Education Opinion

Reid Saaris, Founder and Executive Director, Equal Opportunity Schools

By Sara Mead — May 22, 2012 6 min read
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Even as our public policies seek to ensure that all students graduate high school ready to succeed in college and careers, the practices and beliefs in our public school systems too often mean that many students--particularly but hardly exclusively low-income and minority students--never have access to the types of rigorous coursework that prepare them for success. Reid Saaris and the organization he founded, Equal Opportunity Schools, are working to change that. Equal Opportunity Schools works with high schools and districts to increase the number of these students enrolled in advanced courses, with the goal of closing racial and income enrollment gaps in AP and IB courses by 2020.

A native and current resident of Washington State, Saaris earned a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and taught IB courses and coached at a public high school before founding Equal Opportunity Schools. He also hold’s a master’s degree and MBA from Stanford.

Read the whole thing. What’s your “elevator pitch” for Equal Opportunity Schools?
My best friend and I were always together growing up - until age sixteen. As you may know, this is the point in school at which students get assigned to classes that’ll really get them ready for college, or they get assigned to some other stuff. My mom - a career school counselor - knew the system and got me into the good classes. His mom hadn’t gone to high school and was a single mom raising five kids, so she didn’t know the system, and didn’t have time to figure it out. He’s spent the past decade-and-a-half trying to make up for what was lost at that juncture, and I’ve been on a path through some of the best and worst classrooms in the country, trying to understand what happened to us then, and how we can prevent its happening to other students. At Equal Opportunity Schools, we partner with schools to find missing students like my own best friend who are literally just across the hall from the education they deserve and need in order to achieve their college dreams, upgrade them to their schools’ toughest classes, and in the process help to catalyze a new and much higher sense of what’s academically possible for our most under-served youth.

In the districts we partner with, we do detailed analysis of the success of the school’s advanced programs, any gaps in access to those programs, the causes of those gaps, and the opportunities that the school could deploy to close them. We continue to provide coaching and data analysis as they build a plan to close advanced course access gaps, reach out to students, and build capacity for a larger, more diverse, and more successful advanced academic program.

What are your biggest successes to date?
We’ve reached about 1,800 students so far and landed major district and county partnerships.

What are the biggest challenges you face?
Growing our capacity to meet the market for our work. I was a teacher five years ago, and now I’m trying to manage a significant organizational budget, contracts with a dozen schools, fundraising, building and managing a board of directors, selling what we do to new school partners, and hiring up to keep our capacity in line with the work that we’re doing is a big challenge.

Those are all pretty common start-up challenges, but I’d say a more interesting challenge might be convincing students, school staff, and parents that a substantial number of the low-income students and students of color who are currently not included in advanced classes (like Advanced Placement) are capable of succeeding in those courses without any additional support.

It’s so important that we’re talking about the achievement gap in this country, but we need to be talking much more about the opportunity gap. Otherwise, people end up thinking about low-income students and students of color as low-achievers. So often, though, the reality is that our schools provide these groups of students with fewer resources and opportunities to learn. The Education Trust does great reporting on the funding gap and the teacher quality gap, showing that the money we spend in our schools corresponds fairly tightly with the socioeconomic status of the students in the building, as does the quality of teacher. Those who have fewer resources at home get fewer resources in school (even within a district that has budget control to spend equally across its schools). And then we wonder why these groups have lower academic performance? Or worse, we blame it on their purported inability to do well in school?

At Equal Opportunity Schools, we focus on making the case that these groups of students can succeed at dramatically higher levels when given higher-level learning opportunities. And making this case--even with robust data--can be hard, because it runs counter to many of our assumptions about what’s possible for students, and why we have an achievement gap.

Looking at your resume, you seem to have some pretty wide-ranging intellectual interests; why choose to focus in education?
I wrote a thesis in college called Our Latest Generation: The Civic Greatness of Young Americans. One of the things I found in doing this project was something that others have found before: When you look at what gives someone “political voice,” as my adviser calls it (influence in their democratic society), it all traces back to education. That is the root of political voice--educational attainment. And behind educational attainment is educational opportunity. I believe the best way to improve our world--our economy, our democracy, our values--is to enable more and more people to realize their potential, to bring their voice, their passion, and their full ability to the fore.

Your bio tells me that you were Stanford’s only 2010 Social Innovation Fellowship, and are currently a Draper Richards Kaplan and an Echoing Green Fellow. You must be pretty awesome! Seriously, can you say a little bit about these programs, what it means that you are a part of them, and how that supports/advances the work you do?
These fellowships have opened a lot of doors and created credibility with donors and partner districts. They support me and Equal Opportunity Schools to better deliver on our mission, because they bring to bear a lot of experience in navigating the early stages of social ventures. The staff can share wisdom, trends, and critical factors that they’ve seen lead to success or failure; and the fellows can share specific best practices, and a sense of community endeavor around social entrepreneurship.

What do you hope to accomplish in the next 10 years?
I’d like to see our schools reach all two-thirds of a million of what we call the “missing students"--students who are ready for their schools’ most advanced classes (classes that will really prepare them to achieve their college dreams), but are currently stuck right across the hall from those classes.

Who are some individuals, in education or other fields, who you admire and who influence your work?
Kati Haycock and the work of the Education Trust are deeply inspirational to me. They have framed the concept of achievement and opportunity gaps in a way that has deeply influenced educators all over the country. They have shown that by improving the opportunities that students have within our schools, we can close achievement gaps and dramatically improve student learning.

I’m inspired by The Mismeasure of Man, about how human potential defies our attempts to constrain and contain it.

Oddly, perhaps, I’m inspired by both the entrepreneurs who dive into sectors like education with massive zeal and energy for reform, and by those who’ve spent their careers in this work--as teachers, as principals--and are skeptical of quick fixes and appreciative of nuance. I see incredible possibilities when these two sets of people are in conversation about how to build on what our schools do right and bring those good programs and practices to students who have yet to experience the best of what our educators have to offer.

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.

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