In this Q&A, EP Alumna Julie Swerdlow Albino (Graduate School Fellow, 2010), Chief Redesign Officer for Lawrence Public Schools in Massachusetts, talks about moving from business consulting to education leadership, finding a job she loves, and working every day to keep the American Dream alive for all children.
1. What was your educational experience like as a kid, and when did you see education as a potential career?
I grew up in public schools in Virginia and Michigan, and for the most part, I got a great education. My whole family was educated in public schools, and I have a number of teachers in my extended family. I’ve always thought that there is nothing more important—or more interesting—than what we as a society choose to teach our children.
In college, I took education courses that showed me stark statistics about the number of students reading at grade level and graduating on time. This convinced me that we needed to do better for children coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, or the promise of the “American Dream” was dead on arrival.
While I had a strong intellectual interest in education, I didn’t feel called to teach and didn’t see a career path right out of college into system-level operations or policy. So instead, I decided to go into business consulting to learn more about organizational systems. I hoped that one day I could translate those lessons to the education field. But I had no idea if down the line people would say, ‘yes, that skill set is absolutely needed in education’ or ‘you’re crazy, no one will hire you without a teaching background.’
2. What was your motivation behind making the switch from working in business consulting to becoming an Education Pioneers Graduate School Fellow? What about your EP experience was most valuable as someone who was new to the education sector?
Education Pioneers was a natural fit for me, and my time as a Fellow reinforced that I was excited by this work and could make an impact with my background.
It was great to have my first job in education be working directly at the school level and focusing on the school’s routines and procedures, who the people were, and what their roles were. During my EP Fellowship, I created a charter school operations manual and worked closely with the operations team on the ground. It gave me an appreciation for the level of detail you need to understand before you can propose a workable solution or actionable recommendation.
The other thing I appreciated about EP was having the opportunity to talk with other Fellows who had radically different views than I did about urban education. We had some interesting debates where I started to broaden some of my views that were previously fairly narrow. I really enjoyed being exposed to a wide range of ideas and opinions.
3. Tell me about your current role with Lawrence Public Schools. What lessons from your Fellowship do you use in your role there?
My title is Chief Redesign Officer. Basically, I manage the development and implementation of new initiatives for a district undergoing a lot of change.
The whole premise in Lawrence Public Schools (LPS) is to transform the district into an “open architecture” system. This means the district shifts from being a top-down compliance manager of schools to supporting individual schools as the unit of change.
LPS schools have as much flexibility to design their own programs as charter schools do in other settings, with teams of teachers and principals working together at the school level to make these decisions. However, in LPS, all schools are unionized and neighborhood-based, and follow a common set of baseline policies to ensure equity across the district.
Moving to an open architecture system where much more of the work is happening at the school-level—but on a level playing field for all schools—means nearly every centralized policy needs to change, from budget, to union relations, to academic policies and supports, to talent management.
The biggest lessons I learned early on were the importance of humility and of learning from those around you. As someone still new to the field of education, I have a fresh perspective on a lot of the work and am constantly thinking about ways to improve what we do. What was critical for me to understand is that things generally are the way they are for a reason, and it’s very important to understand that reason before you propose changes.
Change is always a work-in-progress. It’s very rare that something will launch completely right from the start. But your odds of getting it right are much better if you listen to those closest to the ground level, who really know the ins and outs of that particular policy, why it was set up, and what will need to be considered before changing it.
4. What is the best thing about working in education?
I honestly can’t believe how much I love my job.
The best part is knowing that the work I do is helping to make the world better in some way. But following close behind is the joy I get from the specific content of my work, how interesting I find it, and how complex it is.
I am part of a team that is coming up with new ways to imagine the role and functions of a school district. It is endlessly fascinating to discuss and refine those ideas with colleagues, principals, and teachers. I appreciate talking to people who have perspectives I never would have heard if I didn’t work in a district. The views I came into education with have already dramatically shifted based on what I am seeing and learning every day in my job.
5. What would you say to someone who considering working in education or applying to an EP Fellowship?
If you are interested in education and are coming from a different sector, don’t wait to dive in. Choose your first role very carefully, and make sure you will be supported and have an opportunity to closely observe respected leaders in the field.
I have been very lucky to be able to work with and learn from LPS leaders—all of whom have been critical for success in my work.
Lastly, consider working in a traditional school district. Having district experience and perspectives will make you a valuable contributor in whatever you do in the sector.