Education Opinion

Young Education Leader: Kira Orange Jones

By Sara Mead — July 08, 2013 10 min read
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Over the past seven years, New Orleans has experienced a dramatic transformation of the city’s public educational system, which has been closely watched nationally as a test of new approaches to organizing and delivering public education. As the Executive Director of Teach for America of Greater New Orleans, Kira Orange Jones has been closely involved in supporting that transformation. In 2011, she ran for and won election to the Louisiana State Board of Education, representing the 2nd BESE District, which includes most of New Orleans. Born and raised in the Bronx, New York, Kira Orange Jones first came to Louisiana as a Teach for America Corps member following her graduation from Wesleyan University in 2000, and has stayed in Louisiana--and education--ever since. She lives in New Orleans.

What are your responsibilities as a member of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Education?
The Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) is the administrative body for all Louisiana public elementary and secondary schools; it also performs certain administrative functions for the state’s non-public elementary and secondary schools. BESE adopts regulations and enacts policies governing the operations of schools under its jurisdiction and exercises budgetary oversight of their educational programs and services. My role on the board is to represent the best interests of the 700,000 students across Louisiana’s schools so that they have opportunities to attain excellent educations and to represent the constituents in my district, which encompasses New Orleans, St. James, St. John, St. Charles, Jefferson, and Assumption Parishes.

When I started my career as a TFA corps member in Baton Rouge 14 years ago, I did not know of a single school in Louisiana serving low-income and minority children that was putting them on a fundamentally different life path. Today, there are many examples of schools in New Orleans working extremely hard to deliver on this promise to children and families. A large part of my job as a board member is to ensure that our successful schools continue to have the overall policy conditions that enable them to continue to strive for excellent educational opportunities for all children. Another part of my role is finding ways to preserve tradition while supporting innovation. Reformers need to understand that schools serve multifaceted functions in neighborhoods; it’s about more than achievement data. I also hope families will trust education leaders to bring new approaches to setting and maintaining a high bar for kids, even if it’s different from how they came through school.

Statewide my job is to work alongside other educators and policy leaders at the state and local levels to create conditions to drive meaningful progress statewide. It’s a humbling and eye-opening experience to serve in this way.

You have another day job, too--tell me a bit about that?
As Executive Director of Teach For American of Greater New Orleans, I oversee our team of 40 staff supporting and building the impact of our 400 TFA corps members/teachers and 1000 alumni across the region. Over 80% of our alumni across the region still work directly in education.
I also develop our regional vision and work alongside my team to effectively drive our regional strategy. Teach For American has been serving students, families, and the broader community of New Orleans for over 22 years now. Today, our corps members and alumni reach the majority of the children in New Orleans, and a little less than half of all of the schools in New Orleans are led by TFA alumni.

What are the biggest challenges facing public education in Louisiana today? How are you/is the BESE responding to those challenges?
One of the biggest challenges we face as a country in public education is the low expectations adults hold for our kids, particularly children growing up in poverty. If people who influence the lives of children don’t fundamentally believe that children growing up in poverty can achieve at the same or greater levels as children growing up in affluent neighborhoods and instead believe that there are significant limitations to what can be done in education to ensure all children achieve at high levels, then systems and people get stuck. That’s at the crux of so many policy debates I found myself in.
As a fourth grade teacher a decade ago, I remember being told by many people that all children really can’t achieve at high levels given where some kids started out. Yet everything I experienced with my own students flew in the face of this type of conventional thinking. Many of my students had very real challenges in their lives, yet daily they overcame significant obstacles to exceed the expectations society often places on children who share their backgrounds.

Now, more than a decade after I began teaching, I still sit in meetings and hear from people who fight policies that are in the best interests of children growing up in poverty because those policies compromise the interests of adults. For example, I support policies that expand educational options for children and families so kids won’t be stuck in schools that don’t serve them well. What you hear in that debate is a fierce preservation of the way things have been done for decades, even if what has been done hasn’t worked. Part of that is fear of change, that’s just human nature. But another part of it is an implicit belief that the fundamental goal that all children achieve at high levels is misdirected or impossible.

One way to challenge that belief is by cultivating school and system examples that change the conversation. In New Orleans, schools like Sci Academy send 90% of their first graduating class to colleges with millions of dollars in scholarships--that generates a vital discourse around what children in this city and country are capable of.

Our children and communities deserve many, many more examples, but examples alone aren’t enough. We also need policies that hold leaders accountable and incentivize them to make strong decisions that advance educational opportunities for their students. And we need leaders who will act with courage and make hard decisions that are not popular. As an elected official, I get a lot of pressure from a lot of directions. I used to think this idea that we needed courage was a myth. But we really do need people to be willing to stick their necks out in behalf of children. At the TFA 20-year summit, I heard Geoffery Canada speak about Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. telling young people trained in civil rights movement, “Some of us will die.” I realize that nothing in my life has that kind of stakes. But we need to show a fraction of the same courage in fighting for what’s right for kids.

How did you come to work in education?
I’m the daughter of an educator who raised me as a single parent for my teen years. My mother instilled in me the idea that education was the critical enabler to realizing both my and other’s dreams. I grew up in New York City, in the Bronx, and I have many friends who now as adults are faced with limited career opportunities rooted in their limited educational experience. I attended an elite private school on a scholarship, but it still required real sacrifices by my mother to send me to that school, like holding several jobs to supplement her teaching salary and wrangling transportation to get me to a school more than an hour from my home. Despite having extraordinary teachers, I really struggled to fit in there. I didn’t feel successful at the time. And most days of high school, my mother and I really fought about this. I begged her to let me leave that school and instead, attend a local high school many of my friends were attending in my neighborhood. She held firm and kept saying, “this school will change your life.” Needless to say, she was right. The fact that high school can predict someone’s entire life trajectory, that we can predict a kindergartener’s chances of life success based on their ZIP code in this country--this needs to change. I have seen through personal experience that excellent educational opportunities can change this narrative for children. So, my personal conviction comes from my own experiences.

In college, I studied filmmaking, and when I became a TFA corps member I thought I’d only teach for two years. But I felt a very strong sense of responsibility to give back to other children, given all I have been given by adults who impacted my life through education. When I began teaching 4th grade I saw what my kids were capable of every day--their talent, curiosity, intelligence, resilience, humanity--but also so many systemic challenges that you could see play out in their lives. It was just radicalizing. This is something I see with TFA alumni across the country, former and current teachers doing lots of great things. When you see firsthand what kids are capable of but also the barriers that stand in their way, you have no choice but to fight harder.

I left the classroom to launch a social entrepreneurship endeavor that provided media education to students and created documentaries that allowed students and families to tell their stories. As a teacher I noticed that people were always telling kids to be quiet and trying to control them. Giving kids voice through media was a powerful way to empower them.

When I ran for office--and now in office--I have actively sought to be grounded and immersed in the community I represent. And a lot of that actually comes from my experience as a documentary filmmaker. So much of that work is about getting into the community, getting people to tell their story by listening... and truly hearing where people are coming from. I think having that orientation was part of the foundation for me successfully running for office and a trait I work at cultivating as a public servant.

Why did you decide to run for public office?
I initially ran for very practical reasons: People I respected made the case that the enabling conditions in New Orleans needed to be preserved and that doing that required addressing state policy. There was an opportunity to run for the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and I was well positioned for it, given my experiences.

Running for office changed my world view significantly, however. I spent every day for six months going to basketball games, festivals, churches, speaking to thousands of parents, families and listening to them, hearing their desires and dreams for their children. And that fundamentally shapes the kind of leader and servant I want to be on their behalf. It’s not about me but rather about what they want for their kids. That’s why I’m in this role. I feel so deeply responsible to represent the families and children in my district and across this state well. Even though I’m responsible for statewide policy, I have a deep responsibility to understand how our decisions and educators and policy leaders translate to impact on children, families, in this community.

Who are some of your heroes/mentors/people you respect whose examples shape your work?
My mother is a really important model for me as an educator who has done the important work of teaching and counseling high school students for 30 years with humility, conviction, and love. How she chooses to live her life as a woman in the world is inspiring to me. Me at my best is based on her example.

Dr. Michael Lomax [of the United Negro College Fund] is an impressive example as someone who is immensely honest and exceptionally observant about some of the challenges that reformers face in our work: How do we provide excellence for every child, but in a way that does this alongside others so that our work is comprehensive and sustainable?

What do you hope to have accomplished 5-10 years from now?
I hope that in New Orleans we will have substantially different caliber and quality of educational options for children and families. We’ll have diverse, joyful, multi-faceted educational environments for all kids--not just a handful of schools that enable students to achieve their dreams.

That’s necessary but not sufficient.

We need to create the kind of environment where the people demanding excellence from the system are the people who are served by the system. That means working to bridge gaps between the work my peers in education reform are doing and the broader community, listening more than we’re speaking, and understanding other perspectives, as well as our own shirt comings. I recently launched a project in New Orleans to help charter operators build connections and relationships with the communities and families they serve. In 5-10 years I want to see communities uplifted, not just schools. That’s a bigger picture that I’m just starting to embark on.

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.