By The Company It Keeps: Mashea Ashton

By the Company it Keeps: Tim Daly

I’ve known Mashea Ashton on and off for almost a decade. We’ve done charter school stuff together and crossed paths in various other pursuits. I always liked and respected her a great deal. In my mind she was good people.

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But through a fellowship program, I got to know Mashea even better. And for that I’m eternally grateful. Seldom will you come across someone with so much ability and yet so much humility. She is reflective and kind to the core, and she does this work with a quiet passion.

As you’ll see in the questions, Mashea has just about done it all. She’s worked for some of the most influential ed-reform organizations, and she’s currently leading a major effort in one of America’s most prominent ed-reform cities.

But you’ll also see in her answers how she manages to avoid the limelight: by simply being decent and modest and giving others credit.

And that is why I love doing these interviews: to show why our movement is so strong and to draw attention to those who so richly deserve it.

Ladies and gentlemen: the wonderful Mashea Ashton.

What makes you most proud of the Newark Charter School Fund?

I’m most proud of the ability the charter sector and our partners in the district have shown to put aside our differences and commit to the shared goal of creating a system of great schools. Both the charter school sector and the district have worked hard to put aside the “us vs. them” mentality that plagues many other systems and create a truly collaborative environment. While we may have our differences from time to time, our end goal is the same: to ensure that every child in every ward in Newark has access to a high-quality school that prepares them for college and the competitive world beyond.

The CREDO report on New Jersey charters said Newark has one of the highest-performing charter sectors of any city that organization has studied. What did Newark, the state, funders, and operators do right?

The first thing we did right was make clear our relentless focus on quality.  You have to start with the question. “Would I want my child or my best friend’s child to attend this school?” Second, I think the collaborative spirit we share with the district goes a long way toward ensuring that public charter schools exist in an environment where they can thrive. The public charter sector has also committed to accountability and transparency, which goes a long way toward building trust and engagement with parents.

One area of simmering tension in the charter movement is the CMO vs. “Mom-and-Pop” debate. It contains the challenging issues of race, class, philanthropy, politics, policy, and more. Do you have any particular thoughts on this matter?

Our main goal, in collaboration with the district schools, is to expand students’ access to high-quality schools, whether they’re district schools or public charter schools. The portfolio approach we use in Newark means we have both CMO and unaffiliated public charter schools. Public charter schools come in all shapes and sizes, and there are definitely benefits to both models. Parents want a school that respects them, their children, and the community. As long as they’re serving students and families well, we’re happy.

What’s it like working in a town with a rock-star famous mayor, a hard-charging superintendent, and the shadow of the $100 million Zuckerberg donation? I could imagine feeling exhilarated and claustrophobic all at once.

That’s a good way to put it! It is exciting to see such strong growth of the public charter sector in Newark, and such fantastic support from all fronts. Mayor Booker has been a great supporter, as has Gov. Christie, and we’re grateful to have a partner in Superintendent Anderson, who shares our commitment to strengthening all schools in Newark so we can improve access to high-quality education for all students.

Not to make you blush, but you have a really impressive résumé. In addition to leading NCSF, you’ve been an executive with KIPP, New Leaders, and the NYCDOE. You’ve also been a board member of leading organizations, including BAEO and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Where is your professional path leading you?

I’ve seen a lot in my years in the education-reform movement and the charter school sector, and I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited about the work than I am here in Newark. But while we’re seeing truly great progress in supporting the quality growth of the public charter school sector, there’s still a lot of work to be done here in Newark.

If you could talk to the twenty-somethings now cutting their teeth in education reform who will someday lead this work, what would you tell them?

The kind of partisanship that seems so popular in Washington does not work in the real world. Get it out of your heads now. If you’re going to be successful, you’ve got to work together.

I’m told that you really like to buy books for people you care about. What books have influenced you the most? Which books do you most like to give as gifts and why?

The two books I give away the most are probably Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, by David Allen, and The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter, by Michael Watkins. I have also personally enjoyed Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America, by Paul Tough, and Master of the Senate, Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson.

You’re a twin AND you’re the mother of twins. How have those experiences formed you? How do you balance being an organizational executive and a mom of double toddlers?

Being a twin taught me firsthand how to collaborate and work as a team to achieve more. My sister was my first teammate. In addition, especially for those of us in the field of education, children put why we do what we do in perspective. Becoming a mom has helped motivate me to be unapologetic about the children-first approach we’re taking in Newark. I think all parents feel the same way I do: that our children are more important than politics, more important than one person’s profile or legacy, more important than unions or special interests. If we’re going to make real progress in providing children with access to high-quality education, we have to put those things aside and commit to doing whatever it takes.

I’m told that you’re a huge fan of Beyoncé and Jay-Z. Now, I’m of the mind that the finest professional moment of each actually occurs in the same song: 2003’s “Crazy In Love.” It won a bunch of Grammys, VH1 named it the best song of the 2000s, and—my Lord!—in Jay’s verse, he name-checks Tony Soprano, Ringo Starr, Nick Van Exel, and a chinchilla! Are you with me, or do you think they have better songs?

I love every Beyoncé and Jay-Z song out there, so you can’t make me pick one! Don’t get me started!

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