The best part about working at Democracy Prep — you are not just thinking about narrowing the achievement gap, you are thinking about the macro implications of what you are actually trying to accomplish, what is your theory of change and how is this going to manifest in real life. When you see that active citizenship take shape, you see our alumni off in college becoming powerful agents of change on their college campuses, advocating for the changes they want to see, for themselves, for their neighbors, that’s powerful stuff.
Name: Benjamin Feit
Profession: Chief of Staff, Democracy Prep Public Schools
Location: Harlem, New York
Chief of Staff is an awesome title. Tell us about your path to your current role.
I graduated law school in 2010. I clerked for a federal appellate court judge in Philadelphia for a term after law school. I had taken the bar. I was all set to move back to New York for a big law firm job where I had interned during a summer of law school. But, it was not what I really wanted to do. I had mostly talked myself through law school. I rationalized law school by telling myself that it’s a good intellectual exercise, you are challenging yourself, your degree is transferrable, all those things that you can tell yourself. But, then I found it increasingly difficult to deviate from that path.
During that year that I spent clerking, I was looking for other roles and dreading going to that legal job. But, having failed to find an alternative, I showed up at the firm job in November 2011. I lasted about a week before I made the decision to leave. It was a really interesting day. I went office to office to say goodbye and kept hearing from folks who wistfully spoke about a point in their professional lives where they had reached a similar crossroads.
The year I had been in Philadelphia, I met people who were Teach for America alumni and at charter school networks. It was my first exposure to people doing education reform work. I was floating on the periphery of that world. And when I launched myself into a job search, it turned out that I had a strong connection to that world. A kid who I knew from camp – I was his camp counselor back in the day – he was an undergrad at Duke while I was at law school there. I was talking to his mom, who turned out to be a kindred spirit of mine. She’d also gone to law school and she told me I should talk to this guy who launched a charter school in Harlem, who used to babysit her children, including my camper. So, it was a random connection that I had to Seth Andrew, the founder of Democracy Prep.
I went to Democracy Prep for an interview. It was still very much in startup mode. It was the start of the 2011-2012 school year. There were four campuses and 1,000 kids. They were building capacity at the network at the time. Seth introduced me to Katie Duffy, who was the Chief of Staff at the time and would become CEO and my boss. He said that I had no discernible skills, I don’t know what he would do here, but I like him, so maybe we can work something out. I feel incredibly fortunate that opportunity came about at that time to join Democracy Prep. It has been amazing. So, I came in as a really nebulous role as Policy Manager. I worked on accountability projects, worked with the Board of Trustees, did grants and cultivated partnerships. It was creating a lot of reports for funders, regulators, the stakeholders and getting exposed to the landscape. That’s where I was for a few months. Then, I was Assistant Director of Strategy and Development and Deputy Chief of Staff and here I am now.
What projects do you focus on today as Chief of Staff?
I wear a lot of hats. The traditional conception is that you are the CEO’s right hand. That’s certainly part of it. I am a thought partner and represent the CEO. We have expanded to have schools in other locations. It’s hard for one person to be everywhere. I serve as her agent in conversations, representing her.
Internally, we provide shared instructional and operational services to the schools. We have 11 schools in New York. We’re also in Camden, D.C. and Baton Rouge. At the network, I’m responsible for external accountability. That’s a lot of our expansion work, when we are contemplating going into new markets through pre-opening start-up and ongoing operating support. I also have school operations, tech support, and data management on my team. Externally, I work with the folks who are policymakers, charter school authorizers, stakeholders in other regions that are trying to convince Democracy Prep to open there, partner organizations, and Boards of Trustees.
Now, we have 5,000 kids at our schools. Each of the places we open has their unique flavor, considerations and their own spin. It’s a whole new accountability regime to understand. It’s a new ecosystem.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
The coolest part is seeing how something can go from words on paper to something that takes shape, that has a pulse and a heartbeat. When you are starting a school or turning around an underperforming school, you are trying to provide those students with a more reliable path to being successful. You are coming in and have a vision. Then, you get all the approvals and do all that leg work – the leader hires a staff, you are recruiting kids, then they have a building and it’s actually taking shape – there’s excitement and energy. It’s incredible. From there, we provide ongoing support to those schools as they mature and evolve from startups to excellent schools in their own right.
Describe to us what it’s like to work with the students.
I love working with the students. I taught a senior civics seminar for two years in our flagship high school. Our mission is both to educate our students to be successful in college and to be active citizens. This seminar is the intersection of both of those areas.
The coolest part is when you get to see the mission really come to life in that pay-it-forward kind of way. When we were applying for authorization to open our school in D.C., fifteen of our high schoolers traveled from Harlem to D.C. to testify at that public hearing. That’s among the civic skills that are a graduation requirement for our kids. They have to testify on the record at a public hearing, lobby their elected officials, make calls at a phone bank, register voters and exhibit all these civic skills before they graduate.
So, you’re in D.C., and you see students wearing this uniform who want to talk about their educational experience. They are able to explain why other students should be afforded access to similar educational opportunities notwithstanding the neighborhood in which they live. The public testimony showed how much they profoundly cared about kids they don’t know. They were so poised and composed at 16 years old. It’s always powerful to see how our students and our parents are our network’s most authentic advocates.
That’s the best part about working at Democracy Prep — you are not just thinking about narrowing the achievement gap, you are thinking about the macro implications of what you are actually trying to accomplish, what is your theory of change and how is this going to manifest in real life. When you see that active citizenship take shape, you see our alumni off in college becoming powerful agents of change on their college campuses, advocating for the changes they want to see, for themselves, for their neighbors, that’s powerful stuff.
What are some of the challenges of your role?
It’s hard work, especially if you are doing a turnaround. It’s where we have built an organizational reputation. We did New York State’s first turnaround of a charter school that had consistently underperformed and was going to be closed down. We came in and took over a school that had been operating for ten years and instituted our model. We did it in Harlem and then again in the Bronx, New Jersey, and D.C. Those are incredibly hard projects. They are really labor intensive and you have to maintain the right attitude.
I have the utmost respect for our teachers who are in the classrooms every day to make sure they hold a high bar and do everything they can to support the kids to be successful. It can be difficult some days not to feel the weight of everything that isn’t perfect yet. It’s really different than starting a school from scratch. The turnarounds are exceptionally difficult. They require a weird mix of urgency and patience. I’m glad we continue to them because it’s important work.
Who inspires you to do the work that you do?
Our teachers are incredible. They have such a difficult job. The amount that is expected of them is inhuman. Not just the hours, but the skill sets they must possess to be master lesson planners and managers of classrooms and communicators with parents. Their patience is significant. They see the deep potential of all the students in the classroom. It makes my work so much easier. I respect them so much.
Of course, the students are a natural inspiration. Many of them have significant barriers in their paths, but they are undaunted. They are so resilient and durable and able to overcome a lot of structural and personal hardships that would derail a lot of children. Seeing that kind of perseverance in the face of that adversity has to motivate adults to bring their best to work every day.
Looking back, what was your first connection to philanthropy?
I started volunteer coaching sports teams in high school. I coached a basketball team at the Boys and Girls Club and a Senior League baseball team where I was 16 and the players were 13 or 14. The age gap was pretty narrow. It was hard to have legitimate authority over kids who are just a few years younger. But, it was a lot of fun. It felt great. When I got to law school, I was presented with pro bono legal opportunities. But, they felt so contrived. So I just drove myself to the YMCA because I preferred to engage the community, it felt more sincere. I coached baseball, basketball and soccer in Durham. It’s not quite the same as the work I’m doing now, but it led me down this path.
What advice do you have for other people to find their passion?
For me, I just wasn’t aware that this universe existed. If you are restricting your search to traditional paths, if the entirety of your job search is University Career Services, they may have their own motivations to push you in a certain direction. I did something that was foolhardy, quitting a job and not knowing what’s next. If you have that risk tolerance and sense that something might work out if you pursue a certain path, then you should do that. To know yourself and to know what is going to work for you is important. I wasn’t going to make the law firm life work out. It would have been riskier for me to stay there than to do something else. You have to be self aware enough to know what it is that you want to pursue it.
How can we see your work in action?
We’re always welcoming people to come see our schools. We have an open door policy. If you want to schedule a tour to come see what’s happening there, it demystifies all the misconceptions. Seeing the school in action is the most important thing that anyone should do. Come to Harlem, to the South Bronx, to Southeast D.C., and get to generally understand that this work is possible. Go see a classroom, go see a school. It will inspire you.