Category Archives: Women’s History Month

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.

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?

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. 

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

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.

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? 

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.

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

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.

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.)

Honoring Women’s History Month: A Q&A with Fugee Family’s Luma Mufleh

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 the coming weeks in a series honoring Women’s History Month. 

Luma Mufleh is an entrepreneur, coach, refugee activist, author, and founder of Fugees Family, Inc., a nonprofit founded in 2006 that uses soccer, education, and community to empower refugee children to successfully integrate into the U.S. With a network of schools in Georgia and Ohio, Fugees Family’s focus on educational equity for refugee and immigrant children and families is reimagining schools and community building; the organization is a recent recipient of $10 million in philanthropic funding from MacKenzie Scott to grow its model. I caught up with her to talk about Fugees Family’s work, how her team is navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, and more.*

Amy Chen Kulesa:
How has your identity and experience shaped the work of Fugees Family? What draws you to this work?

Luma Mufleh:
I have a “hat trick” of identities as a gay, Arab, Muslim woman born outside of the U.S. Sometimes those identities don’t fuse neatly. I was always an outsider growing up, in so many spaces. If I was in a predominantly Muslim space, I didn’t fit in because I was gay. In the LGBTQ+ community, I didn’t fit in because I was Muslim. And I was raised in the Middle East where women are second-class citizens. Men were expected to do certain things and to have access; women in my orbit weren’t. These experiences made me more determined to find spaces where I could be completely whole

Today, I surround myself with people and spaces that accept all of me, not just parts of me or “asterisks” me. That’s why I founded Fugees Family to empower refugees and immigrants. I have firsthand experience of what it feels like to be an outsider, especially at such a young age. I had to hide my sexual orientation from my friends and family members, and struggled in school because of it. I was bullied and my only safe escape was in sports — I was accepted on the field as a good athlete. 

I want to make sure kids are completely accepted for who they are. It’s so important that kids feel safe, seen, heard, and celebrated for their authentic selves. That’s why we focus on reimagining schools to support refugee, immigrant, and English language learner (ELL) student populations — enabling them to show up every day and feel supported to thrive. 

Fugees Family was called out in the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s case studies highlighting exemplary whole child practices.* Identity and culture are key to the Fugees model. What does that look like in practice?

At Fugees Family, we focus on a lot of areas to amplify and celebrate identity and different student cultures. Two examples:

  • We ensure that on a student’s first day of school, teachers pronounce their name correctly. You’d be surprised how much it means when a child doesn’t have to correct or “Americanize” their name. Our work with schools happens before the child enters the classroom. We instill that a child’s identity is an asset to embrace and we support difference as a good thing.
  • We celebrate everything in a school building — every cultural or religious festivity and culinary traditions, too. The whole school gathers to experience new cultures and to learn about diverse traditions. It’s a great opportunity for the community to teach us in ways large and small. In anticipation of Holi this year, all of the kids were counting down the days even though Hindus aren’t in the majority in our schools. They love it. Our students are curious and eager to learn about each other instead of seeing differences as a distance.

The COVID-19 pandemic, the racial reckoning in the U.S., the Afghan refugee crisis, and the needs in Ukraine have all had significant impacts. How have you and the Fugees team evolved to address the needs of students, faculty, and communities?

COVID-19 lifted the veil and exposed everything that was wrong. It’s undeniable now. ELLs are front and center in this dynamic. We realized we couldn’t go back to how things were — that would be the worst thing to do. So, what was our role and responsibility moving forward? To change, Fugees began thinking about supporting institutions that have large populations of refugee children and working with them at a systems level to build better practices and models so that everyone has a softer landing place. We launched a new approach, called Project Teranga, to grow our impact, and are partnering with districts to implement our model in their schools or newcomer programs. It’s exciting work that needs to happen. 

At the same time, our work is unfortunately tied into war and conflict. For example, with the large influx of Afghan refugees entering the U.S. and resettling nationwide — some 70,000 people across the country, half of whom are school-aged children — our team has firsthand experience going to Fort Dix and doing student assessments. What we found was heartbreaking. Many of these kids were in refugee military bases for seven months with mediocre services, no access to education, and were stripped of their dignity and humanity. We heard so often that “it’s better than the alternative,” which infuriates me. The lens should instead be “is this the best we can offer” and if the answer is no, then we must act. Anything less is unacceptable.

What are you most excited about in terms of the work ahead?

Fugees is evolving our model and creating sustaining partnerships with districts via Project Teranga. That is energizing work. We’re focused on building coalitions to advocate for and serve historically underrepresented students in supportive communities with greater access to high-quality education. We’ve been in our bubble for so long and now we’re out there forging new partnerships with people ready to work alongside us to better serve refugee, immigrant, and ELL students. It’s inspiring to see that level of collaboration.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give to other school or district leaders? 

This work is messy and working with kids is rewarding, but hard. If you’re looking for a playbook, get out of the space right away. A lot of the work is about relationships and building infrastructure, providing tools, and having high standards. You have to be in it for the long game, and you have to show up every day. If you can’t commit to that level of focus and if you don’t expect the best out of yourself, your team, and your community, don’t do this work.

To close, and in honor of Women’s History Month, is there a particular woman who has inspired you? And what advice would you give to other female leaders in the field?

My grandmother is a huge inspiration. She’s the strongest, kindest woman I know. She fled her home in Syria as the mother of five, pregnant with her sixth child. She moved to a new country and her husband was paralyzed. She had to be and do everything. She’s a person of incredible strength and optimism and believes in the best of people. 

I’m also inspired by the compassionate, focused, and determined mothers I’ve met in my work. Their insights and perspectives on life, kids, what’s possible, and what’s wrong make me a better person. 

In terms of advice for female leaders: don’t settle. Expect the best. Don’t compromise. Take up space, and then take up more space. Because the world is better off with more women leaders. 

Thank you for sharing your reflections, Luma. 

Stay tuned for more in Ahead of the Heard’s Women’s History Month series in the coming week. 

*(Editor’s note: Fugees Family, Inc. is a current Bellwether client; Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is a former client.)

Honoring Women’s History Month: A Q&A with SchoolTalk’s Leila Peterson

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 the coming weeks in a series honoring Women’s History Month. 

Leila Peterson is the executive director of SchoolTalk, Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that builds school communities where every youth is honored and self-determined. Founded in 2008, SchoolTalk tackles complex problems that impact marginalized youth and the schools and systems that support them. Peterson’s career is rooted in conflict analysis and resolution, and in serving youth with disabilities within inclusive spaces that foster self determination and community. I reconnected with her over Zoom to discuss how SchoolTalk is navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, what draws her to the work, and more.*

Christine Wade:
Tell our readers a little about SchoolTalk and the organization’s evolution since its founding. 

Leila Peterson:
We came together in 2008 in response to the fact that Washington, D.C. had more special education due process hearings for young people than all 50 states combined at that time. It was unacceptable. We formed to figure out why this was happening, and quickly learned that the systems and structure of organizations, local government, and the community at large weren’t set up with adequate resources and processes to help schools, family, and youth before issues went to court. SchoolTalk was established to address this issue head-on and to help everyone come together in more proactive and productive ways. 

Our original focus was on supporting the district in developing a continuum of effective processes for preventing and resolving special education disputes. This included services such as Individualized Education Program (IEP) facilitation as well as creating spaces for collaborative problem-solving at the systems level. Over time, we also realized that part of the problem was that youth themselves weren’t given a seat at the table. Giving voice and fostering self advocacy directly with the young people we serve steered SchoolTalk in new and interesting directions. Now nearly 15 years later, our mission is evolving to tackle complex problems that impact marginalized youth through restorative justice and inclusive education. 

Students, particularly those with disabilities, have been through a lot since the start of the pandemic. How has SchoolTalk shown up for students over the past few years? What went well, what was hard, and how did you approach the work? 

Our team’s focus is on getting students back to a new “normal” in a way that recognizes the intense needs and all that they’ve lost since March 2020. In a school system like Washington, D.C.’s, many complex needs of the young people we serve have only worsened due to the pandemic.

Our dual programmatic focus on restorative justice and inclusive education are the core pillars of this work. A lot of people think restorative justice is just about dealing with student behavior as an alternative to suspensions, but we think the standard approach should be upended. In SchoolTalk’s work, 80% of the focus is on preventative and proactive supports, because young people need to have connection and community, otherwise what are you “restoring” them back into? 

Our team continues to defy expectations amid the challenges of the pandemic. In the 2020-21 school year, we operated in nearly 80 schools and collaborated with more than 55 organizations to support over 315 transition-aged students (ages 14-21) with disabilities through inclusive and restorative programming during virtual schooling. This year, we’re focusing on how to rebuild a sense of community and reignite relationships with a return to in-person schooling through our virtual and in-person programs. 

And we infuse arts programming into our restorative and inclusive education approaches. Last year, our Voices of Change conference went virtual, too, and we leaned in and created a dynamic arts-based competition among students and local hip hop artists and video producers showcasing students’ diverse perspectives. Students were simultaneously building video production, editing, and storytelling skills while honing their self advocacy and elevating their voices. We’ve adapted and I commend our team for its nimble focus on new ways to meet young people where they’re at to support their agency and growth.

How does your mission and programmatic focus show up in practice? How do you know when you’ve been successful?

We take a nested approach to this work and center youth and their needs in the district through our direct programming with young people. We focus on youth leadership, self advocacy, and the arts in an inclusive environment. But if you just focus on helping youth that are put back in school and community systems that don’t include spaces for them to use their voices and where power dynamics impact their decision-making, it’s not as effective. 

That’s why SchoolTalk also focuses on school environments and training adults that connect with youth — from K-12 school settings to those in local agencies including the Department of Human Services and the Department on Disability Services. Our team addresses processes and an array of underlying problems (e.g., systemic ableism and systemic racism) because how you bring people together is just as important as the problems we’re all trying to address.

What must schools and communities start doing now to better support students?

Everyone feels pressure to make up for lost academics since the start of the pandemic. However, we find that a lot of students are still disconnected from schools and enrollment is down across Washington, D.C. It’s easy to focus on how to bring test scores up through tactical approaches like tutoring. But that misses a bigger picture. At SchoolTalk, our restorative justice and inclusive education programmatic focus areas factor in how much students in the district lost by not being able to connect with friends, plug into a school community in formal and informal ways, and so much more. 

We’re encouraging schools to invest in proactive relationship-building with young people and also with each other as adults in the education system. If you look at absent teachers and school staff leaving the profession, and factor in what they’ve been dealing with for the past two years, it’s imperative that in the school years ahead we take stock and support young people and adults within supportive and inclusive school systems.

I bet that the school teams that take the time to focus on these elements — and not just on test scores — will be head and shoulders above the rest on future academic growth. If you don’t first focus on getting students in classrooms, feeling like they can learn in a supportive school environment, academic outcomes will continue to lag. We can’t skip over this stuff.

As you think about Women’s History Month, is there a particular woman who has inspired you? And what advice would you give to other female leaders in the field?

I want to give a shout out to my network of women leaders. They’re the ones who both inspire me and who I turn to with questions, issues, and challenges on a daily and weekly basis. I cannot imagine my personal or professional life without them; so many have grown into lifelong friends!

In terms of advice, I think it’s important to build a network of trusted friends and colleagues, and to lean on it. It’s important to have people you can turn to and trust for honest feedback. I also recommend soliciting different perspectives. It feels like society is redefining what leadership is and how it should be, and it’s a powerful discussion given how polarized things are right now. Different generations of women leaders’ perspectives might vary. Facilitating dialogue with multigenerational leaders is important to expand your understanding of how leadership functions, how it’s evolved, and how best to support teams through change.

What personally calls you to this work? What gets you out of bed every morning?

My upbringing as a Quaker is at the core of who I am and how I approach my work. I was raised to believe that every person is a complete person. The concept of wholeness and of wanting to build a world and education system where everyone is recognized as a whole, beautiful person drives everything I do. I feel so privileged to work in the disability space and to broaden SchoolTalk’s vision and reach in Washington, D.C. Humans are complex and different, so doing this meaningful work and helping adults and young people be themselves and feel validated gets me up every morning.

In closing, as you look across SchoolTalk’s journey from 2008 to now, what are you most proud of?

Our team is full of creative, wicked smart people who care and who are willing to take risks and do things differently to have an impact for the students we serve. I can’t think of a better group of people to work alongside every day (or through a pandemic!).

Stay tuned for more in Ahead of the Heard’s Women’s History Month series in the coming weeks. 

*(Editor’s note: SchoolTalk, Inc. is a former Bellwether client.)