Erica Brown
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Erica Brown

Executive Director, City on a Hill Charter School

Erica Brown with Alan & Harriet LewisEach of us has defining moments that change the course of our lives. For Erica Brown, one such moment occurred when she was nine years old, and her family was driving past the junior high school in her Malden, Mass., neighborhood, on the outskirts of Boston. Standing outside the building was a group of eleven- and twelve-year-old students, smoking. Her parents decided on the spot that they would not send their daughter to that school. The ramifications of that decision have reverberated through Erica's life ever since.

The first after-effect was that Erica attended parochial school for a year. But the fees were steep for her father, a truck driver, and her stay-at-home mom, so the family relocated to Billerica—at the time, a rural community about 15 miles farther outside the city from Malden. "I was used to getting around independently on the MBTA," says Erica, referring to Boston's mass-transit system. "When I was ten, I thought moving to Billerica was the worst possible thing that could happen to me."

As soon as she graduated from high school, she returned eagerly to the city, enrolling at Harvard University, where she majored in English. Having lived all her life in Massachusetts, however, she wanted to "experience something of the universe," as she puts it. She applied for overseas teaching jobs, and after a short stint in Salzburg, Austria, she found herself in front a classroom in San Juan, Puerto Rico. "Like most first-year teachers, I made mistakes," she admits. "I replicated what I liked about my own education, and when mistakes occurred, tried to fix them but didn't really have the training to do so." She decided that she wanted learn more about the teaching profession, so she returned to Massachusetts and enrolled in the graduate program at Tufts University.

Getting in on the Ground Floor

It was while she was in graduate school that another defining moment in Erica's life occurred. In 1993, the Massachusetts Education Reform Act was signed into law, legalizing the establishment of charter public schools. According to the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association (MCPSA), charter schools were developed to "provide educational choice for parents, expand educational opportunity for their children, and promote change in their districts." Though public and not private by definition, charter public schools are given freedom in academic programming, organization, and mission—and at the same time are held to a higher level of accountability than district schools.

The idea was not popular among Erica's classmates at Tufts. "When the name of a charter public school came up, the students in my graduate-level class hissed," she recalls. The rivalry between charter public schools and unionized district schools was intense, and—loyal to her father, who was a union member—Erica supported the unions. Still, upon leaving graduate school, she "plastered charter schools" with her resume.

Among those who responded was Ann Connolly Tolkoff, co-founder of City on a Hill Charter Public High School, which had the distinction of being the first urban charter high school in the state to be founded and run entirely by teachers. "I went in for a half-hour interview and ended up having a three-hour debate with her," Erica smiles. Despite their differences over the value of unionization—or perhaps because of them—Erica was hired and became a full-time English teacher at the school in 1998.

Once a Teacher, Always a Teacher

Her early years at City on a Hill were tumultuous ones for the school. Vacancies in the administration pulled her "closer to the top," until she was named Executive Director four years ago. Yet the premise on which the school was founded—that the school be organized and run by teachers—continues to prevail, and Erica maintains a teaching load in addition to her administrative duties. "The best administrators are teachers," she says simply. "We like to make sure we're making decisions from the perspective of the classroom."

Academic excellence is just one aspect of the mission of City on a Hill. Another is that "all public schools should be producing an educated, skilled citizenry," according to Erica. At her school, that entails students' identifying a problem in their urban community, volunteering toward its solution, and conducting independent research, culminating in a presentation to teachers and experts in the field. The school also holds a lively "New England-style" debate every Friday, taking votes on issues ranging from the war in Afghanistan to whether curfews for teenagers will make the city safer.

Other pillars of the school's mission include teaching leadership skills and holding the school itself accountable to the public. "We believe the people paying for the kids' education should be able to come in and give feedback," Erica says. "The response has been profound."

The response of the students themselves has also been profound. Erica reports that most students matriculate at her school with a "low middle school education." Yet today, 100% of City on a Hill students are accepted into college—a statistic that "includes students whose native language is not English, whose family has been in poverty for generations, who have experienced severe emotional and physical trauma, who enter reading at the third-grade level, and several whose IQ is below 70," according to Erica. She adds that all City on a Hill students have a tutor to individualize their education, an advisor to guide their education, and access to full counseling services to make their education accessible in the face of harsh urban realities of violence and poverty.

Building on Success

Another accomplishment of which Erica is justly proud is the school building itself. When the school was founded, it was housed in the local YMCA building. It quickly outgrew its six classrooms there, however, and City on a Hill was eager to find a more permanent home.

It took a gutsy leader indeed to make the decision Erica did for moving the school. The site chosen was "an old dilapidated school building" on property purchased from the Boston archdiocese, in Dudley Square—a crime-ridden neighborhood in Boston's Roxbury district. When parents objected, Erica told them, "Stick with us, we've kept your kids safe so far." Then she set about organizing meetings with official—and unofficial—leaders of the community, to brief them on what the school was trying to accomplish. "They were totally respectful of that," she says. Today, the beautifully refurbished school serves as a community center, and students in their uniforms commute to and from school, largely with impunity from the violence that permeates the area.

Partnering with Grand Circle Foundation

Grand Circle Foundation has enjoyed a long partnership with City on a Hill, and when Joe Cali, Grand Circle Corporation's Executive Vice President, Analytics & Web Marketing, approached Foundation Chair Harriet Lewis for a challenging project, she referred him to the school. Joe joined the board in 2004 and was thrown into the mix right away.

"Erica is an amazing individual. She leads by example and is not afraid to take on new challenges," he says. "Since I have known Erica, she has taken on the responsibility of Leadership for City on a Hill, she helped implement a major change in the curriculum, which has resulted in significant improvements in test scores and college acceptance, and she oversaw an ambitious move to a new location including a recent addition of a beautiful new wing. Her boundless energy, enthusiastic, no-nonsense approach, and ability to assess issues both subjectively and objectively make her an outstanding leader that I am proud to work with."

Joe's contributions to City on a Hill are just one of the reasons why Erica is quick to credit Alan and Harriet Lewis for providing support that helps her achieve her dreams for the school. Through Grand Circle Foundation, "they have funded every idea we've had," Erica states. That support is not automatic, however. "They don't approve anything unless we convince them that it's needed," she says. "They're demanding and rigorous—and the results show it. They've never let us down."

Clearly, the Lewises are also impressed with the success of Erica herself. Two years ago, she was given the Lewis Changing People's Lives Award, which honors the achievements of community leaders who share their passion for change.

Today, Erica's passion for change through education extends to offering even more children in the Boston area "the same option that I had: getting a good, free education—but without having to move out to the sticks." Toward that end, Erica and the teachers and administration of City on a Hill plan to make a small, safe, college-preparatory education available to other low-income families elsewhere in the Boston area. Not a bad result for a career launched by a chance encounter with students smoking outside a school.


This story was featured in our January 2011 E-Newsletter. Read the full issue here.