Since 2007, the Peter Jennings Award for Civic Leadership has recognized Teach For America alumni whose work have led to significant progress toward realizing educational equity in pursuit of systemic change.
December 8, 2021
In 2016, the State of Maryland faced an education funding formula that had not changed in nearly 15 years, and legislative leaders and advocates felt the state was falling behind those with similar resources. In response, the Maryland General Assembly created the Kirwan Commission, with the purpose of setting a standard for education across the state and preparing students for life beyond the classroom.
The Commission’s recommendations called for billions of additional dollars to fund PreK through 12 initiatives like expanding career and early education programs, increasing salaries and support for teachers, and providing additional resources to schools with high concentrations of poverty—the sort of recommendations that often result in splashy headlines and few actual policy changes.
But several Teach For America alumni worked to take action, championing legislative and grassroots efforts in parallel paths for “The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future”—legislation based on the Kirwan Commission’s recommendations that supporters say will have a transformative impact on education in the state for years to come.
Leading Awareness for Positive Action
Teach For America alumni including Shannen Coleman Siciliano (Baltimore, '03), Joe Francaviglia (Baltimore, '11), Taylor Stewart (Baltimore, '07), and Shamoyia Gardiner (Jacksonville, '14) joined Strong Schools Maryland (SSM) to advocate for The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, building a statewide army of advocates in the process. The group was cognizant from the beginning they were fighting an uphill battle by advocating for change.
“The political will [to adopt the recommendations] was not there, or anywhere close to being there,” says Joe Francaviglia, who was executive director of Strong Schools Maryland during the organization’s advocacy for the law. “But the proposal meant new systems and life-changing money for school districts. And this was not going to happen if we didn’t do what we needed to do.”
“People were saying that education was a losing issue statewide,” recalls Taylor Stewart, a member of Strong School Maryland’s advisory council and the former vice chair of the group’s executive committee. “We had to help overcome this idea that education was a losing political issue in Maryland.”
To help voice the positive impact The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future would have in communities across the state, Strong Schools Maryland built a coalition of more than 50 other organizations to build grassroots support for the recommendations including, Francaviglia says, “many organizations that normally don’t talk to each other.”
The group trained grassroots leaders throughout the state, educating them about the nuances of the proposed legislation, keeping them apprised of new developments, and supporting them as they rallied support within their local communities.
“Our team leaders received monthly curriculum packets, because it was so sweeping and there was so much information,” says Shannen Coleman Siciliano, who was co-executive director of Strong Schools Maryland from 2017 to 2019. “It was not just, 'We’re asking you to show up for a rally.' It was, 'We’re asking you to meet monthly, ask questions, and think through this [proposed] legislation.'”
William “Brit” Kirwan, former chancellor of the University of Maryland system and the commission’s namesake, praises the alumni group’s efforts and says their advocacy was instrumental in swelling public support for The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future. Kirwan, who is not a TFA alum, says, “I’ve rarely, if ever, seen anyone who brought the energy, thoughtfulness, and organizational capacity this team brought to this effort. Strong Schools had teams in every school district in the state who were writing letters to their local officials. They organized busloads of people to come and walk the halls of the General Assembly. They filled up the hearing rooms. They provided testimony. They were just omnipresent at all the critical moments.”
“It was about being everywhere all the time, and making the Blueprint the number-one issue,” says Francaviglia. “When legislators would leave Annapolis, they could not escape us, because we had champions across the state.
Leading Legislation for Positive Impact
Meanwhile, TFA alumni Bill Ferguson (Baltimore, '05) and Ross Seidman (Baltimore, '15) were working within Maryland’s state legislature, leading efforts to turn the Kirwan recommendations into policy. In 2019, with public support for The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future growing in communities throughout the state, the Maryland General Assembly made progress by voting to fund the first year of implementation. What’s more, the legislature passed a law requiring any new taxes resulting from out-of-state online sales into Maryland (above a certain threshold) to go toward implementing the Blueprint law.
“In that session, we passed it, and it wasn’t very controversial,” recalls Ferguson, a TFA alum and state senator not affiliated with Strong Schools Maryland. As he explains, the law directing new tax money toward education was especially helpful because it created a recurring, dedicated source of funding for the Blueprint law; setting the state up to later pass the full policy.
In addition, Ferguson credits the work his fellow TFA alumni were doing in communities across Maryland with creating a ripple effect felt by policymakers within the walls of the state capitol. Grassroots community awareness created a swell of public support for The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future while Ferguson and other supporters were fostering political will within the General Assembly to fund the first year of implementation. “That’s where Strong Schools was incredibly helpful,” he says. “Politicians were feeling this pressure, that we had to demonstrate a commitment to this.”
In the months following, while Strong Schools Maryland led a relentless advocacy campaign on the ground, Senator Ferguson and other members of the General Assembly worked apart from the grassroots organization to realize a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity to embrace educational excellence in the state. And, in 2020, Maryland state legislature voted overwhelmingly in favor of a multi-year, multi-billion dollar plan to implement the Blueprint law.
Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan, Jr., initially vetoed the legislation, but advocates and members of the General Assembly worked to redouble their individual efforts to maintain support across the state and in February of 2021 the legislature voted to override the governor’s veto.
Karen Webber is director of education and youth development for the Open Society Institute, which provided funding to support Strong School Maryland’s efforts. She credits much of the success of the legislation to the fact that TFA alums were pushing for it both inside and outside of government.
“To have Bill Ferguson in that pivotal seat as a state senator, speaking clearly and consistently about what the bill was and the importance of the law…it was critical to have someone in that position of power who had also been in the classroom and had clear sight about what this bill could do for our state,” she says. “And the bill absolutely would not have passed without Strong Schools Maryland and their organizing.”
For Ferguson, one of the most important pieces of the new legislation is the allocation of significant additional resources to high-poverty schools. “The escalator that we included is a major philosophical change to the way we think about education,” he says. “That component will have one of the biggest impacts because it recognizes that the supports needed are exponential, not linear.”
Different Paths to Achieve One Goal
The Blueprint law addresses five major areas of concern: early childhood education, high-quality and diverse teachers and leaders, college and career-readiness pathways, additional resources for schools with high concentrations of poverty, and governance and accountability.
It will fund universal pre-school, making Pre-K free for three- and four-year-olds from low-income families, with Pre-K programs available to other families on a sliding scale. The law also calls for a new curriculum, benchmarked against international standards, with the aim of 90 percent of kids in the state being college and career ready by the tenth grade.
Teacher preparation is also revamped by the law, Kirwan says, with “much higher” standards for certification – “much more like you see with law school and engineers” – and a salary structure under which teachers will receive pay comparable to professionals in other fields that require a similar level of education.
Many of the projected positive impacts of the legislation will unfold over the next several years as it is implemented fully. But supporters are confident that the law will be transformative for students across the state, partly because it includes provisions for governance and accountability.
Supporters also say that students have already felt an impact through the early funding that was approved before the adoption of the full Blueprint law. Those funds more than doubled the number of “community schools” in the state (those receiving funding for a community coordinator and associated programming) from around 50 community schools to 125. Supporters say community schools were important in helping children and their families navigate and stay engaged in their learning during the COVID pandemic.
“It is important to note how profound the recommendations were, in that they basically called for a totally new system of education in Maryland,” says Kirwan speaking of the Blueprint law. “It was really a transformational change in how Pre-K through 12 is done in the state...and enormously difficult to pull off because there were vested interests that were losing some of their authority and control. That sounds pretty boastful, but there are testimonials from state superintendents all around the country who have basically said the same thing. This was a monumental undertaking.”
As an organization focused on leading independent advocacy, Strong Schools Maryland is not partnered, formally or informally, in any capacity with the Maryland General Assembly (MGA) and does not have any involvement in the formal legislative process in the State of Maryland. This article mentions TFA alumni affiliated with the MGA (Ferguson; Seidman) solely to contextualize the advocacy work done by TFA alumni involved with Strong School Maryland and its partners (Francaviglia, Gardiner, Siciliano, Stewart) in support for The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future. Ross Seidman and Senator Bill Ferguson have not accepted or directed any money associated with this award.
Meet the Winners
Shannen Coleman Siciliano (Baltimore, '03)
Former Co-Executive Director, Strong Schools Maryland
A certified executive and life coach, speaker, and consultant, Shannen Coleman Siciliano collaborates with for-purpose organizations, companies, and individuals. Prior to coaching, she consulted clients in areas of local and statewide education advocacy, corporate social responsibility, community school planning, race equity/anti-racism, coalition building, regional philanthropy, and grantmaking. She also served as the Co-Executive Director of Strong Schools Maryland. Earlier in her career, she helped to create a city-wide education coalition and served as the founding co-chair. During her tenure, the coalition saved over $125 million in state funding for a local school jurisdiction and began a $2.4 billion school facilities campaign to renovate and rebuild Baltimore City school facilities. She started her career as a 2nd-grade teacher, grade level administrator, and curriculum developer. Originally from Southern California, Shannen has a Bachelor of Arts in Communication from the University of Southern California, a Masters in Teaching from The Johns Hopkins University and is a certified International Coach Federation coach. She resides in Greater Chicago with her husband and two children.
Joe Francaviglia (Baltimore, '11)
Former Executive Director, Strong Schools Maryland
Joe currently serves as the Campaign Manager for Brooke Lierman for Maryland Comptroller. He is working to elect Brooke as the first ever woman elected in her own right to one of Maryland’s three constitutional offices. Prior to joining Brooke’s campaign, Joe served as Strong Schools Maryland’s Executive Director, and before that was the Director of Partnerships where he was responsible for recruiting and supporting Strong Schools Maryland citizen advocates and organizing teams across the state. Joe is a veteran teacher in Baltimore City Public Schools, obtaining the distinction of Model Teacher. He led several initiatives aimed at realizing a fair and equitable school system and ensuring teacher voices were represented in the decision-making processes. Recognizing that the Kirwan Commission presents a unique opportunity to build schools where all our children thrive, he moved from the classroom to Strong Schools Maryland. He began his education career as a Teach For America Corps Member teaching middle school social studies at Bay Brook Elementary/Middle School. Joe has also taught at KIPP Ujima Village Academy. He holds a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Minnesota, a Master’s in Teaching from Johns Hopkins University, and a Certificate of Administration from Johns Hopkins University.
Bill Ferguson (Baltimore, '05)
President, Maryland State Senate
Senator Ferguson was elected to the Maryland State Senate in 2010 to represent Maryland’s 46th Legislative District. He first served on the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee before moving to the Budget and Taxation Committee, where he became Vice-Chair of the committee and Chair of the Education, Business, and Administration Subcommittee. In January 2020, his colleagues unanimously elected him to serve as President of the Maryland Senate, making him the second youngest Senate President in Maryland history. As Senate President, Bill looks out for the needs of all Marylanders and the critical issues facing their state. He is serving his third term as State Senator for Maryland’s 46th Legislative District, located entirely within Baltimore City, including neighborhoods in south Baltimore, downtown near and around the Inner Harbor, and southeast Baltimore.
A lifelong Maryland resident, Bill made Baltimore City his home when he joined Teach for America after graduating from Davidson College with a double major in political science and economics. From 2005 to 2007, Bill taught U.S. history and U.S. government to ninth and tenth graders in a breakout academy of one of Baltimore’s most challenged high schools. Bill earned his Master’s degree in Teaching from the Johns Hopkins School of Education in 2007. The inequities of the public education system in Baltimore City led him to engage more deeply within the community outside of the schoolhouse. After teaching, Bill worked as a community liaison for the Baltimore City Council President’s Office; earned a law degree from the University of Maryland Carey School of Law; and served as the Special Assistant to Dr. Andres Alonso, former CEO of the Baltimore City Public Schools. Through these pursuits, Bill continually drew from his classroom experiences to find ways to bring new resources and greater attention to the city’s educational achievement gap. Senator Ferguson is married to fellow Teach for America alum Lea Ferguson (Baltimore City, ’05). The Fergusons live in Patterson Park with their son, Caleb, and daughter, Cora.
Taylor Stewart (Baltimore, '07)
Former Vice Chair of Executive Committee, Strong Schools Maryland
Taylor is the vice president of organizing leadership at Leadership for Educational Equity and formerly served as vice-chair of Strong Schools Maryland’s Executive Committee. Prior to joining LEE, Taylor worked for Teach For America—Baltimore in development and taught 10th grade government at Heritage High School at the Lake Clifton campus. Her civic involvement includes organizing in education for the last 10 years; working on several political campaigns; and serving on the boards of Brown Memorial/Park Avenue Presbyterian Church, Live Baltimore, DC Mizzou Alumni Association, and Strong Schools Maryland. Taylor was born and raised in Kansas City, MO, and found her way to Baltimore in 2007 as a Teach For America corps member. She has a B.A. from the University of Missouri in Political Science, a Masters of Arts in Teaching from Johns Hopkins University, and a J.D. from the University of Maryland.
Shamoyia Gardiner (Jacksonville, '14)
Executive Director, Strong Schools Maryland)
Shamoyia is the executive director of Strong Schools Maryland. She is a first-generation American, first-generation college graduate from Miami, Florida. Due in part to her identities and experiences as a former educator, she’s determined that life is best spent working at the intersection of education, advocacy, and youth development. Shamoyia's other professional experiences include directing the education policy portfolio at Advocates for Children and Youth, cradle-to-career-spectrum policy analysis at the Family League of Baltimore, and project-based work with the Institute for Higher Education Policy, the DC State Board of Education, Atlanta Public Schools, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Atlanta Civic Site. Shamoyia has chosen to live out her values as a board member at B.O.N.D. (Building Our Nation's Daughters), a board member at The Intersection and as a coordinating “mama” with A Revolutionary Summer. Shamoyia earned her Masters in Education Policy and Leadership from American University and her undergraduate degree in Political Science from the University of Florida.
Ross Seidman (Baltimore, '15)
Senior Advisor to President of the Maryland State Senate
Ross is the Senior Advisor to Senate President Bill Ferguson in the Maryland General Assembly (MGA) where he works on policy issues including education, energy and the environment, and health occupations. Prior to his work with the MGA, Ross managed the 2018 campaign for the 46th Legislative District Delegation and taught middle school social studies at Highlandtown Elementary/Middle School #215 in Baltimore City from 2015 to 2017. Ross was born in Harrogate, United Kingdom and grew up in Howard County, Maryland before attending the University of Maryland College Park, where he graduated in 2015 with a B.A. in Government and Politics. He has a Master of Science in Educational Studies from Johns Hopkins University and is currently pursuing a Juris Doctor from the University of Maryland Carey School of Law.
Ross is actively engaged in the community in his free time, serving on the Board of Directors of the Friends of Patterson Park. He lives in the Patterson Park neighborhood of Baltimore City with his wife, Jamie, and their miniature schnauzer, Charlie.
Dr. Grace Hu (Arkansas, '04)
Grace is a government worker providing oversight of federal spending. She is also a D.C. Public Schools parent advocating for systemic change to close the digital divide for all D.C. students.
Grace started the Digital Equity in D.C. Education parent coalition after seeing that schools throughout DC were struggling with a shortage of functional computers, despite D.C. Public Schools’ use of online testing and online reading and math intervention programs. She brought together parents from all wards to advocate for funding and a comprehensive plan to ensure digital equity for students.
After Dr. Hu and her group spent months meeting with school and government officials advocating for increased investments in technology, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced a $4.6 million investment in public schools technology as part of her 2020 fiscal year budget. As a result, the district dramatically expanded its investments in technology—investments that proved their value when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and student devices were necessary to support online learning.
Advocacy led by Digital Equity in D.C, Education also catalyzed new technology funding for both students and teachers and the introduction of two D.C. Council bills in 2021. In addition to her digital equity volunteer work, Grace serves on the Local School Advisory Team for her neighborhood Title I school and has supported other local education advocacy efforts focused on greater transparency and accountability in the school system.
Grace is a former 8th grade teacher and has a Masters of Public Policy from the University of Michigan and a Bachelor of Arts from Rice University.
The Milwaukee Civil Response Team
Clintel Hasan (Milwaukee, '12)
Chayce Cornette (Milwaukee, '17)
Riley Jesse (Milwaukee, '17)
Jim McLaughlin (Milwaukee, '10)
Jennifer Lopez (Los Angeles, '08)
Michael Nguyễn (Milwaukee, '09)
Misa Sato (Milwaukee, '13)
Jonathan Dunn (Washington D.C., '03)
The Milwaukee K-12 Civic Response Team is a diverse group of mostly TFA alums who have worked together to overcome long standing barriers in the pursuit of educational excellence for all children throughout their city during the pandemic.
When the COVID pandemic hit in March of 2020, philanthropists and city officials in Milwaukee organized Civic Response Teams (CRTs) for six urgent areas of need: physical health, mental health, early childhood education, K-12 education, shelter, and food.
Lauren Feaster, chief of staff at Teach for America, and Clintel Hasan of Milwaukee Succeeds, have helped lead the K-12 group which is heavily populated by Teach For America alumni and is inclusive of public, charters, and choice schools serving Milwaukee children.
Together, they have made decisions on nearly $1 million in grant funding to help Milwaukee schools, students, and families navigate the crisis with a focus on digital access and literacy, instruction and learning, summer learning, and support for parents. And they did it with an eye on cutting through the often-fragmented local education system, working to bring partners together to problem-solve and distribute funds in ways that multiplied their impact.
The team focused on building trust between partners to inform more responsive funding to serve the real, immediate needs of the schools and individuals, as opposed to funder interests. In total, the group distributed 37 different grants, many which had a ripple effect with impacts that ranged beyond their initial scope. It’s been estimated that the group’s work has had a direct impact on 10,000 to 15,000 students in the district, with indirect impacts extending to virtually all the approximately 100,000 K-12 students in the city of Milwaukee.
Nominations for the 2021 award are open and will be accepted until January 31, 2022. Submit a nomination here.