(This was first published at Education Post.)
If we have really well-prepared young people who are going to the exact college they want to go to, who will graduate from college within six years with little to no debt and who are willing to take over the dining hall and stage a protest or to use their choice and voice in another impactful way, that to me would epitomize success.
Meet Natasha Trivers, the Chief Executive Officer of Democracy Prep, a charter network with 21 schools in New York, New Jersey, Baton Rouge, Las Vegas and San Antonio. The 6,500 students are “citizen scholars,” a nod to the network’s unique focus on civic engagement, as well as strong academics. Natasha sat down with me to chat about Democracy Prep’s evolution, her own history and her strategy for the network’s stability and growth.
Laura: Why don’t you tell me about how you reached this leadership position?
Natasha: I grew up in Brooklyn and Queens and went to public schools my entire life. I thought I wanted to be a public defender to work on the overrepresentation of Black and Brown people in the criminal justice system—I took the LSAT and everything! But in my senior year of college at Rutgers [University in New Jersey], I had an epiphany: We have to get to kids before they become enmeshed in the criminal justice system. So I went to Teacher’s College at Columbia University, and then taught English on the East Side of Manhattan. I followed my then-boyfriend to Boston, took a teaching job there, met Seth Andrew [the founder of Democracy Prep] and became interested in school leadership.
Really, it was others who kept telling me I should lead. I thought I wanted to teach forever. But, then I realized leading is just who I am. In my Boston school, which served low-income kids of color, I was always in my principal’s face about the urgency of setting high academic standards for growth. I’m sure at some point she really pushed me to lead out of self-preservation.
Laura: What got you from Boston back to New York?
Natasha: I knew I wanted to lead, but I also knew I wanted to return to my hometown, New York City. So I looked at all of the best charter networks and at the Building Excellent Schools Fellowship. But I decided to make Democracy Prep my home because of the incredible urgency I felt the moment I walked onto a Democracy Prep campus and saw their focus on civics education. I was in love from the start. In 2011, I became Assistant Principal at our flagship school, Democracy Prep Charter High School in central Harlem.
Laura: What attracted you to Democracy Prep?
Natasha: I was really attracted to the civics element, this intense focus on civic engagement, students wearing shirts that said: “I can’t vote, but you can.” I wanted to be part of this, building for our kids a sharp sense that they are not constrained by the boundaries of their neighborhood, that they have the power to change the world, that they can push themselves to succeed. At Democracy Prep we maximize every minute of instruction, while widening students’ worlds. All this culminates in international travel towards the end of high school when our students go to places like South Africa.
Laura: You were promoted quickly, right?
Natasha: Yes, I was made principal at our Harlem location. During my time there we expanded AP courses, improved our student outcomes on Regents exams, and increased our graduation rate and the number of acceptances to Tier 1 colleges. Six years later, in 2017, I was promoted to be Democracy Prep Public Schools’ Superintendent.
Laura: I know that you had some tough press about the Democracy Prep school in D.C. What was that all about?
Natasha: I think we should have given ourselves a full year of planning before enrolling students so that we could learn the landscape and find the right leader. The D.C. Charter School Board was very skeptical of our model and we didn’t do enough community outreach. I’ll make sure we don’t make that mistake again.
Laura: What are your priorities going forward as CEO of Democracy Prep?
Natasha: First, we need to push and celebrate the civics piece even more than we have—these are future adults who will most likely vote and be engaged in the political process, and we expect they will find leadership positions to help solve problems in this country.
I want to find more ways to remain connected with our alumni and raise our college completion rate. Our persistence rate [the percentage of freshmen who continue on to sophomore year] is 84% across the network, which is incredible. Low-income students of color nationally are persisting at a much, much lower rate. The national college graduation rate is 59%. Right now we’re at 48%, and I’m determined that we exceed the national rate.
I am also excited to continue to reframe our schools not as “no excuses” schools, but rather as “high expectations/ high support” charter schools. We will always prioritize running safe, predictable schools that are focused on learning, but we need to do away with some of the practices that are sort of “compliance for the sake of compliance.” I am excited to continue to push that evolution.
And—this is very important—I’m taking a different approach to fundraising than we have in the past. While it is still important to me to serve as a proof-point—any school can replicate our model—we operate largely off of public funds. I do think we have an imperative to fundraise and here’s why: We are no longer operating schools in New York City alone, where you get $15,000 per student. We are now a national organization. In Las Vegas, we only receive $7,000 per student. So, while all of our operations and staffing will remain funded by per-pupil revenue, if we’re going to provide international travel and civic engagement, we’re going to have to accept grants—and more than just the small ones that go to afterschool programs.
Now that we’re a national organization, we are facing a complex set of issues—one of which is how to provide high-quality special education and English language support services to our students, regardless of what state funding looks like for special education and ELL [English language learners] support. The bottom line is: in order to deliver on our mission, regardless of the regional context, we must fundraise. In a parallel universe, we’ll be fighting for Nevada to allot more than $7,000 per child, and with our civics program, we’re currently educating the elected official who will win that fight, but in the meantime we want our students to have the same opportunities—regardless of zip code.
Laura: Do you have any plans to expand?
Natasha: Not at the moment. I want to use the next two years to strengthen our current schools and improve student proficiency at all levels. Growth matters and kids have to be ready for college. But we also know that to operate in recovery school districts, we can’t ignore proficiency rates. They matter, and we have a finite window to make that happen. If we can get a third-grader on grade level, that will have ripple effects that will stay with them for their whole life.
Laura: What haven’t I asked you that you’d like to say?
Natasha: I am one of very few CEO’s of color of a national charter network and I am so excited to be an educator at the helm. I’m sure others could offer amazing skill sets, but at this inflection point, I provide a unique perspective. I taught for nine years before coming to Democracy Prep. I have been an educator for my whole professional life. I also have a son who just graduated from Democracy Prep’s Endurance High School and now is headed to Morehouse College this fall.
I’m thoroughly invested in improving our academics and our civics programming, pushing our evolution around discipline practices, and spearheading robust leadership development of our alumni. I am also committed to cutting through the noise and demanding a high-quality education for every student in this country—regardless of race, socioeconomic status or zip code.
Brown v. Board of Education was 65 years ago. Right now, I don’t want to use my platform to talk about identity politics. I don’t want to talk about the integration of our public schools—our communities are segregated after all. I don’t want to talk about reducing suspension rates at schools using some arbitrary and ill-defined set of metrics. While important topics, that’s not where I feel I should focus my energy to have the greatest impact. I want to talk about better academic and life outcomes for Black and Brown kids. Period.
I want to talk about exceeding the college completion rate for the wealthiest Americans and doing so in communities made up of people who look like me. The young people of Harlem, the Bronx, West Las Vegas, San Antonio, Baton Rouge and Camden are every bit as capable as a child living in wealthy suburbs in this country. The secret sauce in our model is simple: we expect a ton from our scholars. And, you know what? Every single time, they rise to the occasion.