CharterFolk Contributor Column – Ten Folk Offer Remembrances of Linda Brown

Greetings, CharterFolk!

We had a lot of response to The 2023 CharterFolk Year in Review wherein I remembered Linda Brown. So much so, we thought it would be a good idea to delay our regularly scheduled Contributor Column this week in order to create a post that would compile some of the thoughts that many Folk had to share about Linda and her impact on their lives and work. Some offered a few hundred words. Others a sentence of two. Others included pictures and a link to another tribute they posted elsewhere. Below we provide a compendium of the submissions we received from people who knew and were influenced deeply by Linda. To all who contributed, we extend our deepest thanks.

As I shared on our first day here at CharterFolk nearly four years ago, a primary motivation for making CharterFolk in the first place was a promise I made to a person in the charter school world whose voice I vowed to ensure would remain forever heard. It is a promise that has evolved as I took on new roles in the charter school movement and came to recognize even more deeply just how many extraordinary leaders there are working within our nation’s charter schools whose voices should be forever heard. Linda Brown’s is certainly one of the most remarkable of those many remarkable voices.

Before turning to the tributes, I will highlight an instance of serendipity.

Last week, in my post about the need for Uncommon Advocacy, I referenced “Charter Schools that Work,” a video-essay filmed at PBS in 2000. In her tribute to Linda, Jeanne Allen linked to the same video, which features Linda.

I find it particularly appropriate that Linda would have been included in that PBS piece, given that so much of her professional life was dedicated to creating “charter schools that work.” And there is no greater testament to her legacy than the fact that hundreds of charter schools that really work are now serving tens of thousands of students in communities across the United States. And the leaders rising within those organizations are growing to take to on ever greater responsibility for directing our entire movement.

With that being the case, it is abundantly clear:

Linda Brown’s already massive impact on charter schools and on all of public education in our country is destined to only further multiply in the years and decades to come.

CharterFolk Contributor Column – Ten Folk Offer Remembrances of Linda Brown

Lagra Newman, Founder and Head of School, Purpose Preparatory Academy, Nashville, Tennessee

Revered as the Godfather of “America’s Best Charter Schools,” I could not be more thankful for Linda Brown’s belief in me and my leadership. Intensely trained under her organization, Building Excellence Schools, Purpose Prep reflects her vision of high expectations and educational excellence, and her passion and fierceness will forever echo within our halls!

You inspired into action an impact that has benefited children and communities across our country, Linda. What a legacy! I love you!

Dr. Christopher R. Manning, CEO and Head of School, Buffalo Creek Academy, Buffalo New York

Linda became a very close friend and mentor to me. She summoned me back to the United States from overseas to found a school in Buffalo, NY. Her sage advice still guides me today and will continue to do so. 

Kayleigh Colombero, Founder and Superintendent, Étoile Academy Charter School, Houston, TX

I met Linda Brown in a small diner in Natick right off the Mass Pike. I had driven from western MA and I was both nervous and unsure about what to expect. We had a few phone calls prior, but Linda’s legendary status in education reform loomed large in my mind. On one phone call we connected so much that she ended up singing me “Mack the Knife.” To her surprise, I knew the words and sang along with her.

 Meeting in a Diner

I walked into the diner unsure how this incredible woman would receive me. I will never forget the light and joy in her face when I came to the small booth. She shared with light surprise how pretty I was, and showed me an awful picture of my video interview. We had a good laugh about how terrible the picture was. True to Linda, we dove into the deep questions before the muffins and eggs arrived. When I shared with her that I went to Smith, mostly in defiance of my mother who had proclaimed that “only really smart, really rich girls go there,” I could tell that Linda saw some of her stubborn and tenacious spirit in me. Later, this would become a binding story for us. The idea that we would accomplish anything (especially when told we couldn’t) made me feel deeply connected to Linda. She gave me the largest opportunity in my life to successfully complete this narrative again. She gave me the Fellowship and trusted me with opening the first BES school in Houston (only the second in TX). This is Linda Brown. She looks at a teacher from western MA (who had never set foot in Houston or Texas) and thought, She can open this school. When Linda believes in you, you can do anything.

 Meeting in Houston

Over a year later, Linda would come to visit me in Houston. I picked her up at the airport and drove her around, showing her possible sites for the school. I was shocked to learn that this was her first trip to Houston as well. Here we were, stubborn and motivated women from MA, using every bit of our five-foot bodies to will a good school into existence for children in Houston. Spending the day with her completely re-energized me. Her big belief in my abilities gave me a confidence I had never known. I felt compelled to make the school work for kids and families, for myself, for BES, and truly for Linda. I knew she had taken a risk on me; I couldn’t let her down.

Meeting Again and Again

Years later, with the school fully opened, doing right by students and families, and surpassing my own imagination, I would get to see Linda a few more times while visiting the BES offices in Boston. Each time, she would remind me of both my determination to go to Smith and my ability to open a school in Houston, TX with no connections, no political support, and (originally) only a basic knowledge of Texas education in general. Again, we would connect over the story of our lives the ability to surprise ourselves and others with the amazing things we could (and did) do. I always felt Linda and I were kindred spirits refusing to take NO as an answer when we saw injustice or lack of opportunity for others. Somehow, Linda even managed to amplify my spunk in this arena. I had always been that feisty kid, but with Linda cheering me on, I became that unstoppable woman. I am forever indebted to Linda for the opportunities she gave me, and her unwavering belief in me. I can only imagine how many others she has done this for as well. I know that hundreds of individuals and thousands of kids, families, and educators have been deeply impacted by her work and her commitment to education reform. Like Shackleton in the Antarctic, Linda fostered collective determination to beat all odds in all those she led. I learned this from her; I am forever grateful. On a final personal note, when (during another memorable phone call) I told Linda I was pregnant (with a baby girl), her joy and excitement for me to raise another feisty lady rang out from MA to TX. A few weeks later, adorable baby clothes arrived in TX addressed to Countess Paige. Here she was again, believing in me and my unborn baby with all of her heart. That is true Linda – and how her small touch means so much.

Susan Walsh, Former Chief Academic Officer, Building Excellent Schools

When Linda Brown thought about her legacy, she earnestly remarked that she had “gathered around her the most remarkable people.”  

Linda was modest to the core on this one: she did not see herself as an education reform powerhouse, yet clearly she was. Many of the most successful charter school leaders running the highest achieving schools across our country were recruited, trained, and networked by this one woman.

Linda saw herself as the through line, the switchboard operator (some call her the godfather) through which hundreds of individuals could make school magic happen. Not magic based on incantation and spells, but magic based on delivering rock solid instruction, “sticking close to the knitting” of academics, and implementing dozens of small best practices that together mean a child’s bright future is in sight.

One of Linda’s favorite phrases was “Good job. Good job. G-double-o-d-j-o-b. Good job.”  Linda would sing this every time aspiring charter school leaders examined excellent schools closely, from six in the morning until late in the afternoon, and then dissected and came to terms with their core practices into the night hours. And she would sing this favorite phrase with even more gusto when those same leaders brought those practices to their communities, their students – delivering results and changing lives.

The other phrase that Linda championed is “no excuses.”  

For Linda, no excuses is not about those two words themselves, but the profound idea that they express. There can be no excuses for delivering a substandard public education to any child.  There can be no excuses for assuming less for and less of other people’s children. 

For Linda, demographics do not and must not determine destiny, because she knew that the most powerful economic and social change agent in our country is the quality of the school a child attends every day. 

Linda reminded us what “no excuses” really means: school leaders owning the academic data, using observations and feedback to ensure that data-driven action steps are consistently implemented to educate all students; school routines, classroom procedures, academic materials, and daily instruction being consistent and strong to propel every student’s success; schools and families regularly and honestly looking at student growth, achievement, and behaviors, working together towards student success; and academic teams using an extended school day and year to prioritize access to high-quality, rigorous instruction in the core academic areas so that all students are firmly and successfully on their way to college. 

Linda was impatient – children need us to get their schools strong as quickly as possible. Linda believed that all public schools must mean opportunity and access and family dreams realized for every child, no exceptions. 

For Linda, the power of education reform comes from the leaders in the building – the clear, ambitious, and unwavering individuals who hunker down and hold tight to their mission, vision, and values – and academic achievement better be top on the list – and, in doing so, change the course of children’s lives. 

Linda was a beautiful, ferocious, and vibrant force for good in the world. There is story upon story from leaders around the country that say: “Our school would not exist if not for Linda. Our students would not have earned scholarships if not for Linda. Our families would not have a high-quality school option if not for Linda. My students are proving what is possible – and we could not have done it without Linda Brown “

Yes, Linda “gathered around her the most remarkable people” – but those people were built, championed, and inspired by the most remarkable woman in the center of it all.

That is Linda Brown’s legacy.

Read Susan’s tribute to Linda at Education Next.

Jeanne Allen, Founder and CEO, Center for Education Reform

Linda was most proud of starting Building Excellent Schools and created an army of exceptional leaders before that was a thing.  Make no mistake  – what is good and excellent about schools today has an indelible mark not from any one organization but from Linda Brown, herself. 

Read Jeanne’s full tribute to Linda at CES.

Terry Ryan, CEO, Bluum (Boise, Idaho) 

Linda Brown was a force of nature.

I met her in the mid-2000s when I was working with the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Ohio on our efforts as a charter school authorizer. At the time we were working with community leaders in Columbus to open a KIPP school. We had a who’s who of Ohio leaders as a school board and supporters, but we needed a principal. Linda had an outstanding leader she was working to develop for a Building Excellent School (BES) in Columbus.

In conversations with my boss Checker Finn and with KIPP’s Richard Barth I suggested we reach out to Linda and ask her if she wanted to partner with us on the KIPP school and have her fellow lead it. Checker and Richard said, “Great idea. Reach out to her.”

I connected with Linda and she made clear: “No way are you going to poach my fellow!” She said her fellow would open a great BES school and that we should support him as much as we were the team at KIPP.

Fast forward 15+ years and Linda’s fellow is running a great network of charter schools as she promised!

As is KIPP. 

Linda believed.

Lester Long, Founder and Executive Director, Classical Charter Schools, South Bronx, New York

Typically meeting Linda involves several stages.

First, one thinks “wow she’s not tall”.

Second, one catches (no, is caught by) her sharp blue eyes that pierce through you, into your soul like a master teacher who sees your past, present, and future in a single glance.

Then she’d speak with an intimidating urgency, making you feel like ‘we’ needed you. She saw schools not as buildings but as promises.

I left the BES Fellowship 17 years ago, and she still inspires me daily.

Urgency! Urgency! Urgency!

Shara Hegde, CEO, Alpha Public Schools, San Jose, CA

Talk about the butterfly effect.

One day, back in 2008, in a small conference room in downtown Boston, Linda Brown had a decision to make. And thankfully, that decision was to bet on me and invest in my dream to build an excellent school in San Jose. My life, professionally and personally, and the lives of so many others were impacted profoundly by that decision. And I will forever be grateful that she saw what I could be capapble of and helped me access the support and resources I needed to be successful. It’s been a pretty amazing 15 year journey that she kicked off…

RIP Linda and thank you.

Mary Wells, Co-Founder and Managing Partner, Bellwether

There is so much to love and respect about Linda Brown, and her passing is a huge loss.  Her impact will be felt forever on the charter sector, and by so many of us who were inspired by and cared for by Linda. We worked together in various ways for years. I loved that she was tough as nails, but still so obviously caring. Many admirers have already written wonderful remembrances of Linda – I too remember her 7am meetings, Diet Cokes, red nails, and her wonderfully generous offers to share her meatloaf sandwich that she brought from home because our work together sprawled beyond lunchtime.

I learned a lot from her, as so many of us have. Her legacy will live on in the schools she helped to recreate and the leaders she inspired – and I am honored to be one of those very fortunate leaders. 

Nina Rees, Former CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools

Linda was a force!

While I didn’t get to spend as much time with her as I wish I had, I could always rely on her for frank, honest and useful advice. Through BES, she filled a very clear and crucial lane in the chartering space: finding and training future charter school leaders, something we need now more than ever before. The world lost a fierce education leader but the charter sector lost one of its greatest OGs.

RIP Linda!