Some three decades ago, teaching in one of the first Massachusetts charter schools, I met Linda Brown.
I had no idea who this woman was who had walked into my classroom. But she was intense. She looked at every piece of academic work in front of my students. She examined what they were producing—and I mean examined. She asked them if what we were giving them was challenging enough, if we were asking them to work hard enough, if they were determined to go to college and give everything they did their very best.
She was unlike any other visitor to our school. Those who patted us on our heads and said some form of “Dear, you are doing such good work with these children.” These children: As though simply seeing these children in seats with books in their hands made their hearts go aflutter.
Linda founded and led Building Excellent Schools, a national non-profit that identified, selected, and trained aspiring founders of high-achieving charter schools across the country. I joined Linda as BES’s fellowship director and chief academic officer.
Linda Brown died in the afternoon on Christmas day at 81.
Linda changed my life. But that is not what is most important. Linda changed tens of thousands of lives: the hundreds of school founders she trained, pushed, and supported; the tens of thousands of students they in turn have educated and are educating still.
Linda and I called each other “work spouses.” Together we upheld the vision and the values of Building Excellent Schools and its fellowship. We loved each other as deeply as two spouses can. We challenged each other, respected each other, understood each other, and worked hard beside each other to ensure that students had the very best schools. Those schools had to pass the test—good enough not for those kids but for our own.
Linda knew that for such schools to exist—successful schools, serious schools, inspiring schools—she had to find, train, push, support, and connect the very best people to lead them. People with humility and hunger, intensity and energy. Smart people. Ambitious people. People who would listen and learn and do the work. With her “fierce urgency of now,” Linda found those people who made it happen and still are.
For hundreds of successful charter school leaders, Linda was the founder of founders—their switchboard operator, connecting one leader to the next, passing from one to the next what works.
Whatever it takes. Urgency. Academic achievement, before all else.
I wanted to ask former fellows what Linda meant to them. But where would I start? Andy Boy, Ravi Gupta, Charlie Friedman, Hrag Hamalian, Shara Hegde, Jane Henzerling, Mia Howard, Linda Lentz, Lester Long, Scott McCue, Julia Myerson, Lagra Newman, Bill Spirer, Yutaka Tamura, Natasha Trivers, Roblin Webb, Shantelle Wright? What of those who weren’t fellows but who were Linda’s founders, nonetheless—individuals to whom she gave so much, and for whom she carried enduring pride and love: Jon Clark, Mike Goldstein, John King, Emily Lawson, Dana Lehman, Doug Lemov, Brett Peiser, Josh Zoia. The list is long.
“I could not get anyone to listen to me, or believe in me, until Linda,” Malka Borrego of Equitas Academy in Los Angeles told me. “Linda put her stake in my game, and she knew that I could do it. On so many occasions, she said to me and to others, ‘I believe in Malka,’ and that made everything else possible. Now, in 2023, I see five beautiful school buildings in my community. It’s not the buildings that are important in themselves but what they represent, a $75 million dollar investment in education in my community that had never seen any investment and had been totally overlooked. Linda made all of that possible. Linda is the reason why a whole generation of people are being treated differently.”
“She had looked at a teacher from western Massachusetts, who had never set foot in Houston or Texas, and thought, she can open this school,” Kayleigh Colombero of Étoile Academy in Houston recalled. “And we did it—two stubborn and motivated women, using every bit of our five-foot bodies to will a good school into existence for children in Houston. Like Shackleton in the Antarctic, Linda fostered collective determination to beat all odds in all those she led.”
“Linda is often referred to as the Yoda of public education, routinely in reference to the concept that she is the smallest, mightiest being you’ve ever met,” David Singer of University Prep in Denver said. “She could kick your ass with a simple look; she could will positive change with a phone call; she could bring the room down with a tiny “BUDDA – BOOP” and the smacking of her hands… She may have been short and slightly tilted forward, but she stood taller and straighter than the greatest redwood searching for light in a CA forest. When I was in the BES Fellowship in 2009, each morning would start with an email from Ms. Brown (usually quite early). It was like an alarm bell ringing to go out into the world and find a way to do the impossible. Things are hard; keep going. You need a pick me up; here’s a love note. You think this is difficult today? Wait until you’re ultimately responsible for the well-being of someone else’s children. Keep going, you can do this, you will do this. It’s been almost 15 years since my first phone call with our tiny Jedi Master, and I can assure you that even if I’m not thinking of Ms. Brown at a particular moment, her influence is steering my brain and my heart. Is this good enough for our kids? Are you operating with urgency? What is the bar of excellence? Does every child receive the greeting at the front door that brings out their light? That tells them very directly that they matter—in this sacred place that is school they are seen, they are heard, they are valued—they are loved.”
“If you absorbed the Fellowship, then you learned and you were given so much. Linda gave me the opportunity to do this work, to carry that urgency,” Ros DaCruz of RISE Prep in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, explained. “Whenever I talked to Linda, she always asked, ‘What can I do? What do you need?’ And then she had 14 emails in my inbox in 5 minutes with all of those things.”
I love you, Linda Brown. You proved what was possible in American public education. Again, and again, and again.
Sue Walsh is the former fellowship director and chief academic officer of Building Excellent Schools. Please visit this site for additional recollections of Linda Brown from former BES fellows.