and collaborative relationships.

Internally at Bellwether, team members love to work with Tresha: she is a fantastic mentor and manager who has helped many of our team members grow. She is also co-leading one of our most critical internal priorities, our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) work. Working alongside her, I have appreciated her tireless and thoughtful contributions to help Bellwether become a more inclusive (and fun!) work environment.

Please join me in congratulating Tresha! You can read more about her here. She also co-authored a piece yesterday with her colleagues on responding to coronavirus, which you can read here.

Three “Must-Have” Areas of Freedom that Autonomous Schools Need to Succeed

My colleagues and I have been working with districts in several states to design and launch autonomous district schools, and over the past several months, we’ve rolled out a series of blog posts and other resources to explain how these kinds of schools can work best, including the new video below:

An obvious question in this work is: Which types of autonomies are crucial to the success of autonomous district school efforts?

Having worked with hundreds of high-performing schools around the country over the past fifteen years, I believe that strong alignment within and across three key areas is necessary to deliver excellent outcomes for students:

1. People

In a traditional district school, the principal likely has a number of people on her team who she did not hire. Maybe a few of them are not bought into the principal’s vision and would rather be on another campus. 

Principals in autonomous schools must have control over who is on their team, how roles are structured, and how teachers use their time, as my colleague Tresha Ward has written extensively about. Think about high-performing charter schools or networks: inevitably they have a leadership team and staff that believe deeply in the mission and unique instructional approach. 

Similarly, principals in district autonomous schools need to be able to select and support a team that is aligned around a common vision and strategy for educating children, wants to be part of the school, and is committed to professional learning and growth. Continue reading