Peter Jennings Award for Civic Leadership Acceptance Speech

Fund CEO Heather Anichini received Teach For America’s Peter Jennings Award for Civic Leadership on September 5, 2018. This national award honors TFA alumni whose work contributed to systemic change for excellence & equity in education. Read her acceptance speech here.

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Thank you so much for that introduction and for this incredible honor.

Before I forget, I want to thank my team, and especially Chaula Gupta, a former TFA colleague and a current leader at The Fund, and Brian Simmons, my former Board chair. They are here tonight representing so many other champions for this work at home, and I am grateful to all of them.

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I also want to thank Daniel and Nancy for their leadership.

In my time on TFA’s national team, one of my jobs was to tell the stories of alumni who were changing the world. I worked with Daniel when he was the ED in the Twin Cities, and am not at all surprised to see him taking on important reforms for the state against so many odds.

And, Nancy, of course, is one of many talented former Chicago principals now fiercely championing children in other cities. I feel personally that it is a remarkable honor to be recognized alongside her leadership.

Finally, I want to thank Kayce, Teach For America and the selection committee for recognizing Chicago in this way. Our city’s story – the story of strong educators transforming public schools – is one that deserves to be told, and I am grateful for the opportunity to tell it here, tonight.

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Telling stories is something I’ve always loved. Some of you know that I went to school to study journalism. And though I never had the face or the wit for broadcast news, I certainly followed and admired the life and work of Peter Jennings.

I went back in preparation for tonight and watched some of his coverage. I was struck by the marathon work he did around the Gulf War in 1991, and then 10 years later, on September 11.

Peter Jennings’ job was to be a consistently good newscaster, but in those watershed moments he became something more. In times of stress and uncertainty for a country, he became our voice.

Even 12 hours into the coverage, Mr. Jennings was not outwardly swayed by the emotion of the moment. As tired and stressed as he likely was, he managed to reassure. He listened – hard – to the people on the scene, and he made connections so many of us would have otherwise missed.

In those moments, Peter Jennings represented civic leadership at its best – disciplined, ordinary acts, made extraordinary by the circumstances.

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Educators today are required to demonstrate that same kind of leadership. They are asked to be very good at their jobs every day, and to be extraordinary when the circumstances demand it.

Tonight, I want to tell you about one of them. Rodolfo Rojas runs a small, K-5 elementary school in Chicago. When he took over as principal, Everett’s students were performing well below their peers in similar schools and below the district average.

For Rodolfo, the challenge was real, and it was personal. A CPS graduate himself, he started as a security guard and pursued the principalship to be a role model for his students.

In the principal role, he did what so many of our principals do. He listened, he engaged with teachers, students, parents and the community. He made connections other people hadn’t seen before. He offered a vision for what was possible, and a path for getting there.

And for Rodolfo, The Fund team did what we do for so many principals. We asked him what he needed, and provided opportunities for growth and improvement.

Four years later, the students at Everett are out-performing district and national averages in reading and math, and the school is being recognized for its remarkable progress with Rodolfo’s leadership.

There are literally hundreds of principals like Rodolfo in Chicago, and thousands in the cities represented by the people in this room.

Even when they are tired, even when they may be frightened themselves, even when they don’t know what to do next, our principals have to find a way to tell the truth about what they see. They have to listen and make connections for their community, to be the voice of calm, and to provide a vision for change in the face of real challenge.

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This award comes on the heels of some powerful evidence that taking a bet on that kind of leadership pays off.

As Kayce mentioned, researchers at Stanford released a groundbreaking study that showed students in Chicago’s public schools gain six years of growth in five years of school.

Those of you who have supported TFA for decades know the significance of that. It means a typical student in Chicago learns almost 1.25 years of material in a single year. In many of our regions, we are still establishing proof points that growth like that can happen at all.

In Chicago, it is happening at scale.

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Our incredible schools CEO – Dr. Janice Jackson, a former principal herself – regularly attributes Chicago’s growth to one simple idea: Leadership matters.

She is right, of course.

Growth like we are experiencing in Chicago only happens in schools where teachers are allowed to risk failure in pursuit of learning every day. Growth like that only happens in schools with strong leaders. Growth like that only happens in places where leaders have what they need to succeed.

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Just as Peter Jennings was once both the ordinary voice of the news and the extraordinary voice of a nation, our principals’ ordinary work is often made extraordinary by the circumstances in which they do it.

Tonight’s award really is a recognition of their extraordinary courage and love.

Our principals – their willingness to do more, to be better, and to support their teachers in doing the same, is what motivates me every day. This award is a reminder of the debt I owe to them and of the potential for all of us to do more in support of their leadership.

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For Chicago, this is just the beginning of the story. I appreciate you allowing me to share a piece of that with you tonight. Thank you again.