March 29, 2022

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.)

March 28, 2022

We are still failing to support our most vulnerable students

In October 2020, Bellwether Education Partners’ estimate that as many as 3 million students were missing in the margins and were receiving no formal education at all became a national shorthand about the severity of the pandemic for America’s young people. More than one year later, and with the direct and indirect consequences of the pandemic wreaking havoc, we still don’t know how many of our most vulnerable students are missing from K-12 schools

Our recent analysis estimates that there are 1.3 million fewer students nationwide enrolled in public pre-K through 12 schools between 2018-19 and 2020-21. This decline doesn’t include kids enrolled but not attending regularly or engaged in learning, which data from school districts suggest is a significant issue.  

As we pass the two-year mark in this pandemic, a lack of accurate, shareable, and even knowable data on where young people are highlights an even more fundamental issue: The design of systems meant to support young people is failing them.

For example, we know that one in 500 U.S. children lost a caregiver due to COVID-19. This kind of deep loss will change a young person’s life trajectory. Our communities aren’t ready to support them or their peers who have experienced other significant losses and disruptions.

In most places, schools, foster care agencies, juvenile justice systems, and other organizations were never designed to look across the totality of a young person’s life to understand and meet their needs — and that problem is more visible now than ever. Snap impressions, red tape, and confusion abound. 

Young people experiencing disruptions (such as homelessness, being placed in foster care, involvement with the juvenile justice system, an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy, or the loss of a caregiver) must navigate a byzantine network of ever-changing adults to get the services they need. They are left to keep track of their own paperwork, follow up with adults, and retell their most painful stories. Missteps navigating these systems can lead to suspension or expulsion from school, incarceration, job loss, or all of the above. 

While adults working in these systems often fail to communicate or collaborate, they are also frustrated by not having enough information or resources. Staff turnover is high and caseloads are unmanageable. Resources are scarce. Patchworked attempts at improvement within one agency or one organization yield marginal results for young people.

Ultimately, poorly designed or implemented systems leave lasting effects on young people, including challenges to finishing high school or college, shortchanging their ability to live a healthy, happy, and gratifying life — all at great cost to communities. 

These are big, but solvable problems. And they start with better practices, policies, and resource allocations.

In practice, communities can start by listening to young people to better understand their unmet needs in order to remove the barriers to delivering programs and services. At best, decision-makers merely go through the motions of asking young people about their experiences and perspectives. Yet the young people who are still struggling to thrive are the only experts in how the pandemic has affected them holistically: their schooling, mental health, economic futures, housing status, and more. 

In-person schooling this year is a big step in the right direction when COVID-19 safety protocols are followed and new variants don’t pose an additional public health risk. But students need more than the standard learning time. 

Prioritizing more time for all kinds of learning for marginalized student populations, such as support outside of the traditional school day and school year, is a start. More evening and weekend instructional time with a teacher or well-trained tutor would allow students to get needed time to build knowledge and skills. In addition to one-on-one time, small, cohort-based acceleration academies could allow students to focus on targeted skill gaps during holidays, summer breaks, and weekends. 

A school, however, is only part of the solution to missed learning time. Schools can build structured partnerships with communities and families, collaboratively setting goals for students, bringing a sense of urgency and ownership for every adult in a child’s life. In these spaces, schools can also become supporting partners for the delivery of other services, helping to knit together the threads of care surrounding their most vulnerable students. 

Policy should follow practice and remove barriers to learning. In addition, a focus on data transparency could better enable schools and stakeholders to understand where students missing in the margins are in real time: across enrollment in school at all, daily attendance, and engagement in learning. Our data systems were not working well before the pandemic and they clearly no longer serve our needs; students were always lost in the system, but now the problem is too big to ignore. 

These kinds of systemic practice and policy changes require better long-term resource allocations. Federal stimulus funding is a huge, but temporary, start. A more sustainable funding model can be designed on a collaborative foundation of partnerships with community-based organizations, expanding the current capacity for support. For example, a homeless-services organization might be well positioned to identify families (or unaccompanied youth) who need education support but don’t know how to get connected with the programs that meet their needs.

As we come to the close of yet another school year amid the pandemic, even more young people are in crisis and support from adults is even more strained. But communities can use this moment to build a coherent system with processes and policies designed around what young people actually need. The question is, how will we prioritize doing that hard work?

March 23, 2022

A Tragic Loss For The Bellwether Community

We are devastated to share that last Saturday, Bellwether teammate Aurelia Twitty died unexpectedly at 52.

Aurelia embodied the best of Bellwether. She joined the team in 2016 as an executive assistant, was promoted to office manager, and ultimately grew her role into our first-ever administrative manager. Her influence and reach extended across the entire organization through the team of administrative professionals she led and projects she worked on. Aurelia was often the first person new team members worked with as they onboarded.

She was a beloved teammate, always ready with help, advice, or a kind word. Her discipline and no-nonsense style was leavened with grace and wisdom. Aurelia was instrumental in shaping Bellwether’s approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion — leading workshops and infusing conversations with her thoughtful perspective. She won our “Honey Badger” award in 2017, given annually to Bellwether’s MVP, in recognition of her many contributions.

Aurelia lived life unabashedly. She was a learner with deep curiosity about others, their lives, and points of view. And she was fun — dancing whenever the spirit moved her, full of light, warmth, and laughter.

Born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Warwick, New York, Aurelia was an accomplished collegiate track athlete. That drive continued. Over the years, she trained for road races and was starting to cycle. She died this past Saturday while running in the Selma to Montgomery Relay and Bike Ride, a race she was especially excited to run given its symbolism, alignment with her beliefs, and the people she would meet.

Aurelia lived out our mission professionally and personally. She was an active education volunteer in the Washington, D.C. area, a trustee of a public charter school, and a devoted foster parent. Aurelia discussed her foster care work in The 74 and described some of her community volunteer work in this 2017 interview.

She loved her family, lighting up when talking about her husband, Anthony, her three children, and her seven (soon-to-be eight) grandchildren. We offer them our condolences and support.

Aurelia leaves a rich and lasting legacy at Bellwether. More than that, she touched a multitude of people beyond her immediate circles. Some people create ripples of positivity and change lives far beyond their own. She was one.

We miss her so much.

Mary K. Wells & Andy Rotherham
Co-founders, Bellwether Education

March 22, 2022

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.)

March 17, 2022

Updating Data Systems is a Critical Piece of State-Improved ESSA Plans

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for EDUimages

For the last two years, state-level Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) accountability plans ​​— which provide critical information about student achievement and school culture — have either been modified or essentially on pause due to COVID-19-related school closures. From canceling statewide assessments to variability in how attendance was taken, the lack of high-quality and reliable data made it difficult for states to follow their original ESSA accountability plans. 

However, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) signaled that states must restart ESSA accountability plans and identify their lowest-performing schools in fall 2022. Recognizing the impact that COVID-19 has had on schools’ and states’ ability to use indicators like test score growth and attendance, the DOE guidance specified that states can make one-year or longer-term changes to their accountability plans. The guidance also noted that in fall 2022 states’ Report Cards must contain all the data as required under ESSA, including for the 2021-22 school year (e.g., access to advanced coursework, suspension rates, math and reading proficiency, graduation rates, chronic absenteeism, and per-pupil school funding).  

These may seem like easy tasks since states already developed and implemented ESSA accountability plans and report cards. However, not all state data systems are created equal. Prior to the pandemic, Washington, D.C. and all 50 states were missing at least one data point required under ESSA. Furthermore, many ESSA accountability plans used inconsistent data and methodology to identify schools for support — particularly as it relates to English language learners, students with disabilities, students of color, and low-income students. A 2017 Bellwether analysis found that only 10 of 51 ESSA plans indicated they would incorporate student subgroup performance into rating and identifying schools for support. And, of those 10 only three — Louisiana, Minnesota, and Tennessee — provided data and information about what that would mean in practice. The other states provided broad assurances. 

Whether because of antiquated data systems, underfunding, or a lack of political will to use certain metrics, these gaps in state-level ESSA accountability data are problematic. They leave huge voids in understanding how students are doing, what’s working, and which students need support, and also hinder a state’s ability to engage in effective short- and long-term planning. 

And the problem persists over time. A 2021 analysis found that many states still don’t report on mandated metrics like participation in advanced coursework, teacher credentials, per-pupil school spending, and chronic absenteeism. Nearly 25% of states don’t include spring 2021 assessment data on their Report Cards. 

Given the negative impact that COVID-19 has had on the U.S. K-12 education system, it’s critical that states step up. We need intentional, collaborative, and thoughtful planning in order to address everything from unfinished learning to student disengagement. But this can only be done if states have access to comprehensive data that is accurate, transparent, and current. 

States are in an optimal position to invest in data system upgrades and state report cards as they rethink accountability plans. Although this kind of infrastructure investment might seem like a lesser priority, schools’ access to accurate and updated data is critical and a cost-effective investment that pays dividends in the long run. Through three major COVID-19 federal stimulus packages, state departments of education received billions of dollars to help with pandemic recovery which can include updating data systems. A May 2021 DOE FAQ gave permission and encouraged states to use COVID-19 American Rescue Plan (ARP) Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) dollars to improve their data systems. 

Many states are taking advantage of the federal funding. A June 2021 analysis found that 29 states designated some money to improve data systems and analysis capacity to better support students. For example:

  • Arkansas is using ARP dollars to launch SmartData Dashboards, an automated early warning and intervention dashboard that will help districts identify students who are off-track from graduation and implement the appropriate interventions. 
  • Connecticut is using ESSER funds to establish the COVID-19 Education Research Collaborative — a partnership with researchers from the University of Connecticut and other state universities, local representatives, and educators. The Collaborative is a long-term investment that utilizes statewide data to track the efficacy of programs and provide accurate information to the public. 
  • Minnesota is investing $6 million in ARP dollars to update Ed-Fi, a new statewide data system that will consolidate multiple data systems into one. This will allow the state to track student data in a more timely manner and identify trends in student experiences and outcomes. 
  • Missouri is using $4.3 million in Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act dollars to update its 15-year-old longitudinal data system, which will increase its capacity to collect and analyze data on individual students. 

These state-level data improvements are a step in the right direction. However, it’s critical that data system upgrades and accountability plans center all students’ needs — particularly for historically marginalized student populations. The federal funding and policy window is there to pave the way. Will states seize the opportunity?