A Charter Sector Godfather Steps Back

After spending 25 years traveling the country as an education writer I’ve met so many memorable educators it would be hard to come up with a top-five list. Wait, on second thought it’s not that hard. Linda Brown, who this week announced she was stepping down as CEO of Boston-based Building Excellent Schools, would top any imaginable list.

The odd thing about my coming across Linda Brown was the coming-across was ass-backwards. At the time I was focusing on charter schools, seeking out the most innovative, the most daring, the most successful. And when I would sit down with the founder a name kept popping up, Linda Brown. Turns out the best of the best, regardless of where in the U.S. they settled, often got their training and startup financing through BES, with Brown very much in charge.

Who is this Linda Brown? I asked myself?

I asked to meet with her in Boston at a time when many of her “alums” – the BES Network, the best of the BES startups – were visiting for a conference. After some hesitation, she agreed, but she was clearly wary and our conversation started out more as an interrogation. Not of her, of me.

Now anyone who knows Linda will only laugh that off. That’s just standard operating procedure with her. For years, what Linda and BES have offered is a chance to get charter school startup training by studying the high performers, and to win that spot (about 1 in 50 applicants get the nod) you have to expect a withering, no-prisoners interrogation, often sprung when you least expect it.

I recall Shantelle Wright, founder of D.C.’s Achievement Prep, telling me her Linda Brown story. Wright had never heard of BES before being handed a brochure about the organization. Her reaction: “You mean they pay you to do what I desperately want to do?” She crashed on the application, pushed the send button on her computer at 5 p.m., and at 7 a.m. the next morning Brown was on the phone.

Brown: When can you be there?

Wright, sleepily: When do you want me?

Brown: Can you make the next shuttle?

Wright made the 9 a.m. shuttle to Boston, endured a lengthy interrogation and at the end of the talk was offered a fellowship. Who operates like that? Other than Linda Brown, that is.

Wright’s application essay – 13 pages, and single-spaced – explaining why she saw a desperate need for a good school in Washington’s impoverished 8th Ward, was “on fire,” Brown later told me. “She talked about how the vast black/white school achievement gap is not only a black person’s problem; this is also a white person’s problem: Why can’t we have decent schools east of the Anacostia [the poorest neighborhoods in the district]?”

Not all of Brown’s picks turn into winners, but at times it seems like it. One reason: From her home base she has Boston charters, arguably the best in the country, to choose from as mentors for her fellows. And if you win a fellowship with BES, you study not only the Boston charters but the best around the country, ranging from Newark’s North Star Academy to Equitas Academy Charter schools in Los Angeles. And you have access to funders who want to back future winners.

Brown’s emailed announcement about stepping down as CEO (she will remain involved in recruiting and selecting BES fellows) candidly described the joy anyone could see on her face as she ruthlessly pushed to create more high performing schools for the children who most needed them:

I love coming to work. I love this job.

I love getting out of bed and knowing I am coming to Building Excellent Schools.

I love seeing the difference this work makes.

Have to tell you, after visiting schools such as Achievement Prep in Washington, University Prep in Denver and Equitas in L.A., she definitely made a difference.

The article I ended up writing about Brown drew the headline, Meet the Grandmother of America’s Best Charter Schools. She hated the headline, and didn’t hesitate to express her disgust. She’s no grandmother, Brown told me. She’s a godfather of charters.

Explaining that writers don’t write headlines was pointless. Besides, she was right. She is a godfather to many of America’s best charter schools.

— Richard Whitmire

Education writer Richard Whitmire is the author of several books, including The Founders: Inside the Revolution to Invent and Reinvent America’s Best Charter Schools.

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