Chicago native Kerease Epps (TFA Detroit ’13) knew growing up that the system she was a part of as a Chicago Public Schools student wasn’t one that gave all students a fair chance. Now as a recruitment manager for an education nonprofit dedicated to closing the achievement gap in mathematics, she’s working to ensure that students get the support they need to succeed.
Explain what led you to care deeply about educational equity. What personal values, experiences or beliefs inform this?
I was born and raised on the Southside of Chicago and attended Chicago Public Schools (CPS) for my entire academic career prior to college.
The experience of being a CPS student from an underserved part of the city gave me a unique understanding of the inequities that exist in Chicago that are dictated by socioeconomic class and race. I was always aware that education funding was not equitable. We lived in an all-black neighborhood filled with working class families, including my own. It was important to my parents that my brother and I were able to test into selective enrollment programs in order to receive the best education possible within their budget constraints.
As a college student at Northwestern, I developed the language to describe my earlier experience and an understanding of the roots and long-term effects of educational inequity. I was surrounded by peers who had a variety of experiences and skills in areas in which I had never had exposure. I watched my closest friend who I attended high school with struggle through her STEM classes as her peers excelled. I found myself crying to my parents as I fought through my economics class, feeling ill-equipped having never taken an econ class in high school.
From this experience, I knew I wanted to spend my life working to create avenues where all students from neighborhoods similar to my own would persevere and excel through college.
How has LEE helped you in your mission to end educational inequity?
Since completing my corps years in Detroit and returning to Chicago, LEE has been instrumental to my development as a professional in multiple ways.
I have had the opportunity to be a Policy & Advocacy Summer Fellow, where I worked at the Chicago Public Education Fund. This was instrumental to my growth and understanding of the intersection of politics and education in Chicago. I met many power players in education and made contacts at some of the leading organizations in the city.
Through LEE, I’ve also participated in the National Organizing Workshop, which helped me grow as a community organizer, and the African American Political Leadership Program, where I overcame my fear of leading, and became motivated to actively engage in my community and seek out other leadership opportunities.
The biggest help during my transition from the classroom into the advocacy work that I do now was my LEE career coach. She helped me every step of the way — from identifying appropriate roles and professional development workshops to exploring organizations that align with my personal vision and professional goals.
Tell us about your current role. What’s a typical day like? What is the impact you’re having on educational equity?
I’m a recruitment manager at SAGA Innovations, an education nonprofit that serves traditional public and charter schools in Chicago and New York City. The mission of SAGA is to transform the lives of students and close the achievement gap in mathematics by providing high-impact personalized tutoring to students.
My primary responsibility is to increase the pipeline of high-quality tutors to work with students. I spend most of my time traveling across the country working with partner organizations and colleges to attract potential fellows to our program.
I love the work of SAGA — when I was a CPS student myself, I could have greatly benefited from additional math supports that explained complex content in a way that I understood. Overwhelmingly, math is the subject that prevents many students from excelling in post-secondary institutions and I believe is one of several key components needed to close the education gap.
What is your vision for ending educational inequity in the U.S.?
My vision for ending educational inequity in the U.S. begins with providing equitable funding and implementing culturally responsive teaching practices. I believe that all students should have access to equitable resources that will allow them to be competitive in the growing and changing economy.
What do you see as your role in achieving this vision?
I believe that my role is to continue to act as an advocate highlighting the inequities and how they persist, whether hypervisible or systemic. I want to continue to use my own privileges and experiences to lift up the voices of those who do not usually have access to those platforms.