By Matthew Kredell
For a dozen years, Lauren Chianese, David Feinberg and Priti Johari traveled remarkably similar courses from different parts of the country. From their varied experiences, they drew identical conclusions about education and equity.
Last year, their paths finally crossed when the three were brought together as participants in the Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE) Public Leadership Fellows program.
Each graduated from their respective undergraduate program in 2002 and decided to join Teach for America in order to dedicate two years teaching in high-poverty school districts. Each came away from the experience realizing that they desired to make an even broader impact beyond their individual classrooms — sparking them to attend graduate school at the USC Price School of Public Policy.
Fortified with an understanding of how to analyze and implement challenging policy and planning issues, they established themselves in diverse careers with the same ambition of improving educational opportunities for children. Then, they took the next step by joining LEE, finding each other as three USC Price alumni in a small 25-person cohort.
LEE is an organization that works with former TFA participants to further their impact through policy, advocacy, elected office and nonprofit leadership. Founded in 2007, LEE provides resources, training and networking for TFA alumni who are interested in elected office or other extracurricular leadership positions. Essentially, the goal is to have former teachers who grasp the equity challenge be the ones making and implementing educational policy across the country.
As part of the LEE program, they took part in three weekend workshops in Oakland, Philadelphia and Nashville. Each location provided the opportunity to examine education-related policies specific to that area and hear from a panel of local leaders.
“The fellowship is really about understanding, whatever your situation, to think about different avenues through which you can maximize your impact on educational equity,” Feinberg said. “Since the fellowship, I ran for hyperlocal elected office and won. You recognize that there’s an impact to be made at all levels.”
Feinberg, 36, sits as a community representative on the school council for Pulaski International School of Chicago, where his kids with wife Acasia, 3-year-old River and 2-year-old Miriam, likely will attend in a few years.
It was at USC Price, where he took a leadership position as president of the Associated Students of Planning and Development, that Feinberg found a summer job in the field of charter school development through the school’s job/internship database. He has worked in the field ever since, currently as regional director for the Greater Chicago Area at Turner Impact Capital, a social-impact fund that finances and manages real-estate development for high-quality charter schools.
Although they each completed undergraduate school in 2002, Johari MPP ’06, Feinberg MPL ’09 and Chianese MPP ’10 never did cross paths at USC.
Chianese, 34, came to Los Angeles on her TFA assignment after growing up in Orlando and attending the University of Florida. She taught a year each at Los Angeles Middle School and Hollenbeck Middle School before staying in L.A. as a TFA regional trainer.
After graduating from USC Price, she spent two years working as a senior policy analyst of education for the Office of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa before returning to Orlando, where she is the director of external affairs for the Foundation for Florida’s Future.
After leaving USC Price, Johari, 34, worked as a policy analyst for Green Dot Public Schools, and then eventually returned to teaching and completed a master of school leadership degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. From there, she joined Chelsea High School in Massachusetts, where in the past year she was promoted to principal.
“I chose a public policy program as opposed to educational policy because I wanted to understand areas such as health policy, community organizing, social/emotional health and neighborhood safety that also impact a child’s ability to learn,” Johari said. “USC is so strongly rooted in community and involved with city politics, county politics, and thinking about how neighborhoods and communities should work together. I felt like I left a much more well-rounded person.”
As TFA teachers – Feinberg was assigned to an elementary school in Phoenix while Johari actually got placed at the very high school she attended in San Jose – the three of them recognized, through their efforts to set at-risk children on the right path, that there are so many factors outside of their influence.
Feinberg chose to study urban planning after multiple times having to take to the streets after school to make sure his students could get home safely amid talk that gang violence might break out.
“As a teacher, I felt there were lots of things happening to me and my students that were out of my control,” Chianese explained. “There were a lot of policies affecting us that I wanted to understand better. I also felt strongly that there should be more educators or people who had classroom experience going into policy, and that inspired me to apply to and attend USC Price.”
USC Price offers a $10,000 scholarship to master’s students who are TFA alumni, in recognition of their work to support the educational system.
Combining her strong background in humanities with the quantitative reasoning skills she learned at USC Price, Johari finds her job as principal the perfect combination of policy and practice.
“So much that makes a policy successful or not depends on how people decide to implement it,” Johari said. “Having a policy background made me better understand that landscape and what it takes to have policy successfully implemented at the school level.”
Chianese, Feinberg and Johari are currently working with other LEE alumni to plan a reunion for Public Leaders Fellows in Hawaii this spring. Their goal is to bring LEE fellows together to strategize about how to build a broader, more concerted movement toward educational equity through their individual work.