By the Company It Keeps: J.B. Schramm

J.B. Schramm is the founder of College Summit and has served as its leader for two decades. He has built his organization into one of the most influential and valuable entities in the K–12 sector. After this highly successful tenure, J.B. is moving on to a new venture, teaming with a number of the field’s leading groups to further advance the cause of preparing students for success in high school, higher education, and beyond.

Like other BTCIK guests, J.B. has an astonishing compilation of accomplishments—he’s received recognition from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Regis University, and Yale, among others, and President Obama gave a portion of his Nobel Prize award money to College Summit!

But like his BTCIK colleagues, he’s also a modest, unassuming, contemplative, and endlessly decent person. I treasure the time he and I have spent together—sharing reflections on some text we’ve read, discussing some policy issue, or picking his brain about fatherhood.

And like Nelson Smith, J.B. is one heck of a thespian! It’s a long story, but a couple years back, J.B. and I were in a group professional-development session together, where we had to write a play. I inexplicably got fired up about the commonalities and differences between Creon from Antigone and General Douglas MacArthur. Others in the group were kind enough to let me pen a scene along these lines. When it came time to cast, J.B. stepped up and took on both roles, perfectly capturing what I had in mind and going miles beyond. The consensus was that J.B. was the play’s star.

Part of me looks back on this and smiles…seeing J.B. in a toga and ranting about Antigone’s insolence. But in hindsight, this was classic J.B. He offered himself up in a tough situation, brought his gigantic brain to bear on a tricky subject, and helped someone else succeed (me, the amateur playwright).

J.B.’s impact has been profound, and he deserves all of the professional awards and recognition he receives. But just as importantly, he’s the kind of person you’d want on your board, on your leadership team, as a mentor, and as a pal.

I’m truly delighted to call him a friend, and education reform is fortunate to keep his company.

Ladies and gentlemen: J.B. Schramm.

When you look back on College Summit’s first 20 years, what are you most proud of? If you could go back in time, what would you do differently?

I’m most proud that we started College Summit with a great question, “Who’s most influential to a 17-year old?” Students carry tremendous power in high schools to set expectations and make things happen (positively or counter-productively). Viral marketing, student-to-student, tips the culture. Influential students are America’s biggest pool of untapped education reformers.

If I could go back in time, I’d have invested in our alumni program earlier and more deeply. The single most valuable asset College Summit has is the culture of our alumni, which is a force not only for staffing but also for inspiration, quality control, and student impact. Alumni return to their home schools as heroes. I’d like to be five years ahead of where we are in terms of training and leveraging our alumni pool.

What went through your mind when you heard that President Obama was donating a portion of his Nobel Prize award money to your organization?

It was an incredible honor and enormously validating. Our students manage formidable challenges in order to get to and through college: peer pressure, routine violence, often-struggling schools, and the responsibility to achieve academically while holding down jobs and parenting younger siblings. When the President honored College Summit, he was telling young people that their struggle is worth it and that their work as College Summit Peer Leaders is a beacon for the nation. Hundreds of our students—from coal counties in West Virginia to Miami’s Little Haiti to South Central LA—sent the President pictures with their proud, hopeful faces alongside the name of the college they are attending.

What can you tell us about your new venture, and why are you taking on this new role right now?

I’m tremendously excited to be working with Don Shalvey at the Gates Foundation, Vanessa Kirsch at New Profit, and other leaders and innovators to launch an initiative to further develop the field of college access and success.  Don Shalvey summed up the need best. He said, “The ‘college access/success’ field is significant…and small, and it needs to be significant and big.”

We’ll focus on policy progress and collective action among the leading college access and success organizations, looking for ways to help diverse groups achieve greater impact. We are in the early stages of planning and will be looking to leading innovators and organizations in the field to participate and collaborate on how to powerfully and successfully increase the scale of impact. Between now and the end of the year, I’ll be out on a listening campaign in order to gather points of view on how this initiative can support the field.

How did Denver Public Schools prepare you for Yale? What were the most formative events during your time in New Haven?

I’ve had the privilege of attending a number of great academic institutions. The one I am most indebted to is Denver East High School. East’s teachers pushed me and appreciated me.  I learned how to walk and work in different cultures, which gave me an advantage at Yale and even more so professionally. When we took home the prize from jazz festivals and speech meets, I experienced the winning formula of excellence and diversity, e pluribus unum. I knew on graduation day that I wanted my life’s work to be offering students the kind of education I received at East.

My most formative Yale experience occurred outside the classroom. For four years, I participated in the Big Brothers / Big Sisters program, mentoring a boy named Andrea. For a couple hours each week, Andrea and I would play ball, do homework, hang out in my dorm room, and get a slice of pizza. He taught me a lot. I owe my early career success to him teaching me the lesson that all effective youth development strategies start with pizza.

He also asked questions that have stuck with me. He asked why his school had so much less than my school. I wondered how my life would have turned out had I been forced to overcome the stresses and barriers Andrea had to tackle every day—and how to get adults to see young people not as threats but as the architects of the future of our nation.

Andrea has contributed a lot to our nation and is now back safely home after serving two tours in Afghanistan and in Iraq with the U.S. Army.

Why Harvard Divinity School?

I don’t often speak publicly about my faith, but I do strongly believe that our work is spiritual. When I ask great high school principals what makes a great teacher and a great school—once their door is closed—they’ll invariably say that it’s all about love and high expectations. The secret to the College Summit method, the reason influential Peer Leaders find the power to have an impact on their fellow students, is that the College Summit workshop creates moments where young people experience love in a deep and transforming way. That is the transformative combination for youth: love and high expectations.

How has having three school-aged children influenced your views of education reform?

All three of my children were blessed to be a part of Eleanor Palm’s first-grade class at Key Elementary (District of Columbia Public Schools). Ms. Palm wove her love of art through every lesson. For example, our kids learned their ABCs memorizing poems of artists for each letter of the alphabet—e.g., B is for Botticelli, C is for Cassatt, etc. As an educator, I marveled at her ability to help children who came to her class with divergent skill levels all achieve significant progress in reading. Of course, all of us in the education-reform community want to figure out how systems can attract, support, and reward the Eleanor Palms of the world.

Almost as extraordinary as the children’s progress was the engagement of parents. Busy parents signed up to teach mini lessons in the classroom. (Would anyone like to see my “College Starts in Kindergarten” puppets?) Another group of parents made a video of her art alphabet. Parents have such passion for their children’s education. How can we in the education-reform movement tap into the pool of parents’ energy, advocacy, and resources?

You participated in a working group on civic entrepreneurship in urban America at the Kennedy School. If someone gave you the keys to a long-troubled city like Detroit, Cleveland, or Camden, what are the first few things you’d do?

Teenagers set the tone for the entire community. Elementary school children mimic their academic expectations. Teens make it safe, or not, for moms to let their children walk to a better school some distance away. Based on the teen atmosphere, seniors venture into the neighborhood or stay behind locked doors and businesses can draw customers to the streets or not.

The biggest lesson we’ve learned at College Summit is that teenagers are not vessels for education reform to be poured into. They can drive change and set the educational expectations for their peers. In fact, as teens get older, their appetite for challenge grows; we can choose to offer them greater responsibility with healthy levels of risk, or they will create their own challenges often with dangerous risks.

Mayors and superintendents must begin to see their young people as the biggest pool of untapped resources at hand. Cami Anderson, Newark’s superintendent, is wrestling with a stubborn legacy of absenteeism in Newark schools. She convened a daylong strategy summit, but not with vendors or policy makers. She gathered 30 of her influential College Summit twelfth-grade Peer Leaders to enlist them to create and run attendance campaigns in her high schools. It’s a win-win to turn students into education reformers.

Few know more or care as deeply about getting kids to and through higher education than you. Though College Summit works primarily with high schools, if Yale asked you to return to campus as the university’s next president, what would you do to make your alma mater the nation’s leader in attracting, retaining, and graduating low-income kids?

First, let me give due credit to Yale. Yale is the only university I know of in America to fund college scholarships for every graduate of their city’s public schools. That’s a commitment to building a citywide college-going culture, not just recruiting a handful of elite potential applicants. Check out New Haven Promise, this extraordinarily effective partnership of New Haven Mayor John DeStefano, Superintendent Garth Harries, the New Haven Public Schools, The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, and College Summit.

When Peter Salovey, or any university President, asks my advice on strategies for success with low-income students, I urge them to do two things: First, start a campus-wide dialogue on the question of whether success with low-income students is central to their mission. With no quick fixes available, universities will need to sign up for a decade of investment and innovation to bring instruction and support to effective levels. Only the colleges with alignment from trustees to faculty to students will succeed. Next, college presidents should publish the enrollment, retention, and graduation rates of their Pell-eligible students. No single step better signals a commitment to progress. President Obama is speeding this process with his foresighted call for including these measures in a college-rating system. 

What books, individuals, or ideas have had the greatest influence on you?

For my favorite philosophical explanation of the importance of diversity for America, aside from the Declaration of Independence, see Jonathan Edwards (the eighteenth-century theologian/philosopher, not the singer). The Reverend argues that excellence in America—in contrast to the Europe of his day—comes from our diversity, the extraordinary collection of differences in the New World. Edwards would never use diversity as an excuse. Rather, it is our nation’s competitive advantage (see “The Mind,” Entry No. 14).

In our work with students, College Summit points to Malcolm X, who teaches students that through their struggles—especially the most painful ones—they have built the muscles for future progress. He writes, “I am part and parcel of everything I have lived.”

I had the great pleasure of once watching you deliver a professional-quality, toga-wearing interpretation of a famous Sophocles role. So who was right: Antigone or Creon?

It’s hard for me to side with either Antigone or Creon’s choices. The playwright says, “Stubbornness and stupidity are twins,” and both Antigone and Creon could have found a path of compromise a bit less bloody. But Antigone asked the right question—“What do I believe in, deep down?” In contrast, Creon succumbed to pressure and made a deal he really didn’t believe in. Then when events turned against Creon, he sank down defeated.

One of the ways College Summit teaches resilience is by helping students find what they authentically believe in, both in terms of their proven strengths and a future path through postsecondary. Later, when troubles arise, students can stand strong like Antigone, with a clear-eyed focus on goals that are rooted. Peer Leader Aloysia Jean, a New Haven Public Schools graduate and now a student at Georgetown University, captured that power well, saying, “At College Summit, we dream with our eyes wide open.”

* Note: Bellwether Education Partners has done work for College Summit, the organization Mr. Schramm is exiting.

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