Many of the leaders profiled in this series are people who have started their own organizations to address education needs and challenges. But an equally critical challenge is ensuring the next generation of strong leaders working in existing organizations, to sustain these organizations and enable them to grow to scale. As Chief of Staff for Aspire Public Schools, a charter management organization serving more than 10,000 California students, Stephanie Wilson is one of these leaders.
Originally from the Philadelphia area, Wilson earned her Bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia and spent three years in management consulting before making the switch to education. After earning an MBA from Stanford, she joined Aspire as a director of growth and strategy before becoming chief of staff. She is an alumni of Education Pioneers and is currently Associate Resident in the Broad Residency Program. Wilson, 30, lives in San Francisco. [Click for more.]So, you’re “Chief of Staff” for Aspire Public Schools: What does that actually mean you do?
Great question! In this role I am somewhat a jack of all trades. My primary role is to take off of the CEO’s plate anything that I can and to ensure that he is focused on the most important things that only he can do. I juggle a variety of things that come my way including supporting principals by answering questions and coordinating across departments, hosting visitors who are interested in learning about Aspire, or preparing the CEO for trips to speak with Congress. I help him to manage board meeting agendas and materials as well as our bi-weekly management team meetings -ensuring high productivity in those meetings such that objectives are met and teammates across the organization can keep moving forward in their work. In addition, I have the exciting challenge right now of building our development and communications functions to include strategy, staffing and execution. We haven’t had dedicated people in these roles in the past and as we’ve grown these functions have become increasingly important to the organization, so I’m excited to figure them out.
How did you come to work in education?
I have always been drawn to working with youth - especially children who don’t have the good fortune to grow up with the strong public schools and family educational foundation that I had. Growing up, and even in college, I didn’t really know that there were ways to get involved with education other than by being a teacher, like my mom. After spending a few years in consulting after undergrad, I continued to feel a pull to do work that was not only intellectually challenging, but helped to change people’s lives. I knew I had to take the plunge and check out a role in an education or youth services organization. Fortunately, I quickly connected with a startup non-profit organization that was chartering failing Oakland public schools with the intention of turning them around. After 6 months in the trenches, sorting out how to operate schools as the 2nd person on a two-man finance and operations team, I was hooked and knew this was where I was supposed to be.
After graduate school I was committed to being in the Bay Area and wanted to be in a role where I could be part of the work on the ground every day and connect in a meaningful way with principals and teachers. Aspire is an amazing organization and had such a strong reputation not only for its student outcomes and college matriculation rates but the caliber of people in the organization. I wanted to work every day side by side with people who shared my passion and commitment and also challenged me. I felt Aspire was that place, and luckily, I couldn’t have been more right.
What motivates you?
I work hard to ensure that the kids in Aspire’s schools and in thousands of schools across the state and country have the same opportunities that I had growing up. I did nothing to be able to take advantage of an excellent public education that helped me to get to where I am today other than have parents who could afford to live in the right zip code. The low expectations and poor programs that many underserved youth are subjected to as part of the public system is unconscionable. I am motivated by the desire to change the odds for those kids.
What do you see as the biggest challenge in public education today?
There are many challenges in public education - the biggest, I think, is the lack of understanding about the need for systemic reform. People think they know a lot about education and what needs to be done to fix the system OR are okay with the system as is because they themselves went through it and “turned out okay.” The inertia and lack of collective outrage about what is going on in our school systems, with money being wasted within a broken system that doesn’t reward strong outcomes, is the biggest hurdle to change.
What do you hope to accomplish in the next 10 years?
At this point I have my nose to the grindstone and the farthest I get in thinking about personal goals is the next week or if I’m lucky, the next school year! I love my work and I hope to continue to be able to serve students well by supporting the educators that work with them each day to improve their life trajectory. As long as I can do that and I continue to grow as a leader and mentor, I will be happy.
Who are some individuals you admire in the education field, or individuals you admire in other fields whose examples shape your work in education?
This may sound trite, but I truly admire the progress that Arne Duncan has made in his 2 years as Secretary of Education. He has taken a stuffy bureaucratic, compliance driven organization and used innovative programs like Race to the Top and i3 to drive rapid change at the state level. His persistence in moving initiatives like this forward and using the tools he has to do great things for kids across the country is inspiring.
What do you do when you don’t have your nose to the grindstone?
I love my work and probably do too much of it, but I know that if I don’t take care of myself that my work and happiness suffers. I have a regular gym routine which includes spinning, jogging or yoga most days of the week before work, and my weekends are usually jam packed! Some of my favorite activities are hiking, brunches with friends, hosting dinner parties, and exploring the many towns and settings that the Bay Area has to offer. I am so fortunate to have my brother also living in San Francisco and I get to see him frequently as well.
Before grad school I took a 6 week solo backpacking trip to southeast Asia. I had never traveled alone, nor been to Asia and as I got on the plane with my Lonely Planet and fake wedding band (I’d been warned that it was helpful in keeping men away as a solo female), I thought that maybe I’d made a mistake. A month later, the fake ring was history (I managed to fend for myself), I’d made numerous new friends, lived in treehouses in Laos for a few days, jumped from waterfalls, explored temples in Cambodia, and spent the night in a rural village in Vietnam. It was a trip that helped me to become independent in new ways. Experiences like these make me feel so fortunate for all the opportunities I’ve been given in life.
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.