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Ali Fendrick, AM'19

On her desk, Ali Fendrick, AM’19, has a photo of her students from when she taught fourth grade in Miami a decade ago, a constant reminder that policies have real-life effects on children. “These students went through an education system that was set up to fail them,” she says. “Somebody has to help make these systems better. I feel really confident that I have done that over my past few years here.”

Just months after her Evening Master’s Program (EMP) graduation, Fendrick, a member of the inaugural EMP cohort, was still settling into her new position as the policy program manager at the Chicago Public Schools when the COVID-19 pandemic turned the whole world sideways. Practically overnight, an already complicated job became infinitely more so, forcing her to hit the ground running. “I was writing new policies, figuring out remote learning, being proactive rather than retroactive or reactive,” says Fendrick. Doing so required the kind of strategic flexibility that doesn’t always come naturally to an entity as large as CPS.

A native of Ann Arbor, Michigan, Fendrick taught fourth graders at an underfunded school in Miami and worked as a community organizer for Airbnb in Chicago before becoming one of the 28 members of the EMP’s first class, which met twice a week for 15 months. During that time, she learned how to interpret data—a skill that enabled her to look deeper at CPS and ask the right questions. “When a school boasts that 100 percent of its students get into college, you’re like, ‘That's amazing,’” she says of data at places like CPS. “But then it’s, “Wait a minute, how many students did you start with who made it from freshman year to senior year?’ People were rarely asking those kinds of questions.”

Nor did lawmakers seem to consider cost-benefit analyses when deciding whether or not to implement or amend a new education policy. “People are writing these laws with good intent, but they’re not thinking about the implications it will have,” says Fendrick. “No one's crunching the numbers or thinking practically about what's going to happen. It’s crucial to ask, ‘Are you actually going to have the impact that you think you are?’ And I don't think people are doing that enough when talking about ideas.”

Too much of Chicago’s educational policy, Fendrick argues, is created by people who are not directly impacted—and without the input of those who are. That’s where data collection and analysis come in. “When I'm amending a policy, one of the first things I ask is, ‘What teachers can I get to give input? What principals? Students? Community members?’” Fendrick says. “I’m focused on community engagement so that I feel confident when I go in front of the Board of Education and say, ‘This is something that will help,’ it’s by the people, for the people.”

Some of CPS’s most pressing current issues include chronic under-enrollment, grappling with learning loss due to COVID-19, subpar test scores, inequitable policies, and high turnover at the leadership level. But Fendrick argues that there are reasons to be optimistic, citing the school district’s new emphasis on stakeholder engagement and a mandate that every policy goes under review every two years, including an equity review—managed by her. “Hopefully, that will remove some of the out-of-date policies that are inequitable,” she says. “Or it will change them so that we have a fresh set of policies that are relevant and equitable to students.”

Lessons learned from Harris’s EMP program impacted Fendrick before she even began her job. She particularly cites Senior Lecturer John Burrows’ class on Leadership and Negotiations for giving her the skills to negotiate a higher salary when starting at CPS—something she had failed to do in her previous job. “Lots of different things that I learned were preparing me to be a leader in the field,” Fendrick says. “I feel like I'm establishing myself as someone who is an expert in policy, and I obviously thank Harris for all of those skills.”

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Troy Boyd Jr., AM'19

Another member of that first EMP cohort, Troy Boyd Jr., AM ’19, said because the program was filled with people who were already in the workforce, they were not in competition against one another. “A lot of us were in the same place in life,” says Boyd. “We were emerging leaders, using this as a stepping stone into those leadership positions in our organizations or at other organizations. And we were trying to succeed together.”

Currently the Chief Operating Officer of Urban Prep Academies, a network of all-Black male charter high schools in Chicago, Boyd took a different path from Fendrick’s. After earning a Bachelor’s Degree in broadcast journalism at Northwestern University, the Chatham native took a job teaching history at Urban Prep. In the ensuing 15 years, Boyd has played many roles there, including basketball coach, director of advancement, and finding himself responsible for everything from fundraising to student recruitment. As overseer of the Alumni and Fellows programs—for which he lends post-graduation support to students on their way to college, Boyd shared that, “on multiple instances, I was putting kids' clothes in bags, renting cars, packing them up in the car and driving them myself to college. Two weeks ago, a former student who’s at Howard right now asked me if we could get him a flight back to school, because otherwise he wouldn't have had a way to go back.”

A decade into his tenure at Urban Prep, Boyd learned that Harris was recruiting for its inaugural EMP cohort, where classes would be just four blocks from his current office. It felt like divine intervention for an analytical thinker who saw policy as central to every facet of life.

Three weeks later, he was accepted into the program, where he eventually met Fendrick and a diverse class of students, most of whom had been out of school for years at the same moment EMP was still getting its footing. “It was a huge adjustment for everybody,” Boyd says. “And there was no need on either end to be perfect. So, there was a lot of understanding.”

John Burrows is a Senior lecturer at the Harris School of Public Policy and an associate fellow at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School.

His 18 months at Harris shaped his career profoundly. Like Fendrick, Boyd also cites Burrows’s leadership and negotiations class, which has influenced his interaction with everyone from school administrators to his headstrong young daughter. And as he asks the crucial question—what causes success or failure for students—he relies on data-driven policy for answers. “I've always been an analytical thinker, but this program allowed me to sharpen those tools even more,” says Boyd. “Whether I'm trying to identify the effectiveness of a program at Urban Prep, learn the root causes for the challenges with a certain student, or highlight the distinction between causation and correlation, my experience at Harris informs it all.”

Boyd is particularly encouraged by Harris’ increased focus on education policy. Why, he asks, do policymakers and administrators continue to use anecdotal stories to drive decisions when there are ample studies from which to draw concrete conclusions? He has seen the consequences of haphazard decision making, particularly on young African-American men. “It speaks to the importance of how critical of an inflection point we are at right now with so many vulnerable groups as it relates to school and education,” he says. “Whether it's high school, junior high, or elementary school, you only have a small period of time to get it right. And if you don't, we've seen where that can lead us in this country, in this world. Data sets the path forward for how we should be moving.”