For all the lip service paid to “putting students first,” the actual voices of students themselves are largely absent from contemporary education policy debates. Catharine Bellinger and Alexis Morin are working to change that. As students at Princeton, they founded Students for Education Reform to engage and organize college students--most of whom were recently public school students themselves--around education reform. Today, SFER has over 3,000 members in more than 100 chapters in over 30 states and is working to increase awareness of education issues, build the pipeline of talented college students going into education, and influence state policy change in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota and New York. And its founders haven’t even graduated yet!
Both Bellinger, a Washington, D.C. native, and Morin, who hails from Northborough, Mass., are currently on leave of absence from Princeton while working to build SFER, but they still live very much like students, sharing an apartment in New York City when they’re not traveling to various SFER chapters around the country.
What does SFER do?
CB: Students for Education Reform empowers students as stakeholders in the education system and connects them with tools to advocate for change. SFER aims to: (1) change public opinion by creating a generation of leaders who believe the achievement gap is unacceptable but solvable (2) enact policies that create conditions for lasting success by harnessing the power of student organizing (3) flood the human capital pipeline with talented, committed students and recent graduates
How did the two of you meet and decide to work together?
ARM: Catharine shamelessly exploited the Princeton Teacher Prep listserv to send out an email trying to find other Princeton students who were excited about education reform. We had a fateful blind date at Starbucks and bonded over our shared knowledge of wonky education policy. I remember Catharine’s parents wondering if she’d finally met someone who was equally crazy about this cause. It was amazing how quickly other Princeton students came out of the woodwork to create a new space on campus for students who believe in education reform.
What is your biggest success or victory to date?
CB: As leaders of an organization that seeks to empower students, we were thrilled when one of our founding members, Andrew Blumenfeld, was elected to his local school board in La Canada, Calif. His victory speaks to the importance of creating a powerful, passionate student movement. From a policy stand point, SFER played a significant role in ensuring that the 2010 New York teacher evaluation law was finally incorporated into the state budget, which tied state funding to implementation of the evaluation system. As students, we deeply believe that student learning should be a key component of teacher evaluation and are excited to see that principle implemented into state policy in New York.
What is your biggest challenge?
ARM: Our biggest challenge is providing the meaningful support every one of our chapters needs. It takes a tremendous amount of work for SFER leaders to share their education reform mindset with their members and their peers on campus. The resourcefulness and elbow grease required to build a movement can’t be underestimated--you have to make sure hundreds of undergraduates are getting opportunities to hear from thought leaders in the field, see high-performing high-poverty schools at work, understand and advocate for great policies, and pursue work in the field. We’re growing our national team rapidly to provide more intensive support to our amazing student leaders!
You were both still in college when you decided to found SFER--in fact, you still haven’t graduated college. What was the biggest challenge in making that decision? Do you plan to go back to school at some point?
CB: We initially wanted to stay enrolled and combine our work on SFER with our academic work--we are both policy majors, so it seemed feasible, especially given Princeton’s focus on independent work. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to work out an arrangement with Princeton, though we hope to next year. Through our own experience, we’ve become particularly attuned to the issues in higher education, actually. There aren’t many opportunities to combine serious academic study with real-world learning.
Where do you hope to see SFER accomplish in the next 10 years?
ARM: In ten years, our vision is for SFER chapters across the country to be leading a national movement for school reform that has the power and fervor of the greatest student movements this country has seen. We will see the effects in better policies passed, an infusion of new and diverse talent into the field, and a sea change in the way our generation views the potential for public schools to be levers of equality.
We’ve also already had the first SFER-inspired tattoo, and we’re hoping there will be a lot more over the next decade. Hey, this is powerful and inspirational stuff!
Where do you hope to see yourselves in the next 10 years?
CB: I hope to be in the classroom as a teacher or school leader. I started out my career in education working as a teaching assistant at KIPP DC, and would be thrilled to return there.
ARM: I have no doubt I’ll be working in this field, but I don’t know in what type of role.
What do you see as the biggest need or challenge to improve education in the United States today?
CB: We need every citizen in the United States to know what a great school looks like--yes, every truly exceptional school is different, but there are commonalities. Parents and students need to know what to look for in a school, and teachers and principals should know what is possible and what they can aspire to. Until the public has a true sense of possibility about what great schools can accomplish, we’ll never actually create more of them.
Who are some individuals you admire in the education field, or individuals you admire in other fields whose examples shape your work in education?
ARM: I am always humbled by the work of the phenomenal school leaders and instructors I get to meet in my job--Julie Jackson of North Star comes to mind. Their exacting commitment to excellence sets an example for everyone working in the education reform space, especially those of us who operate in nonprofit or policy settings and don’t get to see kids every day.
CB: I’ve been very influenced by my teaching mentor at KIPP, Lelac Almagor, who won the Excellence in Teaching Award in 2010. I come to her with questions about everything from pedagogy to policy to time management. She’s a huge inspiration personally, and moreover, seeing photos from her classroom and hearing stories reminds me of why I do this work.
Anything else you’d like people to know about you?
CB: Well, I can’t complete the interview without mentioning how important my first ever education policy internship was working with you at the New America Foundation! Not only did I learn cool acronyms like LEA, SEA, ESEA, and NEA, I started to understand the ins and outs of how policy is actually made at the federal, state, and local level.
The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.