Teacher preparation programs need to be revamped to meet the needs of today’s classrooms. Most higher education teacher preparation programs are not keeping pace with today’s needs and are not adequately preparing teachers to impact student achievement the way we need them to. This issue is even more pronounced when it comes to inner city and rural school districts that serve large proportions of economically disadvantaged youth. Teachers can’t do everything but the programs they pay to attend need to adequately equip them for the rigors they will face in their jobs.
With over 20 years of experience in public finance banking and advisory, community development finance, strategy consulting, and senior management in not for profit institutions, Holly Coleman has built a career working collaboratively across the private, public and not for profit sectors. She currently serves as the Program Director for Education for the Hyde Family Foundations (“HFF”). At HFF, she leads education philanthropy and the foundation’s work to transform education outcomes in Memphis. From 2012 to 2016, Ms. Coleman served as the Chief Financial Officer for Gestalt Community Schools (“GCS”). GCS is a growing network of high performing, public, K-12 charter schools in Memphis. With five schools and over 2,000 students, GCS focuses on high academic achievement and efforts to anchor community development projects and to develop and leverage community partners and relationships.
After relocating to Memphis in 2009, Holly was a partner at BWC Consulting from 2010–2012 where she served as financial advisor on several community development efforts in higher education and the not for profit sector across the Southeast. Prior to relocating, Ms. Coleman served as the chief fiscal and human resources officer for the Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University (“NYU”) in Manhattan.
Prior to NYU, Ms. Coleman was a public finance banker and financial advisor as a Vice President in Prager, Sealy & Co.’s higher education financial advisory practice and a Vice President in Goldman, Sachs & Co.’s higher education practice where she worked on numerous bond financings and derivative transactions for several of the nation’s leading institutions. Before attending the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University, Ms. Coleman worked as a strategy consultant for Bain & Company in Boston, MA and evaluated and solicited investment opportunities for a $300 million Empowerment Zone community development investment fund in New York City. Ms. Coleman holds a Bachelor of Business Administration (concentration in Finance) from Howard University and an MBA from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.
Thank you so much for joining us Holly! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?
I majored in business (finance) in college and went straight into the business world where I landed a fantastic job in strategy consulting at Bain & Company and worked with top management at Fortune 500 companies right out of college. I quickly discovered that I wasn’t necessarily internally motivated by the idea of creating shareholder value, but I had quantitative skills, a strategic mindset and wanted to contribute to an organization and the world in a way that had value to me.
After Bain, I spent a year in a community development organization in Harlem and a few weeks into that role, the dynamic leader of that organization, Debbie Wright, announced in a team meeting that we were there for one reason only, not to impress her or earn a notch on our resume, but make a difference and serve the community, Harlem, in this case. That resonated with me and I’ll never forget feeling like I was starting to figure out my purpose. That year, a few other experiences, such as attending a panel of community development leaders from across the country at a conference at the Harvard Business School and the opportunity to see the power of the public, private and non-profit sectors coming together in my work to make change in underserved communities set me on my path.
Another important factor was my upbringing. The neighborhood I grew up in, South Shore in Chicago, was ground zero for the nation’s first community development bank, South Shore Bank. It was the bank my parents banked with and one of the founders was a family friend. As a young adult learning how innovative and instrumental this institution I had grown up with was, further connected me to the idea that my career should be spent working to strengthen and/or revitalize communities like the one I grew up in.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
One lesson I won’t forget was during my first year of work out of college where I was working as a consultant and I had a pretty complex project to figure out the unit cost of each product our client manufactured. I was to take individual product lines, break down the cost of a unit to each individual component of material, manufacturing process, labor, assembly, shipment, etc. The goal was to determine how much cheaper it would be if that labor cost was swapped out for the cost of labor in a developing country vs. the U.S. (and add in the additional cost to ship back to the U.S., tariffs, etc.). On one hand, I learned a lesson in that I inherited an excel model from a more senior consultant to perform this task. I was hesitant to take his model and adapt it for what I needed. But given the complexity of the task, the volume of work and the time we had to complete the work, I went with his model. Well that was a mistake I will never forget b/c trying to adapt and correct this model ended up being a nightmare! I vowed that from then on in my career, if I had to get no sleep for weeks, I would build my own models from scratch!
The other thing that was interesting about this project was that our client was a major manufacturer with most operations in the U.S. Our project was to make the case for them to close much of their U.S. operations and move them to developing countries. That meant thousands of people were going to lose their jobs and we were providing the rationale for this. After visiting a plant and having the understanding spread across the face of the plant manager when he realized why he was to walk us through the manufacturing process at his plant, I became so aware of the human beings behind the numbers. The implications of our work, and my work, weighed heavily on me. I had many different kinds of projects as a consultant but I will never forget this one. It was a big part of what made me realize I needed to be in a line of work that lined up with my own values. I wanted to spend my hard days at work, trying to make a positive difference in peoples lives, not tearing them apart.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I am working on finding the next big thing in preparing high quality education leaders because we know how critical principals and school leaders are to creating and sustaining excellent schools. Great leaders recruit, coach, and retain great teachers, they foster excellent school culture, they have great relationships with students and families, and they bring the community in to help their students. Being a great school leader is a monumental task and they can’t be unicorns! If we can find a way to invest in more great school leaders, the impact will be greatly felt by increasing student achievement, increased teacher retention and more great schools!
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authority in the education field?
Authority is a serious word! I do have a unique opportunity through my work in Memphis to see a number of different school models, approaches and cultures. I’m able to look at data across our sector and from that data, understand what is and isn’t working for kids. I study best practices as well as what hasn’t worked. I bring school leaders and other organizations working to support schools together to share those best practices and failures, talk through challenges and try to find solutions. If we recommend something for funding, we know it could be a risk but we have to really vet each potential investment and make the most informed decision possible. At the Hyde Family Foundation, we are about expanding Access and Opportunity for all kids. So, we want to see our main district, Shelby County Schools do well and we want to welcome innovative models that are working for kids. As a result, we develop relationships across the entire sector from Shelby County School district to charter leaders to education talent organizations to education advocacy organizations and do what we can to support all of these organizations in strengthening schools, leaders, teachers and conditions all in the name of better education for all students. I also had an opportunity after many years in strategy consulting, public finance and financial advisory to work as the CFO of a network of charter schools for almost five years through a period of significant growth and expansion. This experience taught me so much about what excellence in education can look like and how challenging this work is on a day to day basis. While I came to this work from a strategic and financial point of view, I have a true appreciation for what it means to run a school and ensure every child in the building is getting the best of what they need.
Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?
On an A-F scale, I’d give it a D. It’s sad to say and I know how many people are working really hard every day to educate our kids (that’s the only reason it’s not an F!), but we just are not doing the best job possible — especially for students of color, economically disadvantaged students and children with special needs.
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?
- Increasing standards. Many disagree but I think it’s a good thing that most states have gone to Common Core or their version of it. The quality of education needs to have some level of equity across states. Many states’ standards were too low and this was a disservice to kids. How can they compete on the same playing field if they didn’t learn at the same level as their peers? Curriculum is becoming more rigorous and challenging as a result and teachers are having to teach at higher levels than ever before.
- Allowing charter school innovation and school choice. I know many will disagree here also and there is much work to do to ensure all charter schools are excellent. But I think the innovation and diversity of approach charter schools bring has caused many districts to work harder to improve and/or change what they are doing for all kids. Parents want choices so that they can identify what is best for their children. Wealthy parents have this choice among public (they can move to the neighborhood they choose) and private schools. All parents should have choices.
- Technology. Schools are increasingly finding ways to improve the learning process using technology. Technology provides students with more access to resources, more ways to either catch up and improve in weak areas or to advance in areas where they are strong.
- Renewed focus on Career and Technical Education. I hear more and more every year how much schools and districts want to expand and/or renew their focus on CTE and many are doing this. They are finding ways to connect with business and industry and higher education to expose students in high school to careers and provide them with internships, jobs, college credits and certifications. There is still a long way to go to create clear pathways everywhere. For many students, it isn’t financially feasible to go straight through to a four-year college. They need the on and off ramps for earning credentials over time. I still believe that all students should be prepared in school to be college ready and that they should have choices available for how they get to their career. The earlier we can set them on this path in K-12, the higher the chance of success, especially among economically disadvantaged students.
- Alternative teacher certification. Here in Memphis, our alternative teacher certification providers like Teach for America Memphis, Relay Graduate School of Education and homegrown Memphis Teacher Residency are among the top teacher preparation programs in the state of TN. They recruit, train, and support teachers that are mission-aligned with the work it takes to educate all kids, regardless of background.
Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?
- Teacher preparation programs need to be revamped to meet the needs of today’s classrooms. Most higher education teacher preparation programs are not keeping pace with today’s needs and are not adequately preparing teachers to impact student achievement the way we need them to. This issue is even more pronounced when it comes to inner city and rural school districts that serve large proportions of economically disadvantaged youth. Teachers can’t do everything but the programs they pay to attend need to adequately equip them for the rigors they will face in their jobs.
- Investing in high quality teachers and leader training and professional development all along the way. Corporations invest so much in their employees throughout their professional careers. Why do we expect teachers to come out of teacher prep programs (that often don’t adequately prepare them in the first place — see above) and expect them to develop over time into great teachers and eventually great leaders without investing in them continuously? If we value teachers, lets invest in them!
- Strong early literacy curriculum and instruction. It is very common today to hear the statistics about children needing to be on grade level in reading and math by third grade to dramatically increase chances of success in school and high school graduation. We must adequately prepare teachers to teach children how to read — both the foundational skills/phonics and the underlying knowledge needed to read for comprehension. This is so critical and it just isn’t being done well in so many places, especially in historically underserved classrooms.
- Reimagine/redesign high school. Just as teacher preparation programs are often behind the times, we should take a look at an update on the high school experience! We are still doing high school the same way we have been for decades but look how different life is for our young people. Technology has everything changing so rapidly and the jobs of the future look so different. Why not prepare students differently and appeal to a new way of learning and experiencing the world?
- Equitable and adequate education funding for all children. Children come to school with such a diverse set of strengths and needs. Funding all children within a district at the same level doesn’t make sense. And just because you live in one state vs. another doesn’t mean your needs look as drastically different as the funding often does. There isn’t much more important than educating our children so we need to increase funding and ensure it is equitable. Instead, funding, school quality and resources are often dependent on zip code.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
As with so many things in education, there are many bright spots and great programs and organizations tackling STEM but it is so challenging to have them at scale. Three ways to increase engagement in STEM: Exposure, exposure, exposure! Young people are not going to be attracted to what they know little about and haven’t experienced. If your parents don’t work in a STEM field, you live far away from Silicon Valley, and no one talks to you about all of the possibilities a STEM education can open for you, chances are you don’t know much about what is entailed in engineering, what you need for an IT career or what you can do with a math degree. The more we can be intentional about exposing young people to what is possible and the opportunities through project-based learning in class, extracurricular activities, camps, speakers, books, etc. when they are young and as they approach middle and high school, further exposing and connecting them to these things and internships, jobs, etc. Students need to see what is possible for them if they pursue different STEM fields and they need to experience it first-hand both in- and outside the classroom.
Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?
The proportion of girls and women in our institutions of higher education and the workforce continues to grow. With the increasing number of jobs in the STEM fields, its imperative that women be at the table in a significant way to fill the jobs and build the knowledge base needed. Women add so much value to every organization and field. We come with different approaches, perspectives, leadership qualities, etc. that make every team better. Why wouldn’t we need to be represented in STEM!?
How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
Similar to my statements above, girls aren’t going to be attracted to what they know little about. I definitely see bright spots here with national organizations like Black Girls Code and locally in Memphis we have great programs like CodeCrew (for girls and boys), programs that target girls at the University of Memphis in coding, engineering, etc. Again, I think it’s about exposure, exposure, exposure. To increase engagement, I think programs need to start at a young age, some need to focus on girls only, and we need to create opportunities for girls beginning in middle and high school to experience STEM careers firsthand. Girls need to be connected early through project-based learning and experiences including extracurricular activities, clubs, etc. to pique their interest and so that they start to see the possibilities. Programs designed intentionally for and targeting girls are really important. Girls don’t always naturally see themselves in these fields so being able to explore around other girls is empowering. And I think it’s so important to see and interact with women in these programs and in the field — it’s harder to imagine what you can’t see. I know for me as a student and intern and early in my career, I so looked up to the women ahead of me in banking and consulting because it made me believe I could do it, too — that I could do the work, be respected and also balance family and all of the other obligations we often have as women.
As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?
I am definitely for STEAM! There is no debate that STEM is critical and that so many jobs of the future will be dependent on STEM related knowledge and skills. But the arts and humanities are what so often strike the hearts and minds of our children. So often the experiences in arts and the humanities connect and bind students to their school experience and make them more engaged overall in all classes. I would definitely bet that most, if not all, of the best schools in this country have robust offerings and participation in arts and humanities both in class and as extracurricular activities. I often ask people what they remember most about school or what are their best memories — so often they have to do with their experience in the school play or as part of a performing group or a favorite book they discovered in an English class that was life changing.
If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Pay teachers more! Self-explanatory.
- Invest more in teacher training and development — the best companies do it — who is more important to invest in then the teachers who are teaching our children day in and day out?
- Revamp teacher preparation programs — they have to be held accountable for adequately preparing teachers for today’s classroom!
- Invest in high quality early childhood education for every child. It doesn’t end here but all children, especially those from economically disadvantage backgrounds and with special needs, need an early start to stay on track and succeed.
- Put the services children need in schools — school nurses, social workers, mental health services, family support specialists — we have no choice but to address the whole child and teachers can’t do it all.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My mother always used to say “Life is what you make it.” It’s a simple quote but it always stayed with me that my happiness, my contribution to the world, the quality of my relationships, my success in life, was dependent on my choices, effort and decisions. Of course, we can’t control everything but we have to take responsibility for what we can control and make the best possible use of our time here!
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
I don’t know how to choose between Oprah and Michelle Obama! I feel connected to both being born and raised in Chicago. I am from South Shore like Mrs. Obama and we went to the same high school and I passed Harpo studios every day on my way to school. Both are such an inspiration to me in their grace, compassion, love of people, and their devotion to education, especially for girls.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I am embarrassed to say that I am not very active on social media. No time!