Leveling the playing field for students in educationally underserved communities has been the driving force behind Shawna Wells’s fifteen-year career in education—from teaching middle school students how to read to her current job advising educational leaders across the country how to transform underperforming schools.
“I was ambitious and thought I would solve the opportunity gap for students in a couple of years,” kids Wells ’04, a partner and coach with The Management Center, a non-profit dedicated to helping social justice leaders run more effective organizations through great management. “I’m still at it with some gray hair, but on a perfect day I’m helping educational leaders effectively impact a lot of students.”
Though the desire to work with students in educationally underserved communities started as an education and English major at UVM, it was Wells’s first job with Teach For America in Las Vegas that stoked the fire. “I saw first-hand what not being able to read does to someone’s opportunity in life,” she says. “It set me on the path of figuring out what it would take for all students, no matter their zip code, to be on equal footing and have equal opportunity.”
Early in her career, Wells returned to her hometown, Philadelphia, to teach through the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), a nationwide network of college preparatory schools in under-resourced communities. Teaching soon led to increased management roles in strategic planning, instructional leadership and fundraising, then the opportunity to lead a school as founding principal of KIPP West Philadelphia Preparatory.
“I had to build an enterprise from scratch, and when you’ve never done something before it feels exhilarating and impossible all at the same time,” Wells recalls. Her success was measured by the students’ success. “Did I accomplish everything I wanted? No, but to see them walk across the stage at graduation knowing they had the choice to go to college was pretty incredible,” says Wells.
COME FOR THE COW, STAY FOR THE EDUCATION
On the all-time list of unique reasons for choosing UVM, Wells may have the winning entry: “I adopted a cow in Vermont as a kid living outside Philadelphia; so, I was fascinated with Vermont and wanted to be closer to my cow,” she says with a laugh. “We came up and visited and, you know, once you come to Burlington you have to go to school there. Gives me the chills to think about it, actually.”
Beyond the classroom, Wells got deeply involved with student government, Greek life, volunteering at local schools and youth programs. Key influences included Pat Brown in Student Life, the late Janet Bossange, a faculty member in the College of Education and Social Services, and the then president and provost, Ed Colodny and John Bramley, whom she credits for giving her a place at the leadership table as a woman of color. She also was influenced by Gary Margolis ’91 G’96 ’01, then chief of UVM Police, working with him on bringing emergency blue lights to campus.
“UVM changed my trajectory as a person because I got the opportunity to work with a lot of people who really cared about humanity,” she says. “I love UVM. I would do anything for it.”
NEXT GENERATION LEADERS
In her current position at The Management Center, Wells trains educational leaders and executives of non-profits how to lead successful organizations. She held a similar position at the non-profit Building Excellent Schools, assisting with hiring decisions, curriculum development, and balancing budgets.
“We give our principals and educational leaders a heck of a lot of responsibility but don’t always give them the support and skills they need to effectively lead and impact students,” she says.
In particular, Wells is passionate about creating more opportunities for women and people of color in the leadership ranks. “I think we have a different perspective to contribute, particularly to schools that educate black and brown children,” she says. “It’s impactful for students to see examples of successful leaders that have similar life experience and have learned to navigate in a world that isn’t always in your favor. That’s real, right?”