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Show Up: A Recent Webinar

A Communicating Public Policy Webinar

Achieving Systemic Change: How A City Learned to Improve its Schools

Penny Sebring
Penny Sebring, PhD

Penny Sebring, PhD, is the Co-Founder of the UChicago Consortium on School Research (“the Consortium”) and the co-author of a new book about educational reform and improvement in the Chicago schools. Our webinar with Penny includes both a presentation and a Q and A session with important insights and critical lessons for all policy makers. Reviewers of her new book have called it “compelling” and “of monumental importance.”

Educators will find this webinar about the successful creation of school improvement enlightening, and all policy makers will be inspired by the lessons about the significance of research, strong advocacy, building individual and organizational capacity, and moving the needle on systemic change. Since its founding in 1990, the Consortium has conducted numerous and detailed studies providing insights and guidance to the Chicago Public Schools. This collaboration, along with successful partnerships with other key actors, resulted in unprecedented increases in Chicago school benchmarks, including increased learning rates, graduation rates, and college matriculation. The story of this thirty-year school reform effort makes this webinar a “must watch.”

Penny Bender Sebring is a graduate of Grinnell College and earned a PhD in Education and Social Policy from Northwestern University. She is a Senior Research Associate at the University of Chicago, has authored the book “Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago,” and serves as a board member for Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy, the Chicago Public Education Fund, and Kids First Chicago.

Listen to this webinar to learn:

  • Why the improvement in the Chicago public schools is a story of “democracy in action.” It began with a policy change embedded in a law that decentralized the entire school system, placing the locus for change at the school level with principals, local school boards, and their communities as the agents for change.
  • How an ambitious evidence-based campaign to keep the public informed on the progress of key reform initiatives by the Consortium, a collaborative media partner, and other engaged stakeholders provided conceptual frameworks for social learning and a key communications strategy for creating and sustaining reforms.
  • How the “exoskeleton” of research organizations, teachers and school leaders, philanthropic organizations, the business community, educational institutions, and individuals formed unprecedented partnerships, created “boundary spanners,” and networks to build capacity for individuals and organizations to transform an entire school system.
  • How policy leaders can embrace ambitious goals, build relationships, consume learning, convene people, and use evidence to make progress on policy challenges and change systems.

Listen to the webinar here.

Take Five with Terri

Terri Brady, Harris' Executive Director of Professional Development, wants to know what makes Harris Alumni tick. In Take Five with Terri, she asks Harris alums five questions about their life and careers after Harris, and about the wisdom they gained along the way.

Interview with Beth Swanson MPP ‘02

The following interview has been edited.

1. Tell us about your personal and professional journey (where did you grow up, where do you live now, and what do you do professionally).

I will have been in Chicago twenty-five years in August. I grew up in a small town in New England, in Massachusetts, until I was about eight. The rest of my childhood was in New Hampshire in a very small town of 5000 people. One of my goals was always to get out of a small town and into a large city. I attended Amherst College in western Massachusetts and then moved to Boston. 

Beth Swanson
Beth Swanson, MPP '02

During all of my childhood and young adulthood experiences I always found ways to engage with young people, and particularly with low income children and families. I am very interested in issues of equity and justice, and believe every child should have the same shot at a successful childhood and career in life. Even in the small towns of New Hampshire I found myself doing a lot of volunteer work with immigrant populations and other groups. At Amherst I went to Springfield Massachusetts, a town with very diverse socio-economic levels, to tutor in the public high schools. My current path began in Boston where I worked for an organization that managed the federal AmeriCorps money and Vista programs for the state of Massachusetts. We regranted that money to develop programming across the state. And, again, it was all targeted at low income populations and predominantly focused on youth. No matter where I was and whatever size the community, that was the “through line” in all my work.

Through-line of serving youth and families

I moved to Chicago because my husband was going to be attending Northwestern Law School. It ended up being an incredible choice, and we have remained here for twenty-five years. I have always lived in the city, and we currently live on the north side of Chicago between Andersonville and Edgewater. All our kids attended Chicago public schools. We feel really invested in the Chicago community writ large. 

I was in the non-profit sector in Boston, and that’s where I started in Chicago. I worked for the nonprofit Constitutional Rights Foundation on a number of different issues specifically overseeing our work with public schools. We infused service learning curriculum into the schools, predominantly in the Chicago public schools. We worked in partnership with teachers to try to engage the students in their community issues: What issues did they see? What would they like to solve? How could they put their good thinking, their inquiry, into action to solve issues in their own community? 

I did that for a couple of years which led me into a fellowship year with the Corporation for National Service, which is an independent agency of the federal government. I was overseeing all the AmeriCorps and Vista funds around youth service that flow through the country. The fellowship was to look at school districts which moved to mandate service learning throughout the curriculum. I did a comparison of various cities including Chicago and Philadelphia, two cities with extremely different approaches. In Chicago it was a mandate and in Philly it was not.  It was really interesting from a policy system perspective to see the impact, the repercussions of whether you are working bottom up or top down. At that time Paul Vallas ran the Chicago public schools and the person who was in charge of service learning was Arne Duncan, who was a Deputy Chief of Staff to Vallas. I met Arne through this research work. 

From this project I went to the Harris School.  I had spent a lot of time with direct service in Boston and Chicago working with small groups of young people such as students, learning more about their family situation and the issues within the system. I became more interested in the larger context for the youth I was serving. I wanted to go back to school to learn more about that, so I went to Harris for the next couple of years. 

Working with the Chicago Public Schools

At that time Arne Duncan took over the Chicago Public Schools (“CPS”) and becomes the CEO. My mentor through Harris was John Easton, the Executive Director of the UChicago Consortium on School Research. I began working part-time for John while in grad school. Then Arne tapped John to come and help him think through the Research, Evaluation and Accountability Office of the Chicago Public Schools as the new CEO. My job with John then shifted into the Chicago Public Schools. It was a tremendous introduction to CPS, and I ended up staying on at CPS when I finished Harris. 

I ran what was called the Office of Extended Learning Programs. It was everything outside of the regular school day: after-school programming, weekends, summers, parent programming, enrichment activities. Some programs were academically focused, and some were not. We launched the Community Schools Programming, which brought more and more nonprofit providers into the system so that teachers didn’t have to stay another five hours after work. We brought nonprofits into the buildings, which allowed them to get out of needing bricks and mortar and infrastructure and the overhead of running these programs. This allowed incredible partnerships to take root. Well over one hundred schools had really robust programming through the Community Schools effort.

I did that for five years and then I transitioned to become the Budget Director for my last two-and-a-half years at CPS. That was a very different role, but the prior five years gave me a deep understanding of how schools functioned. In the Office of Extended Learning I had worked through all the legal agreements to bring in nonprofit partners and figured out resource allocations for schools that remained open five or six hours later. People were in the building so everything, including toilet paper supplies, needed to be increased. In that previous position I got to know the principals and the leaders of 600 schools which helped as I transitioned to the Budget Office. The job wasn’t quite as fun, but it was interesting to take all that learning and think about how to strategically deploy resources, how to fuel the education efforts happening on the other side of the organization, and how to build bridges between the finance and operation sides. Previously the education side had worked in parallel instead of collaborating to think about deploying resources better to drive student and youth outcomes. 

Transition to philanthropy and then Deputy for Education

I remained in that role for over two years before Arne went to become Secretary of Education. From CPS I transitioned to philanthropy. I was the first full-time Executive Director for the Pritzker Traubert Foundation. They were looking for someone who understood education and education policy. The philanthropic foundation side for me was a different platform or lens to apply all my learning around the education system and what it takes to support youth in Chicago. 

I was with the foundation for a few years and then transitioned back to government to be the Deputy for Education for Mayor Rahm Emanuel in his first term. That position provided the largest scope of responsibilities along my career trajectory. From a policy perspective I oversaw everything from education to youth development. In the education system people interact mainly with the Chicago Public Schools but the system includes the city colleges of Chicago that serve 70,000 young adults. It also included the Department of Family Support Services. They are managing a lot of the early childhood work happening across the city. The Park District has youth programming. The libraries have lots of youth programming including STEM drop-in centers. It was really interesting. It was a fascinating role because you could see the full spectrum of how the city attempts to support young people on the continuum from birth to work, from cradle to career. 

We really tried to leverage those systems to work better together, to have more communication, more data sharing, etc. Eighty percent of a young person’s life is spent outside the classroom, yet it feels like the policy conversation is all about the classroom and all about the tools. We tried to expand the conversation to say we need to look wholistically at a child’s life. I spent almost four years in the mayor’s office and then transitioned back to philanthropy. 

I became the Vice President for Programs and Strategy for the Joyce Foundation. Again, that was another cross-cutting role over all the program areas: education, employment, gun violence prevention, arts and culture, the environment, and democracy. I helped the Joyce Foundation to think about strategic giving not only in Chicago but the region, so that provided a larger lens to the Midwest. 

Now CEO of A Better Chicago

I did that for close to five years and then transitioned to my current role, which is CEO of A Better Chicago. A Better Chicago is a venture philanthropy. We take a page out of venture capital and model ourselves on that world. We are not like a traditional foundation which has an endowment and follows the 5% rule. We raise and pool capital and what we are looking for is the highest impact youth-serving organizations in Chicago who help young people get on a path out of poverty. The programs we fund can be from early childhood into early workforce as we serve the age range of zero to twenty-four. We are less concerned with where you are providing services on that continuum, but we really want to see that those programs and services are moving youth outcomes.

At A Better Chicago we have a small data team that looks at the return on investment,  and we provide unrestricted capital to those nonprofits who make an impact. We work directly with the nonprofit leaders to think about the milestones to success for the next many months and years. We also become a partner in the work, meaning we have additional resources including monetary, internal expertise, and pro bono partners to help them through capacity building. We know that as leaders they will try to scale and grow their impact and there will be challenges along the way. We want to be that partner they can come back to and say: “I really need a strategic consultant to help think through a revenue plan to scale to ‘X’ many schools or students” or “I want to diversify my board to be less programmatic in nature but more of a revenue creator,”  or “We are collecting student data but it’s laborious and we need a more efficient way to identify the outcomes that matter, how to collect the data, and how to communicate those to other funders and government.” 

We lean in in all those ways, doing whatever our organization needs us to do. Our portfolio overall is under 30 organizations because we really want to go deeper in partnership than traditional philanthropies who are structured in a different way. We’re thirteen years old and we’ve given out $65 million. All the organizations we fund serve a little over 49,000 young people annually. We are progressing to a fairly significant impact on the population of Chicago. 

For me, whether I was doing nonprofit work, government work, or philanthropy work, it has always been this through line of serving youth and families  in Chicago. 

2. Please describe a recent work project that you found particularly challenging or interesting and tell us why.

The pandemic has been challenging for everyone, but what we saw in our work is how incredibly challenging it was for young people and particularly low income youth and families. It felt like our work became more urgent than ever in 2020 and 2021. I still feel that way, that the repercussions of this pandemic are going to be very long. In the fall of 2020 when we knew students were still going to be out of school and unsure when they would return, we started to see the data on access issues. The freshman failure rates were starting to spike in ninth grade for black and Latinx males specifically. In all the data we collect we are starting to see some troubling trends. The school system worked so hard for so many years and made such incredible progress over the last two decades. But if you pick any indicator now, you can see the decline.

We started talking to cities and the head of CPS and asking what we could do for young people. We can’t bring them back to classrooms and hope it all works out and pretend this didn’t happen. However, we weren’t hearing a lot of solutions. The city was sharing that concerning data about youth and student outcomes, but the city was still in the position of debating when to bring students back to classrooms: how to do it,  masks or no masks, vaccination status. The conversation wasn’t about kids living through layers of trauma and how we are going to better support them. How are we going to recover and accelerate learning? How can we understand their social- emotional needs and the impact of the trauma?

At A Better Chicago we decided to reach out to the field. We know so many incredible nonprofit leaders. We know so many people in the youth space. Through a very collaborative process we created something called The Chicago Design Challenge. It was really an RFP (Request for Proposal), trying to solicit the best ideas in the field from the people living through this work every day. We asked them: “what do you see?”  For example, we were getting the data on academic declines from the city, which is what they were focused on. Our partner organizations conducted focus groups of parents, and another group conducted focus groups of principals and school leaders. The nonprofits and parents and the young people themselves described everything in terms of social- emotional learning trauma. It was very different. 

From data to projects and partnerships

We leveraged all that data and created The Chicago Design Challenge. We pointed to the pain points in the system and said bring us your best ideas. We had well over one hundred responses. There were interesting collaborations between organizations and schools. We had this incredible response of people wanting to do more for young people. We received really innovative bold ideas to try to get out of just going back to doing business as usual. We were then able to raise close to $8 million over a couple of months from philanthropic families and individual donors who felt the same way, who felt there needed to be more innovation in this moment. We launched the challenge and ended up investing in eight incredible initiatives. 

We partnered with the Education Lab at the University of Chicago, which was helping us think about the work and the impact of each of these interventions over time. Now we are a few years into that work funding high impact tutoring which came out of that, a number of social and emotional supports, and interventions that are embedded in schools. It took a crisis moment, but we have this nimble platform from which to inquire what we could be doing for kids, and how to galvanize the philanthropic community. Because we play at all the intersections it felt like a tremendous use of our organization. We could bring all those different groups together to come up with and invest in eight incredible interventions that are still going strong and still scaling. They are a piece of the progress that we are beginning to see in our schools. 

It's amazing how people just kept sharing information and intel because of the crisis. I hope we can maintain that in this sector. 

3. What aspects of your Harris education have been most valuable to you in your career?

I was an undergraduate English and American Studies major at a college with no core curriculum. It was a tremendous liberal arts education. I went to Harris seeking more of the quantitative skills I knew I needed if I wanted to get into policy and work at a systems level. I was intrigued by government just because of the scale,  the size, and the impact one can have. I gained quite a bit from the traditional Harris curriculum which strengthened my ability around research and data analysis. Even if I am not going to be the person doing the research, I learned how to be a smart consumer, ask the right questions,  and translate that well for others. The various economic and finance courses were very helpful when I was the Budget Director for the Chicago Public Schools. Those have been the really tactical applications of some of the course work. 

The courses that were incredibly helpful given my career and trajectory were less the true quantitative classes. Instead, they were similar to the organizational theory class that I took, as well as classes with Arielle Kalil where we studied the impact of early childhood policy. I also took classes with a couple of adjunct teachers. Paula Wolff taught a great course that covered a spectrum of policy issues in Chicago, in Illinois and beyond, and helped us learn how to distill complex issues and churn out a two-page brief. The assignments were very relevant. For example, using real examples we wrote briefs for a mayor and governor, and testimony in Congress. I have done those things: written briefs for the mayor and the governor, and I testified in front of Congress a couple of times. We learned a process of analysis and how to communicate positions effectively. People may not think about those courses because it’s the core quantitative courses that people often highlight at Harris. But the other courses taught us how to pull everything together.  

During your time at Harris did you work in teams?

There was a course where we rotated in groups of four, so with every new assignment we were in a new group of four and we had to figure out how to work together on the issue. It may have been Professor Lalonde’s class. I remember our team of four arguing about whether the death penalty should be eliminated in Illinois, and we argued that it should. It was an interesting moment in time to debate because that was a current issue. Then we switched to a new topic with a different group of people who had different skill sets. It was very helpful. 

I took another course from Professor Lalonde about policy and communication. We created PowerPoint slides and gave mock presentations to Congress. We produced testimony and proposals. We were translating what we had studied, learning how to work collaboratively, and then learning how to communicate effectively. Those are the experiences that stick with me. But I had to find those classes. They weren’t the most prevalent or obvious “take these” classes. 

Beth on Lake Michigan
On the Chicago River

4. What is an ideal fun day off for you?

Being outdoors is number one. Running along the lake would be my start. I would hope for sun and no wind. I would want to enjoy one of Chicago’s great restaurants, and we have a lot of them in our community. I love brunch. So first a run, then a late brunch at a fantastic Chicago eatery, followed by some time to relax outdoors and read. I have become an increasingly voracious fiction reader. That is probably because of the intensity of the subject matters and issues of my “real world” jobs. I like to take a break and read. Then I definitely want to spend time with my family and my kids who will all be leaving me soon for college and other ventures. Stealing some fun family time would be part of my ideal day off. 

5. What piece of “counter-intuitive” advice would you give your “Harris self” now?

My advice would be similar to what I was saying about my Harris classes. When you are a student at Harris you attend math camp, you use calculus and study statistics and economics, and you can get narrowly focused on trying to achieve in each class or subject area.  However, so much of achieving successful policy is about understanding people. You can approach a situation with the greatest set of quantitative skills but what it really requires is that you understand people, that you understand how to listen, and how to communicate well and express your ideas and opinions. To me being successful in the arenas of policy and politics and government is so much about relationships. You have to connect with people, understand their viewpoint and their experience, and then blend that with evidence and data and what might work on paper. The really successful stuff happens somewhere “in between.” 

Read Up

Stay informed about important professional development and leadership topics. Our curated and insightful articles highlight connections to our webinar speakers. 

High-Performing Professionals Run on Self Awareness
A commentary by Terri Brady about developing self-awareness, which requires curiosity, humility, and courage.

How to Network When There Are No Networking Events
Our initial webinar speaker, thought leader Dorie Clark, wrote a piece in Harvard Business Review on how to network when there are no networking events.

Master of Influence: The “Notorious RBG” Used Persuasion to Advance Equality
A commentary by Terri Brady about how Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg used the persuasion tools of framing, building relationships, and asking strategic questions to change policy and laws.

The Power of Networking: A Harris Connection Story
When Harris alumna Mary Michaud, MPP ’95, connected with Analiese Wagner, MPP ’20 and Sarah Gill, MPP ’20 it triggered a powerful chain of subsequent connections and events. And it all began with a single email.

Listen Up

Explore our collection of webinar series and individual events to hear from experts on a range of topics related to professional development and leadership.

Listen to past webinars from the Communicating Public Policy Series, the Transition Series, the Influencing Series, the Leadership Series, and the Wellness Series.

"Winning with Emotional Intelligence": From the Highly Successful Pitch Man for the Mastercard “Priceless” Campaign

Kevin Allen headshot
Kevin Allen, PhD

Kevin Allen has been called the “modern day mad man” by Publishers Weekly. During his storied career at the top of ad giant McCann WorldGroup he led the development of the Priceless platform for Mastercard. He is the author of  the Wall Street Journal Bestseller, The Hidden Agenda: A Proven Way to Win Business and Create a Following.

After his time at McCann, Kevin Allen was the Chief Growth Officer at the Interpublic Group of Companies. He was a key advisor to NYC Mayors and a member of the board for the AIDS quilt.

Kevin is also an award winning Ed-Tech entrepreneur. Currently he is the Founder and CEO of E I Games, creators of online simulations and courseware in Emotional Intelligence business skills: leadership, diversity, project management, entrepreneurship, and communication. The simulations and courses are in use at companies such as Google, Oracle, Expedia, and universities such as Duke and the Harvard School of Design. 

Kevin holds a PhD in Management specializing in Organizational Psychology, and a master’s degree in Marketing. He holds a number of academic positions: Adjunct Professor of Marketing and Advertising at Florida Atlantic University, a Fellow at Ball State University, and a visiting lecturer at North Carolina State, Grinnell College, and the Harvard School of Design. 

Kevin’s insights and experience in communications made him the perfect guest for our series on Communicating Public Policy.  Listen to the webinar to learn:

  • How “the art of” emotional intelligence helped Kevin to pitch and win business with clients as diverse as MasterCard, Marriott, and South African Airways.
  • How you can identify and connect with the audience’s “hidden agenda” (the audience’s emotional motivation) using the “Allen Key” framework to find their wants, values, and needs, and “real ambitions.”
  • Kevin’s framework for profiling the audience into four categories using an interactive exercise to help with “the ask.”
  • Specific questions to learn about your audience, tips on listening skills, storytelling suggestions, and other insights for "commanding" your pitch.

Listen to the webinar here.

"Framing Public Policy": A Webinar with Persuasion Expert Jay Heinrichs

Jay Heinrichs
Jay Heinrichs

We are remarkably sensitive to how concepts are framed. George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive science and linguistics, argues that framing influences our reasoning. That’s why it’s important to choose words that will be convincing and effective when you advocate for your policy issues and positions. In this highly interactive webinar, persuasion expert Jay Heinrichs offers a set of tools to control the framing of a public issue.   

As a very popular previous guest in our webinar series “Influencing,” Jay Heinrichs led us through a fascinating discussion about how to use the correct “tense” in political arguments. He is the author of three books on rhetoric – the art of persuasion – including the New York Times bestseller, Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion. He has consulted for aerospace engineers at NASA, the Wharton School of Business, doctors at Kaiser Permanente, the European Speechwriters Network, and the Pentagon. Bloomberg BusinessWeek profiled his work with the marketing firm Ogilvy UK in a feature titled “Jay Heinrich’s Powers of Persuasion.”

Listen to our Communicating Public Policy interactive workshop with Jay to learn:

  • What “framing” is and how to use it to redefine the terms of every policy argument around an audience’s beliefs and desires (and how to find the audience’s interests and values).
  • The six steps to create a new framework for a public policy issue including how to broaden, simplify, and personalize the issue. Practice reframing using the challenging issues of climate change, gun control, and other topics.
  • How to use the “future tense” to make a persuasive argument and/or solve a problem.
  • The art of epiphanic storytelling to capture an audience even with the wonkiest data-laden topic.

Listen to the webinar here.

The Groundbreaking Science of Kindness: Live Longer, Happier and Healthier
A Webinar with Kelli Harding, MD, MPH, author of “The Rabbit Effect”

Headshot of Kelli Harding
Kelli Harding

On January 24, 2023 we hosted a discussion in our Wellness Webinar series with Dr. Kelli Harding, a medical and public health doctor who specializes in mind-body medicine. Her book and research present a radical new way to think about health, wellness and how we live. 

Kelli Harding, MD, MPH, trained in psychiatry at Columbia University where she continues to teach, is Board certified in both Psychiatry and Psychosomatic (mind- body) Medicine, has a degree in public health from Columbia University, and completed a two-year National Institute of Mental Health research fellowship studying anxiety disorders and unexplained medical symptoms. She has appeared on the Today show, Good Morning America, NPR, BBC, and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the World Economic Forum.

Listen to our webinar with Kelli Harding, MD, MPH to learn:

  • How a 1978 study involving rabbits showing that kindness in the form of a nurturing researcher was the reason that some rabbits had healthier hearts; this study then led to more groundbreaking research demonstrating that kindness can have a far greater impact on our health than anything that happens in the doctor’s office
  • Why social isolation is a critical risk factor affecting our health and chronic loneliness is more of a risk factor than other things like high blood pressure and smoking a pack of cigarettes a day; it’s important to create and invest in public policies that result in positive social connections
  • About research studies showing that taking naps, having a pet, the power of touch, being optimistic, expressing gratitude, and engaging in lifelong learning are “health protective”
  • Why it’s important to learn conflict resolution skills and how engaging in  “micro-kindnesses” can influence ourselves and other people and lead to better health outcomes

Listen to the webinar here.

Speak Up

Partner with us in our efforts to support lifelong learning and Harris community building!

Ask a question

If you have questions about professional development, or you would like us to explore specific subjects, contact Terri Brady, Executive Director of Professional Development at tbrady@uchicago.edu.


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Submit your editorial.

Send questions to the Chicago Policy Review editor in chief at editor.in.chief@chicagopolicyreview.org.