Chelsea Wilhelm wants all children to get a good education. The 29-year-old D.C. resident says she went to a substandard high school in Annapolis, and her desire to ensure that others don’t have a similar experience led her to Teach for America, which brings college graduates from around the country to work in low-income schools. She is now senior manager for compliance for the education company KIPP DC.
You used to work for Teach for America. What do you do now?
KIPP has 18 or 19 charter schools in the D.C. area. I work with the compliance team on network-wide projects and I also manage the attendance pointer team. We manage everything from [the schools’] enrollment to standardized testing. We make sure the principals and their teachers are all following the national guidelines.
What was Teach for America like?
After college, I went into Teach for America. I was placed in Cincinnati. I did two years out there. I worked at a Head Start [preschool]. Funding was limited, staffing was limited. So [I had to learn] to utilize my resources in the best way possible.
Can you give an example?
There were maybe two or three social workers for about 22 preschool classrooms, [which isn’t enough. The idea was] how do we make this work with limited resources? I couldn’t go and hire a set of social workers myself.
I created an internship program with the University of Cincinnati students to get their social work practicum hours at Head Start. So, [Head Start] got social work assistance without a cost to the program and the students got the practicum hours they needed. I was able to start this mutual, beneficial relationship, which is awesome.
What made you decide to go into education?
I had studied social work. And I’ve always loved advocacy. I started to see education as an opportunity to really get ahead of things. I just found education [to be] a really great
opportunity to grow in anyone’s life. I felt like working in education was the ultimate way.
My brother and I had gone to a high school that itself struggled with a lot of national standards [like standardized testing scores] and [there were] certain consequences, like all the teachers needing to reapply for their jobs, that occurred in the high school. So I always had a passion early on for really improving education.
Did you have any influential teachers?
There’s two. Keith Caldwell and Azadeh Block. They were easily the best professors I’ve ever had.
Professor Caldwell taught me how to work through crucial conversations. At the end of the day, when you’re talking with somebody, and there’s contention, more likely than not it’s not about you but some other kind of stressor. I use it almost every day in education now.
And Dr. Block, I thought she was just so impressive. She was a strong,
confident woman. She was teaching and raising kids and doing all these initiatives on the side. She really taught me to understand how the history of social work was being used to support communities in the present.
Did your Jewish background influence your passion for education?
Absolutely. The thing I appreciate about Judaism is the emphasis it has on the present [and] about what you’re doing now to make the world better, and how you impact and benefit others. I think that’s a really great aspect I try to do day in and day out.
What educational issue are you most focused on now?
One thing we work on in D.C. a lot with our students is creating safe passageways, to make sure kids can get to school safely. We’re a big city, so I want to give them access to pathways that are safe. There’s a lot of ways to improve. WJW
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