Author Archives: Tanya Paperny

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, TeacherPensions.org, 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

A Day in the Life: Bellwether’s Justin Trinidad

Justin Trinidad joined the Bellwether Policy and Thought Leadership team earlier this year, where he has supported research and data collection on a range of projects, including ones that cover teacher preparation programs and human capital efforts.

We’ve been so excited to get to know Justin and his impressive past experiences, so we’re sharing a little more about him with all of you!

Just in time for Filipino American History month, Justin talks with us about Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) and their access to education and public service.

How did you get inspired to work in education after working in broader civil rights issues?

I strongly believe that education and civil rights go hand in hand. In my previous work at OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates, I focused on advocating for various educational issues affecting the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, ranging from AAPI data disaggregation in ESSA to providing access to federal financial aid for DACA recipients. I wanted to build on my understanding and expertise in education. Moving into the education policy world seemed like a fitting transition, and it’s important to me that Bellwether especially seeks to help the most underserved students.

You’ve held many roles — both professionally and as a volunteer — in the Asian American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. What from that work continues to inform and shape you today?

One of the main reasons I love working with the AAPI community, in particular AAPI youth, is to help develop the pipeline of youth who enter public service and increase representation in the leadership of government and nonprofits. Growing up, I was unaware of career paths to public service and only learned about such careers later in my college experience.

One of the highlights of my AAPI community experience is developing and planning the Conference on Asian Pacific American Leadership (CAPAL)’s Scholarship and Internship Program this past summer. I recruited and placed interns in several federal agencies and nonprofits, developed the curriculum, and facilitated workshops for 30 undergraduate and graduate students to educate participants on pathways to public service and the necessary skills to access those pathways.

That’s awesome! Do you have other success stories from your work?

One of the most rewarding projects from my time at the White House Initiative on AAPIs was planning the White House Filipino American History Month, which took place exactly a year ago. The celebration brought together Filipino American federal agency representatives, elected officials, advocates, entrepreneurs, and community members to discuss the most important issues of the Filipino-American community. As a Filipino American, it was incredibly empowering and inspirational to bring my community together in a room, especially one in the White House.

Speaking of which, happy Filipino American History Month! Can you tell us a little about your immigration story as it relates to education?

My family and I immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines in the 1990s when I was four years old. One of the main reasons my parents were willing to leave their family behind and start a new life was to provide us with access to opportunities in education that they never had. In the Philippines, the only way to access a high-quality education was to attend the top and most expensive private schools. However, in the U.S., my parents were optimistic that we would be able to study in great public schools and, later, attend the world’s best colleges and universities to increase our chances at tapping into the economic opportunities they never had.

I’d also like to add a little more about Filipino American History Month (FAHM). Filipino Americans were the first Asian Americans to arrive in the U.S. in Morro Bay, California in 1587. FAHM acknowledges and celebrates the many ways that Filipino Americans have contributed significantly to American History ― from serving alongside the U.S. in World War II to strengthening our labor movement in the Delano Grape Strike in the 1960s.

What are some things you wish multiracial education organizations knew about AAPI students?

AAPI students tend to be overlooked in discussions of education equity. Because of the way data is collected, the category “Asian” lumps over 100 ethnic groups into a single demographic and masks the disparities faced by various ethnic groups. Different groups have had vastly different immigration histories, ranging from refugees seeking asylum to those who arrive under the H-1B visa. For example, a number of Southeast Asian American students face higher rates of poverty and lower levels of educational attainment than other Asian American communities. However, when discussions of educational equity are held, the focus is often solely on Hispanic and African American students. It’s vital to collect nuanced data and disaggregate it to fully understand the extent of educational inequities in our country.

Now that you’ve brought your expertise to the Bellwether team, is there anything that stands out for you about the work environment here?

In addition to everyone’s passion and dedication to working on education issues, I am constantly impressed by everyone’s hobbies. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with people with such a diverse group of interests. From beer experts to marathon runners, to avid campers and world travelers, I’ve been inspired to try new things to see what fun I can have out in the world.

All Parents Have High Hopes: A Recap

At Bellwether, we spent last week talking about family engagement strategies and busting the myth that poor parents don’t invest in their kids’ education.

Just in time, new data released today by the National Center for Education Statistics reveals that parents across income brackets have high hopes for their kids, and that they match that expectation with action.

For context, here’s a recap of our conversation:

Day 1 // September 19

  • Justin Trinidad writes that limited English proficient parents are underserved but not complacent about their kids’ education
  • Kirsten Schmitz interviews classroom teacher Christian Martínez-Canchola and offers five ways teachers can engage multilingual families

Day 2 // September 20

  • Melissa Steel King writes about the assumption that parents are only engaged if they come to school events or volunteer

Day 3 // September 21

  • Marnie Kaplan argues that we can learn from the long history of including parent engagement in early childhood education
  • Lynne Graziano urges school leaders to ensure that requests for family involvement are simple, streamlined, and supportive

Day 4 // September 22

  • I interview Bellwether’s own Jeff Schulz to get some pro tips on family engagement strategies and organizational planning
  • Allison Crean Davis stresses that the lack of equal opportunities for kids of different backgrounds means that schools have to work to live up to parent expectations

You can read the whole series here!