Three younger woman and a younger man, all well dressed, standing in front of a red stage curtain, with their arms around each other, smiling.

Together We Rise: Four Alums, One Region, One Mission

South Louisiana has been a region of growth in the field of education, and four TFA alums were recently honored for their impact on the area long after their corps days.
Thursday, February 4, 2016

In recent years, South Louisiana has been a region of growth, especially in the field of education. A founding Teach For America region, the over 300 corps members and alumni lead classrooms, non-profits, and policy to ensure students receive the options they deserve.

Recently, the Greater Baton Rouge Business Report released its annual Forty Under 40 list featuring the “most influential young professionals” in the area, and Teach For America was well-represented on the list.

Out of 483 nominations, four alums graced the final collection of 40 honorees: Laura Vinsant, Michelle Gieg, Andy Allen, and Ashley Heard.

These four alumni, in partnership with alumni and community organizations are working across the community in different, yet connected ways, to create excellent schools for students and ensure they have access to health resources.

Learn more about our four honorees who continue to make an impact on the South Louisiana region long after their corps days.

Laura Vinsant

Close head shot of a young woman with wavy brown hair smiling in front of a black and brown background.

​Executive Director, Teach For America-South Louisiana

When Laura accepted the position to lead TFA’s South Louisiana region last May, she had plenty of experience to draw on. A graduate of Louisiana State University, she witnessed firsthand the challenges facing local schools.

Inspired to take action, Laura joined the South Louisiana corps in 2007 as a second and third grade teacher alongside fellow Forty Under 40 honoree Michelle Gieg.

“We’ve learned through our collaboration that it truly takes a network of people to accomplish meaningful change for kids,” she says. “When I think of the work I’m doing, in relation to the work that Michelle is doing, in relation to the work that Ashley or Andy are doing, to get students the resources they need from different organizations is a prime example of that theory of change.”

Laura’s plans for the region include continuing to build partnerships with community organizations and expand the support of Teach For America corps members and alumni in South Louisiana.

“Ultimately, I want to make sure corps members have the support and development they need to pursue the change they want to be for students in the short-term, and understand how they want to work toward solving systemic problems in the long-term,” she says.

Michelle Gieg

Close head shot of a young woman with blonde hair and a purple scarf smiling in front of a wood background.

​Executive Director/Principal, Democracy Prep Baton Rouge

When Michelle taught together with Laura at North Highlands Elementary School in North Baton Rouge, they founded a drama program to engage their students. Little did they know the type of lasting impression they would leave on their young minds.

“All Michelle and I had were a bucket of costumes and some scripts to read from, but we saw the results years later,” Laura recalls. “One of our former students is now a freshman at Loyola New Orleans studying theater arts, and she’s cited our program as being a pivotal moment in getting her there.”

Also an LSU alum, Michelle’s ability to effect change on a classroom level blossomed into a the desire to one day start her own school in the same community. That dream is now a reality, as Democracy Prep now serves students from kindergarten through sixth grade, with a charter school model that is centered on building citizen-scholars on a path to college success.

Building a force of well-trained teachers is one of the building blocks for a successful school leader to accomplish. After her time as a corps member, Michelle further honed this skill when she helped launch TFA’s inaugural Mississippi Delta Summer Institute, which trained over 800 teachers in several rural school districts.

“She’s incredibly sharp, professional, and focused, and it comes out in the way Democracy Prep runs,” says fellow Forty Under 40 honoree Ashley Heard. “She’s the type of leader that teachers want to follow and makes parents confident in her enough to send their kids there.”

Ashley Heard

Head shot of a young woman with thick blonde hair smiling in front of a Teach for America  photo wall.

Director of Strategy and Innovation, New Schools for Baton Rouge

Unlike Michelle and Laura, Ashley, a Baton Rouge native, was a high school teacher in the D.C. Region for her TFA corps experience. However, her passion to ensure the success of children in South Louisiana has been just as unwavering since she returned to the area.

“When I was in high school, I was accepted to Vanderbilt University on a full scholarship, and I felt like I got this golden ticket,” she remembers.

Wanting to ensure all students had the opportunities she had to gain access to higher education, Ashley applied to Teach For America and later ended up joining as a staff member after her time in the corps.

“I don’t feel like I could ever leave education now,” she says. “I went to Loyola-Chicago for law school, and while I was there, I learned I wanted to make an impact on students through strategic planning rather than policy work.”

With New Schools for Baton Rouge, Ashley leads the charge in building a talent pipeline of teachers and managing a scholarship program that allows students who qualify for vouchers to attend highly performing non-public schools.

“I’m like a utility player,” she says. “For instance, if we bring in a certain amount of schools, a number of questions come to mind. How many teachers do we need?  How do we train them? How do we keep them? How do we make sure they’re diverse?”

Ashley undoubtedly draws on her experience as a TFA corps member for answers to her questions.

“I’ve become a more efficient worker because of my time in Teach For America,” she says. “It’s little things like conference planning or working with Excel, working with benchmarks, or prioritizing work. I learned these skills in the classroom,”

Andy Allen

Close head shot of a young man with thick brown hair smiling on a beach.

Outreach Officer, Office of the Mayor-President

Out of the four honorees, Andy is unique in that he shows how alumni are instrumental in making progress within our movement while serving outside of the field of education.

“A lot of my TFA experience was seeing the challenges my kids would come to school with, and how schools are a very important piece of the puzzle, but not the whole puzzle,” Andy says. “Ultimately, you need people with different perspectives. Government, health care, public safety, are all factors that can build an environment for students to be successful.”

As an Outreach Officer for Mayor Kip Holden, he manages the Healthy BR initiative and has facilitated the nation’s first Joint Community Health Needs Assessment and Joint Implementation Plan process with local hospitals. Furthermore, the American Hospital Association awarded the Mayor’s Healthy BR initiative with its prestigious NOVA Award last year.

“The parish has nearly 500,000 residents, and we target neighborhoods that are historically underserved because we know that’s where the primary need is for programs that bring access to fresh and healthy foods and medical services,” says Andy, who cites his time in the classroom for giving him the perspective to fully understand his role.

“Understanding what life is like for people in the communities you serve influences the decisions you make, particularly in my role. It’s very relationship-based, and at the end of the day, I feel good about the work we’re doing for others.”


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