From Service to Organizing: The Story of Sapientis

February 18, 2010

After graduating from the Kennedy School in 2001, Kristin Ehrgood moved to Puerto Rico with her (now) husband, Vadim Nikitine, with the ambition to set up a Teach for America–like program. She had spent 10 years with Teach for America before returning to graduate school. Her last job had been director of new site development, so she had seen the challenges of penetrating multiple school districts with this educational innovation firsthand. The educational system in Puerto Rico has as much need for talent and reform as any U.S. state, so a TFA model, which was named Sapientis, should have been a good fit. In fact, recruiting, selecting and supporting good teachers is one of the top challenges of the system. Despite recruiting excellent people to be teachers, after several years, Kristin and the Sapientis staff had to give up on this strategy. The system for assigning teachers simply could not accommodate this innovation, and the Department of Education was not inclined to help.
So Sapientis turned its attention to the source of the problem—the system itself. Sapientis's purpose from the beginning was to build a diverse and informed network of change agents who actively exercise leadership to improve the quality of public education. The organization just changed how it was building its network and who the people in the network should be. Sapientis’s belief is that change will occur in Puerto Rico when every sector is engaged and focused on improving the quality of public education. This change is consistent with the organization's assessment of why education reform does not happen. The system works well for the adults who are part of it—more pay, fewer hours, with plenty of job security. The adults are well organized and politically powerful, benefit from the status quo, and therefore fight hard to maintain it. Finally, the victims of the failing system—primarily low-income, minority children and their parents—are the most marginalized and least organized.
So Sapientis is now in the movement-building business. Its programs focus on recruiting and encouraging allies to fund advocacy, speak to politicians with voice and money, and help to organize parents. Over the past year, Sapientis has embarked on a very focused and ambitious organizing project called the Coalition for Equity and Quality Education (CECE by its Spanish acronym). First CECE recruited 60 volunteers, who were trained in organizing, advocacy, and education reform principles and proposals. It then paired these people up with each member of the Puerto Rican legislature to inform and mobilize for reform. While this was underway, the newly elected governor installed a new Secretary of Education, and both individuals agreed to participate in CECE. CECE is comprised of public school parents and students, legislators, representatives from the governor’s office, representatives from the Secretary of Education’s office, higher education, and business. CECE has recently made recommendations to the governor and the Secretary of Education with a clear, step-by-step process to bring lasting and meaningful reform to education. By mobilizing people from different groups, Sapientis has the opportunity to influence the development of education policy for the next era at the right time and at the highest level.
The political activity and policy discussions are underway right now, and Kristin and the Sapientis staff do not know how it will all turn out. But it is quite clear that this train would have left these reformers at the station were they not poised and ready with significant capacity and evidence of the potential for political pressure.
Monday's post: Striking a Balance Between Supply and Demand.
Tuesday's post: Perhaps Change Starts at Home: University Outreach Programs.

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