Lakenna Booker

2017 BES Fellow

Lakenna Booker of Memphis, Tennessee is a highly motivated instructional leader with over ten years of experience as an educator.

Lakenna’s wealth of experience makes her particularly attuned to the needs and cultures of her students and their shared community. She earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Tennessee at Martin and a master’s degree in teaching with an emphasis in instruction, curriculum, and leadership from the University of Memphis. While working towards her master’s, Lakenna studied with the Memphis Content Literacy Academy, working to improve quality literacy integration into core subjects. With a desire to have a greater impact on the educational community, she obtained her Instructional Leadership License for the state of Tennessee from Christian Brothers University.

Following her experience at turnaround schools, Lakenna joined the founding staffs of both KIPP Memphis, as a teacher leader, and Gestalt Community Schools, as Dean of Instruction of Humes Preparatory Academy Middle and Nexus STEM Academy Middle. To further her impact, she published The 5Es of Inquiry Based Science for both students and teachers, and coaches fellow educators inside and outside of school. Moved from a young age by the inconsistency of education, Lakenna believes in the intentional and deliberate practice of data-driven decision making to accomplish student achievement goals.

As she works to found and lead a charter school for the community of Memphis, Tennessee, her mantra is simple: “Do what is best for students.”

“As a Memphis native, I am a product of the public school system. In the eighth grade I had the opportunity to attend Phillips Exeter Academy on a scholarship for the summer. I realized the education I was receiving did not compare to the education other students were receiving. I want to change this for Memphis. Every child deserves the opportunity of a high-quality education.``

Elisa Cundiff

2017 BES Fellow

Elisa Cundiff is an accomplished educator driven by outcomes: unsurprising, given her extensive background in technology and business.

Following her graduation from New York University’s Tisch School with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Dramatic Writing, Elisa found herself at technology startup Thrive, working on product development and financial literacy. In 2011, Elisa relocated to New Mexico, where she served as the founding Executive Director of the Las Cruces Green Chamber of Commerce, which grew into a state-wide organization with over 500 members by its second year.

In 2013, Elisa focused on bringing critical skills and opportunities to Las Cruces High School, a high-poverty, Title 1 school, as a computer science, video game design, and media teacher. She grew the school’s computer science program, earned a Google CS4HS grant to design a computational thinking curriculum for her district, taught Java at a summer course aimed at young women in computing, and served on a team developing programming language to teach blind students coding. In 2014, Elisa was honored at the White House as “one of the 100 SuperStar Computer Science teachers in the US.” In 2017, she was recognized by the National Center for Women in Technology as the NCWIT Educator Award winner for Southern New Mexico and was recognized by the Greater Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce as the Young Professional of the Month for her contributions to education in New Mexico.

Elisa’s mission to “ensure students are consistently challenged and constantly succeed at their highest ability” drives her to found and lead a charter school in New Mexico.

“I am passionate about education, and I am also interested in how to improve and iterate on better ways to prepare young people to succeed in a rapidly changing world. True equity is achieved by giving young people the highest quality education possible, something I am committed to.”

Ambika Dani

2017 BES Fellow

Ambika Dani discovered the impact of a good education at 14 years old, in Lagos, Nigeria, when she gathered a group of underserved children to help supplement the education they were receiving: “I became keenly aware of the disparities in access to quality education and devoted myself to remedying this grave injustice.”

Ambika comes from a strong mathematics background. During her undergraduate years at Columbia, she provided SAT tutoring and additional after-school support to low-income students on a volunteer basis. Following her graduation with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, she spent six years teaching the subject to various grades in both charter and private schools. These opportunities helped her recognize high-quality, effective instruction and made her further appreciate how rare it is. Most recently, Ambika was the SAT Math Team Lead at UWorld, where she developed a product to provide students with low-cost, high-quality SAT prep material to level the playing-field for low income test-takers.

Ambika will continue to fight against the disparities that have driven her as an educator, through the high-quality, college-preparatory charter school she will found and lead for the students of San Antonio, Texas.

“I emphatically believe that access to high-quality education is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty for many low-income families, and that it is a fundamental right for all children. My time as an educator has shown me the powerful, positive impact that a school and the people involved in that school can make on the life of a child. I truly believe that there is nothing more important than helping children succeed.”

Annette Dawson Owens

2017 BES Fellow

Annette Dawson Owens is a driven and determined educator who works hard for her students both inside and outside of the classroom.

Annette received her Bachelor of Science in Zoology from Brigham Young University and her Master in Education from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She then embarked on a twenty-year teaching career, lighting up middle-school classrooms in charter schools and public schools all over the Clark County School District. Most often, she has served in middle schools, teaching mathematics to fifth and sixth graders.

Annette’s focus on the education and development of her students extends beyond the classroom. At Glen Taylor Elementary School she improved students’ math skills through a free after-school program. At Lamping Elementary School, Pinecrest Inspirada Middle School, and Silvestri Junior High School, she encouraged students to stay fit with volleyball intramurals, run clubs, and grant-funded gardening programs.

Tireless in the reorganization efforts of the Clark County School District, Annette sits on two School Organizational Teams, is a member of Henderson’s Community Education Advisory Board, and is finishing up her Administration Endorsement from Sierra Nevada College.

Committed to students, Annette aims to ensure that every student at her high-performing Las Vegas charter school has the opportunity to engage in an excellent education every day.

“In Nevada we have been at the bottom for a very long time. I want our students to have the very best and be the very best they can be. This is my mission: to further education and help every child I can succeed and achieve. I eat, sleep, and breathe it and am excited for the changes coming to my community.”

Cary Finnegan

2017 BES Fellow

Cary Finnegan joins The Fellowship with a strong understanding of the intersectional impact that history, policy, and politics have on the education landscape in our country.

Cary began her teaching career as a Teach For America Corps member in Hartford, Connecticut, teaching at a K-8 school just a few miles away from where she grew up. Selected as grade-level team leader in her second year, she learned the importance of data-driven decision making and instructional leadership. Following her residency with TFA, Cary attended Teachers College, Columbia University where she received her Master in Education Policy.

As a Program Manager with New Leaders, an education nonprofit focused on training and developing excellent school leaders, she collaborated with district leadership from Newark Public Schools in creating principal evaluation and development tools. Cary returned to the classroom as a third-grade teacher, working at Match Community Day School in Boston, Achievement First Endeavor Elementary School in Brooklyn, and Democracy Prep Harlem Prep Elementary School, a high-performing BES school in New York City. These opportunities exposed her to high-functioning, high-achieving charter networks and strong schools, as well as experience in literacy planning, curriculum development, and data.

These skills were invaluable when she moved to DC and became a Program Director for the Center for Social Justice Research, Teaching, and Service, where she directed the DC Reads program; a literacy tutoring program. She also ran the Summer Institute of Teaching and Learning, an immersive teacher training program for students considering careers in education. She travels around the country to elementary schools to train and support teachers in implementing high-quality literacy instruction in their classrooms.

Cary will remain in New York and put all of her skills and experience to work as she founds and leads a high-impact charter school for the city’s students.

“I have seen the ways in which models of design, efforts of reform, and pedagogical approaches to instructional and behavioral management practice have an immense impact on the successes and failures of the students they serve. The thoughtful and strategic design of a school and the successful implementation of the vision, mission and purpose, can make all the difference in how a child perceives school, themselves, and their community.”

Mitchell Flax

2017 BES Fellow

A talented, analytical educator, Mitchell Flax has a proven track record for providing the targeted instruction and extra attention students need to succeed.

Mitchell joined Teach For America in 2009, following his graduation from Columbia University with a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Mathematics. He spent the summer of 2010 in New York City supporting the operations for two school sites, but his two-year post was in Oakland, California. Out west, Mitchell taught algebra and geometry at Skyline High School. Under his direction, his students’ test scores increased significantly, earning him the nomination as a leading math teacher, acceptance into the Oakland Mathematics Leadership Network, and service on the district’s Common Core Standards Task Force. Mitchell’s drive led to his development and implementation of an intervention system targeting struggling students. Collaborating with three colleagues, Mitchell halted the downward spiral of six students, helping to reverse their failing grades.

After completing his assignment with TFA, Mitchell worked in People Analytics at Google, doing applied research on the drivers of happiness, health, and productivity for Google employees. In 2014 he headed back to the classroom, teaching biology and computer science at Leadership Public Schools in Richmond, California, while leading the ninth grade team, the science department, and the biology course team for the LPS network of schools.

Mitchell will return to New York City, where he will found and lead a rigorous charter school to inspire and educate the next generation of innovators.

“Our kids hold tremendous human capital to make our world better, and the achievement gap holds them back from sharing it. Because our urban schools don’t serve students the way they should, we have millions of people who could be great innovators, businesspeople, or researchers that never meet their full potential.”

Andrew Foglia

2017 BES Fellow

A native of Westchester County, New York, Andrew Foglia comes from a family of educators. However, it was not until his two years at a Newark, New Jersey school as a member of Teach For America that he discovered the “profound injustices” in education that now drive him to found and lead a high-performing charter school. After his time with TFA, Andrew returned to school and earned a master’s in education, focused on education leadership, from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

Andrew joined Phoenix Academy in Chelsea, Massachusetts as a Leadership Fellow and Math Department Chair, overseeing school processes, supervising the math department, and improving upon data collection and use. He then became an assistant principal and math teacher at Success Academy Charter Schools in New York City. Under his tutelage, Andrew’s students performed in the top one percent and top two percent on the math and English language arts state assessments, respectively, across New York State.

Andrew now returns to the Empire State to found and lead an impactful charter school for the students of New York City.

“The commitment we make to providing a college-preparatory education for our scholars is also a commitment that we make to their families. It must be the school leader’s priority to ensure all members of the staff view parents as critical stakeholders and partners in our scholars’ academic achievement.”

Neena Goswamy

2017 BES Fellow

Neena Goswamy credits a high school mentor for fostering her growth and putting her on the path to college. In 2011, Neena joined Teach For America after receiving a Bachelor of Arts in International Studies and Gender Studies from the University of Washington. As a ninth and eleventh grade literature teacher at Muchin College Prep High School, she designed a curriculum infused with culturally sensitive literature and themes appropriate for her 100 percent minority student population. This effort paid off, and she found herself in the shoes of her high school mentor: providing her students with coaching, improving test scores, and inspiring them to strive for college.

Following her time at Muchin, Neena joined the KIPP Bloom Campus in Chicago, Illinois, as a founding humanities teacher for fifth grade. Her high expectations and history of improved scores followed her to KIPP, where 82 percent of her students’ reading scores improved by two grade levels. In addition to her academic work, she designed and founded systems at KIPP to foster school-wide social engagement. She left in 2014, working as an Associate Project Manager and Developer for an investment company, and as the Director of Growth for EDpuzzle, a video platform promoting student engagement.

Neena will return to the classroom with her high-expectations approach as she founds and leads a charter school in the Bay Area, California.

“The system fails students when it does not hold them to high expectations. Students respond to high expectations that are reinforced with praise and consequences. Strong classroom and school-wide systems must show that every action has a reaction and every success is earned. This approach holds students accountable and allows them to develop a laser focus on academic goals.”

Nishita Gupte

2017 BES Fellow

Nishita Gupte is a forward-thinking educator who arms her students with an education for the real world.

After receiving a Bachelor of Science in Economics from the University of Pennsylvania, Nishita moved into the finance field with roles in investment banking at Goldman Sachs and at a private equity firm. She then returned to school, pursuing a Master of Business Administration and a Master of Arts in Education at Stanford University. Nishita put her degree to good use, joining Aspire Public Schools in Oakland, California and then The New Schools Venture Fund in San Francisco.

In 2011, Nishita was the founding COO of Touchstone Education (now a part of Matchbook Learning), where she helped to open a blended learning charter school in Newark, New Jersey. Nishita helped design and lead the school’s operations, IT, HR, and finance functions from charter authorization to a full-scale middle school. Nishita currently serves as a design consultant for Achievement First’s Greenfield School Design Team, tasked with creating an innovative new school model for Achievement First. With a focus on accelerated academics, habits of success, excellence in enrichment and expeditions, and an awesomely powerful community, the Greenfield model includes increased ownership and personalized learning for students. As Chief of Staff, Nishita leads project management, knowledge management, human capital, budget, and data and evaluation.

Nishita plans to found and lead a rigorous charter school in New York City, with a student body of “active and engaged citizens” ready for the future.

“Education is the most important lever we have to make an impact in the world and shape a more positive future. I do this work to help close the achievement gap and to ensure that every child has the knowledge, skills, and opportunities to
improve themselves and the world around them.”

Sakshi Jain

2017 BES Fellow

Sakshi Jain wants to provide all children with an exceptional education, “regardless of their race, socio-economic background, or zip code.”

Sakshi holds a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and Education from UCLA and began her career in education while earning her Master in Counseling at Loyola Marymount University. After obtaining her degree, she transitioned into the nonprofit sector, first as a Site Director, then as the Academic Program Director of South Asian Youth Action (SAYA), where she designed and implemented a successful college advisory program tailored to the cultural needs of the population served by SAYA.

Her experience at SAYA led her to Success Academy Charter Schools in New York City, where she later became Assistant Principal at the only high school in the network. She led the math department to develop a rigorous and engaging curriculum. While at Success Academy she earned a Master of Science in Education and Special Education from Touro College. Most recently, Sakshi served as the Assistant Principal at Alliance Alice M. Baxter College-Ready High School in San Pedro, California, coaching and evaluating 13 teachers.

With over a decade of school experience in counseling, teaching, and leadership, Sakshi is ready to take on education, the “civil rights issue of our generation.” Through her high-expectations charter school in Los Angeles, California, Sakshi will provide students with a thorough education that affords opportunities and freedom not otherwise possible.

“Education is the great equalizer and as an educator I want to fight until equality becomes reality. Students in underserved communities are bombarded with messages that they cannot achieve at the same level as students in other schools and communities and that college is not for ‘people like them.’ Our students internalize these messages. My school will work to change that self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Ambrosia Johnson

2017 BES Fellow

Ambrosia Johnson fearlessly pursues what sets her soul on fire: ensuring that every child has an equal opportunity to succeed.

A native of Brooklyn, New York, Ambrosia has seen more stories of failure than stories of success for children that reside in the inner city. Driven by this injustice, she pursued a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and Education at Bryn Mawr College and a Master of Education from the Relay Graduate School of Education. Following her undergraduate schooling, Ambrosia joined UnCommon Schools as a Lead K and first grade teacher at North Star Academy. She has remained on the UnCommon team ever since, serving as a kindergarten teacher and phonics instructional coach at Excellence Girls Charter School, a K-8 school in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. This past summer she was honored for her work at Excellence Girls, earning the distinction of ‘Teacher of the Year’ from the Community Board Three Subcommittee of Education and Youth.

In addition to her work with UnCommon, Ambrosia is an On-Camera Teacher for ZEARN, an online math program that teaches through digital lessons and small group instruction. She also recently returned to her alma mater, Relay Graduate School of Education, as an Adjunct Professor, teaching and coaching first-year teachers.

It is with fierce determination and a relentless spirit that Ambrosia plans to found and lead a high-performing charter school in Brooklyn, New York, where students, pushed to their highest potential, will feel academically challenged, loved, and protected.

“My work is urgent. In an environment where students are encouraged, loved, celebrated, and supported, they will continue to rise to the rigorous expectations set by our school. It is our responsibility to impress upon them that they are capable and deserving of success. There should be no mitigating factor that plants a seed of doubt or unworthiness in a student, as they are all more than deserving of a high-quality education.”

Teshanda Middleton

2017 BES Fellow

Teshanda Middleton is a data-driven educator dedicated to spreading the gift of literacy. She received her undergraduate degree in elementary education from Jackson State University and her graduate degree in curriculum and instruction from Union University. Teshanda began her education career in 2002 as a teacher in Memphis, Tennessee. With experience in both public and charter school settings, she has consistently led her students to achieve proficiency on Tennessee state assessments.

Her passion for literacy led her to Scholastic Incorporated and later Achieve3000, where she served many years as a senior project manager and an implementation manager. Her work resulted in increased literacy performance through professional development centered in adaptive technology and best practices in building literacy capacities. She has also served as a teacher development coach with the Achievement School district, observing and analyzing teachers at work and collaborating with school leadership to create a system of best practices and targeted feedback to further improve teaching skills.

With many years of experience under her belt, Teshanda is now ready to found and lead a high-impact charter school in Memphis, Tennessee.

“I believe all students deserve a quality education that will ensure a quality life, starting with having the foundation needed for college and career readiness; I believe this work plays an integral role in ending cycles of generational poverty; and I believe the time to close the education inequality gap is now.”

Courtney Rodriguez Sales

2017 BES Fellow

Courtney Rodriguez Sales comes from an extensive and varied background that has always had the same focus: helping children.

Courtney received a Bachelor of Arts in Crime, Law, and Justice from Pennsylvania State University. She then took a position with Teach For America, instructing a fifth grade classroom in her hometown of Bronx, New York. She led her students to achieve over two years of reading growth in one instructional year. The inequities she witnessed inspired Courtney to obtain a Juris Doctor Degree from The Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University, which she hoped to use to “dismantle the system” she felt deprived students of a good education. She became an Assistant Public Defender in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, representing juveniles in the criminal justice system.

Two years later, she chose to return to the place she felt she could make the most impact: schools. In her position as the Project Manager for the Pittsburgh Public School District’s Department of Professional Development, she developed and managed a number of district initiatives. Additionally, Courtney supported school administrators in the creation of professional development plans aimed at building the capacity of teachers and producing academic achievement for students.

Having fought on behalf of children in the boardroom, the courtroom, and the classroom, Courtney is ready to found and lead a high-performing charter school in Houston, Texas.

“Serving as a teacher gave me the tools to manage a classroom, plan meticulously, and be reflective in my practice. Most importantly, serving as a teacher exposed me to one of the greatest injustices of our time - the achievement gap that exists between students of color and their white peers. This experience was the catalyst for my drive to impact the lives of children moving forward.”

Ben Samuels-Kalow

2017 BES Fellow

Ben Samuels-Kalow discovered his passion for education while attending school at the University of Chicago. After witnessing inequalities in student opportunities and odds-defying success
of high-achieving schools in the South Side of Chicago where he was conducting research and founding a writing lab for high school students, Ben was inspired to pursue a career in education. After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Public Policy, he joined the New York City Teaching Residency with a five-year commitment.

While teaching in the South Bronx, Ben founded a computer science program now used as a model by district and charter schools across the city. As a teacher in the highest-poverty district in New York, he has developed curricula and after-school programs for students that focus
on increasing minority and female participation in STEM fields. Most recently, he worked as a Teacher Fellow for New York City’s CSforAll initiative, where he trained pre- and in-service teachers and collaborated with industry professionals on the expansion of CS programs to all students in New York City.

Ben will remain in New York City, to found and lead a high-performing charter school that will help fight the “flawed system.”

“I grew up in New York City, and I never attended my zoned school, because my family recognized flaws in a system that consigns too many students to inadequate schools. My parents and siblings impressed upon me how fortunate I was to attend these schools, and how unfair it was that it was a matter of fortune. I want to empower students in high-needs schools.”

Rachael Sewards

2017 BES Fellow

Rachael Sewards creates positive learning environments necessary for a student population to thrive.

Rachael was introduced to charter schools early in her career, when she headed to Memphis, Tennessee as a member of Teach For America in 2006. She taught sixth grade language arts at The Soulsville Charter School, during which time 94 percent of her students scored proficient or higher on the TCAP. Rachael moved to Columbus, Ohio and joined KIPP Journey Academy as a founding teacher. In 2011, she joined the team at The ASK Academy Charter School, a project-based STEM school in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, as a founding teacher in the middle school.

After four years at ASK, she began teaching middle school literacy at Cochiti Middle School, a rural, traditional public school. At Cochiti, her students have averaged 1.4 years of reading growth and a 1.845 value-added growth score on the PARCC assessment, earning her the distinction of Highly Effective on the rigorous New Mexico teacher evaluation system. In addition to teaching, Rachael participated in the inaugural New Mexico Teacher Leader Network, a group of the state’s most effective teachers working to foster clearer means of communication between the Public Education Department and classroom teachers.

There is still work to be done and Rachael is up for it, founding and leading a high-impact charter school in New Mexico.

“I believe that all students, regardless of their background or circumstances are capable of succeeding in the classroom, and deserve high quality classroom experiences. I believe that the achievement gap can be closed, with dedicated teachers and administrators putting students first. I believe that schools need to approach teaching of traditionally marginalized students with a ‘no-excuses’ attitude.”

Traci Thibodeaux

2017 BES Fellow

Traci Thibodeaux brings a unique and comprehensive approach to her work, with over 13 years of practical experience in both the education and business sectors. Rooted in her personal journey from poverty, she is committed to positively impacting the lives of youth in underserved communities through education.

Traci’s career began in the business sector. After graduating from The University of Texas at Austin with a Bachelor of Science, she worked in both finance and sales. In addition to her work as a computer developer, she analyzed financial, operational, and productivity results for PepsiCo and developed a successful personal financial advising practice with the Mass Mutual Financial Group. During this time she received her Master of Business Administration from The Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. Her career brought her to Chicago, Illinois, where her work refocused to education.

As a Strategic Project Manager, Traci led several high-profile initiatives at Chicago Public Schools, including the district’s implementation of the State Seal of Biliteracy, coordinating the district’s STEM strategy, and negotiating an extensive facilities management contract. Following her time with CPS, she earned her Master of Education with a focus on Educational Leadership and Administration from the Broad Center for the Management of School Systems. Most recently, Traci has been an education consultant working with both charter schools and large school districts to accomplish their goals.

Traci’s vision will take her to Houston, Texas, where she is driven to found and lead a charter school that will make a sustainable, long-term impact on students who need it most.

``There is no doubt in my mind that the great opportunities I have experienced in life are directly correlated to the fact that I had a high-quality K-12 education. Unfortunately, so many children are not afforded that same opportunity solely because of where they were born. I am motivated to work to ensure every child has access to a high quality school regardless of where they live.``

Cristina Urena

2017 BES Fellow

A New York City native, Cristina Urena is driven by the belief that every child deserves an excellent education and control over their future.

Cristina is a first-generation college student, raised by a single mother who immigrated to the US from the Dominican Republic. She was nominated by her peers to join the Albert G. Oliver Program, which serves to prepare high-achieving minority students for attendance at prestigious colleges. Attending Columbia University, she became even more aware of the academic achievement gap between minority students like herself and their affluent peers.

Inspired by former educators and determined to help close the academic achievement gap, Cristina joined Teach For America in Houston, Texas. As a teacher at a turnaround campus, her students performed well above average in the district. She was selected to hold several leadership roles, such as training incoming teachers to the district and leading a cohort of data analysts through the district’s Career Pathways. Cristina had an even broader impact on students by becoming a Teacher Specialist at a turnaround campus. Her teachers made great gains, exceeding the state standards and impacting the future of hundreds of students.

Cristina will found a charter school in Houston, Texas, that will transform an entire community by ensuring students graduate from top universities.

“My education has afforded me incredible opportunities. My mission is to influence the educational system by ensuring children from urban communities receive an excellent education regardless of their financial status. I want to continue to do this work by founding my own school where we will provide children of all backgrounds with the opportunity to one day graduate from the college of their choice.”