Coffee Break: How Do We Work With Communities to Build Quality School Choices? Janeene Freeman Has Some Answers

Feb 1, 2017 12:00:00 AM

by Ikhlas Saleem

In December of 2016, the Northeast Charter Schools Network (NECSN) announced its new Chief Executive Officer, Janeene Freeman. NECSN works to support and expand quality public charter schools in New York and Connecticut. Prior to joining NECSN, Freeman spent 16 years with the Community Service Society of New York and most recently served as its director of government relations. From her coalition-building experience, Freeman knows just how transformative an education can be and how critical it is for communities that have been left behind to be provided high-quality educational choices. I had a chance to ask Freeman about her new role as CEO, what life lessons she brings and the last thing she’s read and watched—the answers might surprise you. Coffee? Tea? Or maybe a green juice in the morning?  Definitely tea, usually Earl Grey. But I have been known to switch my allegiance to iced coffee in the warmer months. You went to Wesleyan, I went to Wellesley—folks mix up our schools all the time. Has that ever happened to you?  All the time! When I say I went to Wesleyan, I often get, “Oh, the all girls school?” I politely correct them and say, “No, that’s Wellesley. Wesleyan is an amazing liberal arts college in Middletown, Connecticut.” You were at the Community Service Society for 16 years and recently served as the director of government relations. What's the biggest lesson you're taking with you as you start your new role as CEO at Northeast Charter Schools Network?  There are probably two big important lessons I am bringing with me into this new role. The first is: be clear about whom you represent. Access to quality education is one of the fundamental building blocks for success in life and one’s career. Education can and does change lives! But we also know there is not a “one-size-fits-all” solution in education. There are a variety of ways to approach the issues, but if you are unclear about your motivations for taking a policy stand or how a legislative solution will impact the constituency you represent, you can do more harm than good. In this new role, I represent charter schools offering choices to families and students and that will be my focus. The second lesson is that relationships matter. I was able to achieve success in my previous job by developing and maintaining relationships. There were conversations that I could have and information that I was given because of connections—those take years to cultivate and I am proud of that work. I hope to use the relationships I have and create new ones in order to help the Northeast Charter Schools Network fulfill its mission. Before you entered the nonprofit world and more specifically education, you were a marketing specialist, how'd you end up here?  I made the switch from corporate to the nonprofit sector because I needed to engage in work that spoke to my core values. Having worked for an anti-poverty organization that focused on increasing upward mobility for low-income families, I understand that the process begins with education. Access to quality education can change your life and open doors that you never thought possible. I have experienced this firsthand. I am proud to be leading an organization that is advocating for such an important issue. Like a lot of people, I've been thinking a lot about the potential for school choice to expand under the Trump administration but nervous about the lack of accountability that might come with that. What should parents, educators and nonprofit advocates be focusing on in the fight for school choice and accountability?  The bottom line is this: our state laws, our authorizers, and the policies and regulations we have in place absolutely do ensure the quality of the charter school movement in our communities. We have faith that they will not be swayed off course. As advocates, we need to keep the focus on doing what is good for children. If kids aren’t the priority this movement falls apart. I really take it to heart that in New York and Connecticut charter schools are held to high levels of accountability and can boast high levels of performance. As long as students are achieving our educators should be given the flexibility to teach material in ways that facilitates learning, which is a core tenant of chartering. Of course, we should provide schools with the opportunity to correct deficiencies. But ultimately we should, and we do, close those programs that are unable to turn their operations around. We will not be able to combat criticism and demonstrate our ability to be accountable to taxpaying citizens if we run away from difficult decisions that need to be made. I'm sure your days are incredibly busy but when you do have the time what's your favorite thing to read, watch or listen to?  To unwind, I love reading forensic science novels; watching MSNBC and Food Network; and I am a huge Game of Thrones fan!!

Ikhlas Saleem

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