Author Archives: Tanya Paperny

International Women’s Day at Bellwether

In honor of yesterday’s International Women’s Day, here is work we’ve done over the years to uplift women’s accomplishments and ensure equity:

Kids Are Counting On Us: A Q&A With Bellwether’s New Academic Strategy Senior Advisers

Many organizations in the education sector seek our advice to deepen and broaden their impact in service of kids. Since our foundation, Bellwether has worked with CMOs and districts to set strategic priorities and build out detailed plans to accomplish these priorities from an operations, talent, and finance perspective.

headshots for Bill Durbin and Tresha Francis WardWe often get inquiries about whether we can help improve the academic performance of a subset of schools, or all schools in a network or district. We’re happy to announce that we’ve filled this missing piece: In 2017, we brought on Bill Durbin and Tresha Francis Ward as academic strategy senior advisers. In the Q&A below, we talk about their backgrounds and how they help schools drive the kinds of outcomes that all kids deserve.

Tell us a bit about your backgrounds. How will your work and life experiences translate to offering academic strategy advice?

Bill Durbin: Over the past 18 years, I have been a teacher, school founder, and school leader manager at both YES Prep Public Schools in Houston and DSST Public Schools in Denver. Through these experiences, I have developed a deep appreciation for the coordinated effort it takes across a school and network team to run highly effective schools. A school’s success relies on adults aligning around a common vision and executing strategies that are clear and which reinforce that vision for student success.

Whether the school is a public charter school or a traditional public school, teachers and leaders want to work in a place where they know what is expected of them to reach the desired outcomes for kids. I have supported various types of schools in aligning their outcomes, strategies, and practices, and I look forward to doing that even more as we continue to work with schools across the country.      

Tresha Francis Ward: I’m a first-generation college student, born and raised in the Bronx, NY. My own experiences with schools and in college are the primary reason I got into education. I have spent the last 13 years working in, around, and with schools as a teacher, school founder, director, and manager of schools, all serving historically underserved black and brown students. It’s my personal desire to ensure more kids that look like me have access to great schools and educators.

I started my career on the Southeast side of Houston at De Zavala Elementary School as a Teach For America corps member. The neighborhood was 99.9% Latino, so in addition to learning how to teach, I also had to overcome language barriers and find ways to build trust with my students and their families.

After four years of teaching, I was accepted to KIPP’s Fisher Fellowship, where educators found and lead new high-performing KIPP schools. In the fall of 2010, I opened KIPP Legacy Preparatory School on the Northeast side of Houston, serving a different population of students. Being a founding school leader was the most challenging and yet most rewarding thing I have ever done. It took time and a lot of iteration, but I’m proud of the culture we built. It’s a culture that still thrives, where our kids feel loved, cared for, and still held to high expectations in a respectful way.

After several years as a school leader, I joined the KIPP Foundation, where I was responsible for the professional learning of 200+ school leaders and for helping to implement academic initiatives across their campuses. After a few years at the Foundation, I missed being in schools, so I returned to my home city of New York to manage a K-8 turnaround campus in Brooklyn. That experience reiterated the importance of building relationships as a key part of a school’s success.

When I coach school leaders or work with them, I never forget how hard the job is — and I never forget how rewarding it is either.

Can you share a defining “a-ha” moment from your past academic leadership? How does that experience inform you today? Continue reading

A Day in the Life: Bellwether’s Kirsten Schmitz

Kirsten Schmitz headshotThere’s this cool thing that sometimes happens when a person gets to know Bellwether as a client or intern and then decides to work here. One shining example is Kirsten Schmitz, an analyst on our Policy and Thought Leadership team who started as a short-term fellow after finishing graduate school. Kirsten got a taste of the Bellwether magic and decided to come back!

Since joining us full-time in 2016, Kirsten has written about inequitable teacher pensions, done live coverage of election issues at the 2016 Democratic and Republican National Conventions, blogged about gender and language barriers, and much more. She brings her journalism chops and teaching experience to the team and always keeps kids in mind as the ultimate mission of her work. Read our short conversation below, where we talk about Kirsten’s journey to Bellwether, her love of the classroom, and why we need to keep examining gender parity for teachers.

Tell me a little about your education trajectory — both your own schooling and how you got involved in teaching and education policy.

I grew up in the Chicago suburbs — Mundelein if you want to get really technical — and was lucky enough to attend strong public and private schools in my community. I studied journalism at the University of Missouri and to this day am still a big news nerd. A large part of my interest in journalism was rooted in social justice, and I still feel the two are closely related. To me, journalism was a means of amplifying the voices and stories of those who had been historically silenced.

I was drawn to Teach For America’s mission early in my undergraduate career, and the organization was my original point of entry to the education equity space. As a 2012 corps member, I taught sixth grade English in Irving, Texas, just outside of Dallas. Being “Miss S” was the greatest privilege of my life, and I miss the classroom fiercely. My students are talented, kind, hilarious, and strong. As you can imagine, leaving was incredibly difficult. Many factors went into my decision to pursue policy, but ultimately, I was eager to find a space that married my journalism background in writing and research with meaningful outcomes for my students and others. Education policy was that intersection for me.

How did you hear about Bellwether? What attracted you to working here?

I started at Bellwether as a summer fellow. I had just finished my master’s in education policy and was assigned to research teacher pensions with Chad Aldeman and Leslie Kan. Pensions were, perhaps unsurprisingly, a topic I knew very little about. That said, I’m nothing if not curious, and Chad and Leslie were generous and supportive with their time and knowledge. By the time my fellowship was complete, I had built up shallow but substantial expertise. More importantly, I had gotten a taste of the Bellwether magic.

No organization is perfect, but Bellwether attracts smart, driven, and thoughtful people. This place is a bit of a talent magnet, and I wanted to soak up as much as I could. After my fellowship, I spent a year working at the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program, and then made my way back to Bellwether in the summer of 2016. I don’t always agree with my colleagues, but I admire them all the same. Honestly, I think that’s more important.

Leaving the classroom gutted me. I do think I’ll go back at some point, but until then, Bellwether’s flexible hours allow me to get as close as I can to students, teachers, and communities. I appreciate Bellwether for many reasons, but a work environment that allows me to volunteer (I coach with Girls on the Run and teach at Washington English Center) during typical office hours is invaluable.

You bring a gender lens to your work on our Teacher Pensions team. With the majority of the teaching profession being women, it might seem like a redundant focus. Why do you find it important to look through an explicit gender lens?

I’m actually working on a paper examining gender inequities and how they manifest in teacher retirement systems, and it was important to me to have another female researcher read a draft of my report. But when I pulled up an informal list of researchers in the teacher pensions space to seek out guidance, the overwhelming majority were male. It was disheartening, and it gave me real pause. We know the majority of the teaching profession, 76%, is female. Why is it that the vast majority of people researching their retirement system are male?

At face value, it can feel really redundant to examine gender in education. But I think it’s just the opposite. If we want to examine topics like teacher recruitment, teacher pay, teacher turnover, etc., we are remiss not to consider what it means to be a woman in our larger workforce, and how those dynamics play out in a field dominated in number by females, though still led by men. Here, it’s especially important to consider the intersection of race and gender, too.

What’s an education success story you’re proud of right now?

I’m most proud of my students, whether that’s my original sixth graders from August 2012, my Girls on the Run team who just wrapped their season with a 5k and a service project, or the adult learners who come to night classes at Washington English Center eager to learn even after a full work day.

I was lucky enough to be back in Irving, Texas last week, and I set up coffee dates with a few of my former students. I met Litzy when she was a sixth grader, one who willingly came in on Saturdays to bring up her reading level. Nothing is more powerful than hearing the eleven-year-old you tackled The Outsiders with talk about where she wants to apply to college next year. It gives me goosebumps. I’m proud of the work we do at Bellwether, of course, but listening to Litzy is next level.

Education policy work isn’t always flashy. In fact, I would argue that it’s very rarely flashy. If you’re in this space, it’s because you truly care about positive outcomes for all kids, but especially those who have been historically underserved. I’m here because our current system is objectively inequitable, and I want to do everything I can to change that.

Best in Bellwether 2017: Our Most Read Publications and Posts

Below are the most read posts from Ahead of the Heard and our most read publications in 2017! (To read the top posts from our sister site,, click here.)

Top Ten Blog Posts from Ahead of the Heard in 2017

1.) Anything But Equal Pay: How American Teachers Get a Raw Deal
By Kirsten Schmitz

2.) Exciting News
By Mary K. Wells

3.) Some Exciting Hires and Promotions
By Mary K. Wells

4.) Where Are All The Female Superintendents?
By Kirsten Schmitz

5.) An Expanded Federal Role in School Choice? No Thanks.
By Juliet Squire

6.) Teacher Turnover Isn’t Always Negative – Just Look at D.C. Public Schools’ Results
By Kaitlin Pennington

7.) Georgia Addressed Its Teacher Shortages With This One Trick
By Chad Aldeman

8.) A Day in the Life: Bellwether Analyst Andrew Rayner [Andrew’s now over at Promise54!]
By Heather Buchheim & Tanya Paperny

9.) Welcoming Our New Senior Advisers
By Mary K. Wells

10.) How Will States Handle New Title I Powers with Minimal Federal Oversight?
By Bonnie O’Keefe

Top Five Publications & Releases from Bellwether in 2017

1.) An Independent Review of ESSA State Plans
Chad Aldeman, Anne Hyslop, Max Marchitello, Jennifer O’Neal Schiess, & Kaitlin Pennington

2.) Miles to Go: Bringing School Transportation into the 21st Century
Jennifer O’Neal Schiess & Phillip Burgoyne-Allen

3.) Michigan Education Landscape: A Fact Base for the DeVos Debate
Bonnie O’Keefe, Kaitlin Pennington, & Sara Mead

4.) Voices from Rural Oklahoma: Where’s Education Headed on the Plain?
Juliet Squire & Kelly Robson

5.) The Best Teachers for Our Littlest Learners? Lessons from Head Start’s Last Decade
Marnie Kaplan & Sara Mead

To hear more, you can always sign up here to get our newsletter. Thanks for following our work in 2017!

A Day in the Life: Bellwether’s Aurelia Twitty

Aurelia Twitty with her honey badger award at the Bellwether Education Partners 2017 retreat

photo by Tanya Paperny

When Aurelia Twitty joined Bellwether in 2016, we learned about her 20+ years of volunteer service to DC-area schools and her commitment to educational equity. In addition to her role as executive assistant and office manager, she brings a wealth of experience as a parent advocate for education, a Certified Life Coach, and someone who has served with various organizations for over 25 years.

I loved getting the chance to talk to Aurelia about her background and advocacy. Whether as PTA president, member of a charter school Board of Trustees, or Bellwether’s own Operations team member, Aurelia brings energy and passion to everything she does. So much so that she received the top honor at this year’s Bellwether retreat: the Honey Badger Award! (See the photo above for her prize.) The award recognizes “exceptional perseverance and badger-ness marked by exuberant team spirit.”

Read our conversation below (and this Q&A is a great companion to our recent blog series on family engagement, which you can read here!):

You’ve volunteered with schools in the Washington, DC area for over 20 years. Why is it important for you to serve in this way?

I’ve always believed that a student’s chance for success is higher when the student, parents/guardians, and school all work together. I grew up a poor African American child in Washington, DC, and my parents did not invest in my education by visiting my schools or providing me with the at-home assistance I needed. I saw firsthand how my peers outperformed me while I was in elementary and middle school because they had the guidance of their teachers and their parents/guardians.

I made a promise to myself that if I ever had children, I would volunteer at their schools and work with them at home to ensure they had the best chance of success. I have three children — two adult daughters and one son who is a senior in a DC public charter school — and I’m proud to say I kept my promise.

What are the different roles you’ve held over the years? Continue reading