Going Back to School

Why I chose national service

Graduation Day

I started each morning with the same daily indignities.

I trudged up the steps of Anna Howard Shaw Middle School in Southwest Philly, always choosing the stairwell with the missing window panes that let in the cold winter air because it was nearest my classroom. The building was nearly a century old and looked it.

When I got to my classroom on the third floor, I took a long hard look at the trashcan placed just outside the door by the custodian the night prior.

With a hint of dread, every morning, I kicked the trashcan gently. Some days, the bag inside of it would rustle and a mouse would come scurrying out and down the hallway to another teacher’s classroom.

On days when I got lucky, there’d be no rustling. My trashcan was rodent-free and I could start my day with relative peace of mind. On the worst days, the mouse would get stuck or would be dead and I would have to play exterminator first thing in the morning.

All of this before leading a classroom full of 30(sometimes more) eighth grade students in English instruction. Their actual reading levels varied widely from Kindergarten to actually being on an eighth grade level.

At lunch time, we gathered in the teachers’ lounge. I heated up my lunch in the microwave that usually had mouse droppings right next to it.

This was my first experience in a “professional” working environment.

To say this experience gave me great perspective on what a hard day’s work looks like for teachers — would be an understatement.

The Choice

Someone to look up to

Just months before landing in Southwest Philadelphia, I was walking the halls of Congress while working in then-Senator Barack Obama’s office. My first day was the day he announced he’d be running for president. I remember stepping over the swarms of press to get into his office that day. It was an incredible time. I had a front-row seat to history.

I watched my colleagues in the office jostle for positions on the campaign. Some went to Iowa, others to New Hampshire. Some moved over to the DC campaign office across the street near Union Station. As my time there came to an end, I had a choice. I could go to Iowa and bust my hump getting coffee for high-level staffers, knocking on doors, and generally being a part of a historic campaign. Or I could go teach kids in Southwest Philadelphia as part of a national service program. Being raised by two veterans, I chose national service as a teacher.

If we’re being honest, had I worked on the campaign, I’d probably be better positioned to run for Congress today. But I was never out to set myself up for political office.

I wouldn’t give up those years spent working with those brilliant, beautiful children for anything in this world. Seeing that historic election through their eyes, feeling that pride alongside them and their families is something I could never sacrifice.

I learned more about public policy and what it means to make families whole during those years teaching than in any textbook I’ve ever read or university course I’ve ever taken.

The Work

The hard work of teaching reading

We had days when the snow was so bad that teachers could barely drive to school safely, yet the school district wouldn’t close the schools because kids wouldn’t eat otherwise. I had things stolen from off my desk. I had my car broken into. I had to break up fist fights — and take a few punches while doing it.

Every time something like this happened, I had to remind myself that however bad I had it, my struggles paled in comparison to what our kids were going through on a daily basis. That’s why the service mattered.

I wasn’t a martyr and I certainly wasn’t a saint, but I was there for those kids and their families — every day.

I moved some kids up two grade levels in reading in a single year (ask an English teacher, that is hard to do). I started the school’s first debate team and we won at the citywide level with a team dominated by powerful young women. I served as the school’s building representative for the local teacher’s union and did my utmost to ensure the best possible working conditions for teachers. I led our effort to institute a school breakfast program when we realized kids were coming to school hungry and therefore had a hard time learning.

I did my best to make a difference in a tough situation. Then I built on my experience as a teacher. I went on to design and lead innovative new schools and nonprofits that serve young people and their families.

I’ve spent my career pushing the boundaries of what our public systems can do to support families.

The Future of Service

Mayor Nutter in support of our debate club

I come to this race for Pennsylvania’s 7th District congressional seat not as a career politician, but as a public servant.

My record isn’t situated in the statehouse nor lobbying powerful interests in Washington. I’m not a Harrisburg insider. And I’m certainly not a DC insider. My record comes from hard work in communities, in schools, and on the ground where families are striving to makes ends meet every single day.

That’s the record of public service I’ll take with me to Congress. We frankly need fewer lobbyists, lawyers, and career politicians serving in Congress because the “same old ways” just aren’t working anymore. The game is rigged against middle class families and we need someone with on-the-ground experience solving problems alongside families to represent us in Congress.

I’m ready to do what I’ve always done — help kids and families get what they need to thrive. I look forward to taking that work to the halls of Congress.