Elisa Villanueva Beard

Elisa Villanueva Beard’s passion for educational equity comes from personal experience. Elisa grew up in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas and developed a deep commitment to Teach For America's mission as a student at DePauw University, where she was one of just a few Mexican-American students. Her journey with Teach For America started 15 years ago in Phoenix where she taught first and second grade bilingual education as a 1998 corps member. She joined Teach For America's staff in 2001 to lead the organization's work in her hometown in the position of executive director.  Elisa was inspired to take on this role because she saw her community beginning to have a different conversation as a result of the work her corps members and alumni were doing.  Four years later, she stepped into the role of chief operating officer, leading Teach For America’s field operations. In this role for the past eight years, Villanueva Beard has led Teach For America’s dramatic growth in our regions from 22 regions to 46. It is Teach For America’s regions where the organization’s program is put into practice and where 80 percent of its funding is raised.

In 2013, Elisa was named co-CEO alongside Matt Kramer. Under their leadership, Teach For America currently impacts more than 750,000 students in over 2,600 schools. Together they manage the leadership team, work with the board, and are held fully accountable for the organization’s success.

Elisa holds a B.A. in sociology from DePauw University. She lives with her husband Jeremy and their three sons in Houston, Texas.

All Posts by Elisa

This isn’t a choice.

This isn’t a phase,

And it’s not a mistake.

I’m not any different than I was before,

Except maybe a little less burdened. 

- Christine, age 14, Poet Warrior

This spring, Christine Vela shared a powerful poem with the world—in it, she comes out and breaks the silence surrounding her sexuality. This PRIDE month, we must stand with Christine. We must stand with all of our LGBTQ students.

Though the world gets more accepting every day, students still face a great deal of harassment and discrimination for their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Yesterday, all across the country, Americans celebrated, reflected, and engaged in service projects in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his fight for justice.

Service must be done in solidarity.  It shouldn’t be an act of pity or charity—service is about coming together in our communities around a shared cause. Each year, on the third Monday in January, Americans unite toward the greater good.  As countless communities join together and serve, our country gets stronger, and we prove that an assassination cannot kill the dreams King died for.

My heart is swollen with hope, love, and optimism today, and I wanted to share it with you too. 

Those of you who were at the New York City Gala in 2012 no doubt recall the moving words of Troy Simon that night.  Troy, then a high-school senior,told his personal story as he accepted the Peter Jennings’s Alumni Award on behalf of 3 of our alums in New Orleans, which included our very own Kira Orange-Jones. 

As you will hear in the video, Troy was displaced during Hurricane Katrina and ended up in Houston at the Astrodome.  He found his way to KIPP NOW (New Orleans West) school in Houston, which was founded when Mike Feinberg, HOU ‘92 and co-founder of KIPP schools, realized Houston needed to act fast. The children of New Orleans were in his city without a school, and the GNO first-year corps members were without jobs.  Mike worked with Abe Saaveadera, the superintendent of Houston schools, to get KIPP NOW up and running in just a few weeks after Katrina.  It was there that Troy first learned to read at the age of 14, taught mostly by Teach For America corps members. He went on to be surrounded by CMs and alums for the rest of his education in GNO, and was mentored by College Track, which is run by another Teach For America alum, David Silver, Bay Area ’95.

Alejandro Gac-Artigas

Social Entrepreneurs get their start by pitching new solutions to people who can help them turn their ideas into action. Alejandro Gac-Artigas ’09 is no different—but the most important audience he’s presented to was his class of six-year-olds at the Pan-American Academy in Philadelphia.  

As a first-grade teacher, Alejandro noticed the learning kids lost from one summer to the next, and he was determined to do something about it. He took action – and it landed him, along with eight other Teach for America alums—on Forbes’ Magazine recent 30-under-30 in Education.

Student in the Hawi'i region.

Native Heritage Month ended a few days ago; during November, I spent a lot of time reading, listening, and learning. As a leader of Teach For America, it’s my job to understand all the communities we partner with. As an American, it’s important for me to understand the nations who were first on this land.

I’m called to note that there is no single Native Heritage—566 American Indian Tribes and Alaska Native Villages are recognized by the U.S. government as sovereign nations, each with distinct cultures, languages, and histories. So in November, we don’t honor one heritage; we honor many.

Native communities share, however, a history of violence at the hands of our government. A month’s remembrance can’t make that go away--but as individuals, we can make an effort to learn and advocate for equity today.

Today, Veterans Day, I’m thinking about Charles Stewart. Charles works at KIPP Lynn in Massachusetts, and his route to teaching there has been marked by service and dedication. I am inspired by his work, and I write today to honor his commitment to our country.

Charles joined the army at nineteen. He served as 2nd Lieutenant of Military Intelligence in Iraq, then used his military education award to attend the University of New Mexico. In 2010, he became a Teach For America corps member and taught 2nd grade in Dallas, Texas, using the leadership and grit he learned overseas here at home.

Today, at KIPP Lynn, Charles teaches over sixty 5th graders each day – he knows the great things they can do, and he holds them to it. His school has the highest proficiency scores, in every subject, of all public schools in Lynn, but it’s not the numbers Charles is concerned with—it’s the focus and progress, the academic and personal growth he sees his students achieve. It’s the relationships he’s built with kids who look at him and know that he, too, has been through tough times and made it out on the other side. “In the army, we always say ‘mission first, people always,’” Charles explains.  His mission, as a teacher, is clear – but leading children to be their best selves is what drives him. 

The story of Matthew Shepard is well-known today -- Matthew, a 21-year-old gay man, was tied to a post, beaten, and left to die by the side of the prairie in Laramie, Wyoming. His murderers were two young men around his own age. One reportedly declared no regret -- gay men like Matthew were a threat who "needed killing," he said.

October marked the 15th anniversary of Matthew's death. As a new month begins, I'm called to consider how we can make sure that classrooms, at least, are safe spaces, and how we can train children in tolerance, not hate.

Since October of 1998, our nation has evolved. President Obama has signed hate-crimes legislation into law, as have many individual states. (Wyoming, however, is one of five states that still lack such laws.)

Despite progress, violence continues, and not just against LGBTQ individuals. In 2011, the Federal Bureau of Investigations reported over 6,000 hate crimes in the States. Roughly half were racially motivated. Twenty percent were based on sexual orientation, and three quarters of these victims were people of color. Just over 10 and 20 percent, respectively, were crimes targeting ethnicity and religion.

How can we expect our students to feel safe amidst all of this? Not only do I worry about hate crimes in our nation, I worry about hate itself in our schools. I worry about the quieter, daily dangers our students face.

As Hispanic Heritage month comes to a close, I’m thinking about the particular call to action I face as a Mexican-American woman in this role.  

There is a place for everyone in our efforts—I am pleased that 39% of our incoming corps identify as people of color, but ethnicity neither limits nor defines our work to ensure every child has access to an excellent education. It does, however, inform my perspective.  I enter this fight thinking about childhood friends who didn’t graduate. I enter this fight knowing my sons will face prejudice I can’t protect them from.  I enter this fight thinking about my mother, the smartest woman I’ve ever known, who prioritized education for my siblings and me despite having just an eighth grade formal education herself. Concepts of educational inequity are not statistics and data-sheets to me. I know the research and I know the numbers, but this work is about real people. It’s about real life, real faces, and real losses I’ve felt and seen.

Recently in a speech at the first annual Teach For America Alumni Awards and Educators Conference, I made reference to defenders of the “status quo,” prompting a number of people to ask me to clarify exactly what I meant. I will gladly elaborate.

I define the status quo as the current educational system in which students’ socioeconomic backgrounds predict their educational outcomes and opportunities in life. In our country today, young people growing up in poverty are eight times less likely to graduate from college than young people from more affluent families. 

Remarks of co-CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard at the Alumni Gathering in Detroit, MI on Thursday, July 18, 2013.

Good morning.  This is our first national Summit to bring alumni educators together for celebration and professional development at Teach For America, and I honestly could not be more excited about being here today.  This is my booster shot of inspiration and energy that will carry me through the rest of the summer. 

It is energizing to be here with all of you.  I feel such a shared struggle and a deep, deep belief that comes from our shared experiences in classrooms across the country.  The feisty nature of this group as well as the love and compassion we all have for our communities is so powerful.   

What a morning it has been as we have listened to students and regrounded ourselves in the power and purpose of our collective work.

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We believe education is the most pressing issue facing our nation. On Pass the Chalk, we'll share our takes on the issues of the day, join the online conversation about education, and tell stories from classrooms, schools, and communities around the nation.

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