April 21, 2004 1 min read

Passing the Torch

As a graduate student in public affairs, Sarah Kirby crams her head with coursework on politics, finance, and management.

But ask her which lessons are most likely to stick, and she’ll point to one that didn’t come from the classroom. For two months this past winter, she shadowed a local school board member to find out what school policymaking really looks like.

“It turned out to be probably one of the most focusing things I’ve done in terms of my career and where I’m headed,” said Ms. Kirby, 26, a master’s candidate at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

The experience was part of a new effort to give an insider’s view of district leadership to former members of Teach For America, such as Ms. Kirby. Launched in 1990, TFA recruits recent college graduates to work as teachers for two years in urban and rural communities.

In partnership with the Houston-based Center for Reform of School Systems, TFA picked 10 of its alumni to be paired for several weeks this year with school board members in Atlanta; Austin and Brownsville, Texas; Houston; and Los Angeles.

Organizers, who hope to offer the experience to another group of former TFA corps members next year, say their hope is that some participants will later serve on schools boards themselves. Even before the shadowing program, alumni of TFA have won seats on the schools boards in the District of Columbia and Ravenswood City, Calif. (“Offspring Spreads Upstart’s Influence,” April 25, 2001.)

“Whether or not they run for school board, we think they’ll be involved in some aspect of school leadership, and this gives them a better understanding of the system as a whole,” said Elisabeth Preston, a research assistant at the Center for Reform of School Systems, which devotes most of its energy to training new school board members.

Ms. Kirby linked up with John Fitzpatrick, a first-term member of the Austin board. Throughout January and February, she observed him in meetings with district leaders, city officials, and community groups. What struck her was the great number of people and factors that play a part in a school board’s decisionmaking.

“Everyone has the same ultimate goals, but not all priorities can be met in the order everyone wants,” she said.

Jeff Archer