Today we’d like to introduce you to Valerie Braimah.
Valerie, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I’ve been involved in education since the late 90’s. I went into it thinking I would be a policy wonk, but my first real job advising on education funding quickly schooled me on how much I did not know about what works for kids, and why. I’d never worked in schools, and my research and theories weren’t grounded in reality. Now, over 20 years later I still think one of the enduring problems in public education is that the people doing the reforming have not been in the trenches – they have ideas of what should work, but no real understanding of how their policies land on the ground. On the flip side, those of us in the trenches often get overwhelmed by the day-to-day and lose perspective on broader issues. In every job I’ve held, I’ve tried to be the person who could bridge the policy and practice worlds, and spark more grounded, imaginative, and impactful policy and practice.
So I went into the trenches, teaching 3rd grade in Oakland public schools (talk about being overwhelmed!). I probably learned more from my years in the classroom than from anything I have done before or since. After a few years of teaching, I was called back to do bigger picture work in education, and have since been an educational program director, researcher, evaluator, and consultant. For six years I did teacher professional development and school turnaround work, and the view I got into the inner-workings of dozens of schools and districts has also deeply informed my appreciation for how hard and complex this work really is.
For the past 6 years I’ve been the Executive Director at City Charter Schools. I took this role because I was so inspired by what the principals and teachers had created in our two schools – The City School and City Language Immersion Charter. They have designed schools that are intentionally diverse – reflecting the full economic, ethnic, and racial diversity of our city. We focus on creating inclusive and equitable learning environments where all students are valued, safe, seen and connected, and can navigate across lines of difference to work, learn, and play with others. I believe our schools, with a handful of other intentionally integrated schools locally and nationally, are helping to develop next-generation leaders who understand that everyone has different lived experiences, and that those experiences are equally valid and worthy. We are trying to interrupt bias and systemic discrimination of all kinds by developing a generation of thinkers who have an equity and inclusion lens, and who are prepared to lead socially and academically.
Has it been a smooth road?
Is it ever a smooth road? A lot of my early career struggles were with finding the right role, both in terms of where I could have the greatest impact, and also finding organizations that I felt aligned with in terms of the management style, theory of action, etc. Although there was a lot I loved about teaching 3rd grade (and later high school), I would get really frustrated when the students I had invested in so deeply, and in some cases really broken through to, would succeed or fail after they left my classroom for arbitrary reasons out of their control – an uncaring 4th grade teacher, an unsupportive foster care system, and unsafe community, I could go on… When people found out I taught in East Oakland, they’d ask if the kids were “so tough to deal with.” What they did not get is that the kids themselves are miracles of resilience, showing up every day despite so many odds stacked against them. Though I wanted to have that direct impact, be a force for good in their lives – I also felt frustrated by the limits of my impact, teaching one class of 20-25 kids per year. I knew I wanted to expand my impact.
There are so many factors that interfere with the best efforts and intentions of all educators. Before taking my current role, I kept encountering the hierarchy and bureaucracy that has become so common in education, it’s like the air we breathe. In my current role I am determined to prove that we can do better. I just keep asking myself: “Would I want to work in the organization I lead?”
This job is a lot like the first experience I had surfing in large waves: paddle, paddle, paddle, paddle…boom! You get knocked back to shore by a huge wave. Every day I keep trying to get past the break, and I’ve kind of come to expect the big surf, and not be so surprised whenever it comes crashing down. Weirdly, when you set that expectation, you can sort of enjoy the ride more, no matter what gets thrown at you. It’s been an interesting lesson in the relationship between hope, resilience, and determination.
So let’s switch gears a bit and go into the City Charter Schools story. Tell us more about the business.
CITY CHARTER SCHOOLS operates two progressive, high-achieving, project-based charter schools that serve a student body reflective of the full range of socioeconomic, cultural, and racial diversity in Los Angeles. City Language Immersion Charter (CLIC) offers TK-5th-grade students an innovative, dual language immersion program (Spanish/English). The City School offers a student-centered, problem and project-based curriculum in a safe and supportive community.
The founding philosophy of both schools is to fully know and support the whole child, regardless of where they fall on the spectrum of social, emotional, physical, or cognitive ability. In 2017-18 we were recognized as one of 125 diverse by design charter schools, https://tcf.org/content/report/diverse-design-charter-schools/, and as national leaders in the social-emotional development of a diverse student body (http://selforteachers.org/city-charter-schools-los-angeles/).
DIVERSITY – We build intentionally diverse, welcoming, and equitable learning communities where
students and staff develop self-awareness and cultural competence to build a better world.
COMMUNITY – We focus on relationships, social and emotional skills development to build a strong, safe, and supportive community.
EXCELLENCE – Instruction inspires curiosity, and builds critical skills and deeper thinking to close achievement gaps.
How do you think the industry will change over the next decade?
The bottom line is that we have to evolve or become totally irrelevant, and I hope we can collectively revolutionize public education in the next 5-10 years. When I think about my own kids, aged 5 and 11, I feel even more urgency about the need for schools that spark joy, creativity, imagination, and social responsibility. The evidence about what works is abundant. Unfortunately, our field is still stuck in the 1920s – designed for an era of industrialization, not for the 21st-century global society. Additionally, public education, 65 years after Brown v. Board of Education is still beset by institutional racism and the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”
If we do things right, education systems will open the door for deeper and more creative thinking by students, and we will figure out how to better integrate schools while improving outcome equity for all students. There are tons of islands of excellence – schools that are innovating with tech, internships, and project-based learning, and schools that are closing opportunity gaps for all students. But that is still far from being the norm. Will we get there in the next 5-10 years? There are a lot of entrenched lobbies and special interests that like the status quo in education. So it’s an uphill battle for sure. But the ideas and the innovative leaders are out there doing the work, and I’m all in this fight, trying to do my small part.
- Our schools are tuition-free public schools
- Address: 5753 W. Obama Blvd.
- Website: www.citycharterschools.org
- Email: email@example.com
- Instagram: citycharterschoolsla
- Facebook: /togetherweclic & /CityCharterSchool
- Twitter: @cityschoolsLA