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?
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.)