CharterFolk Contributor Herneshia Dukes – Charter Executives Crave Community, Professional Development, and Support.  Greenhouse E3 Provides Just That.

Good morning, CharterFolk!

Today we are pleased to share a contributor column from Herneshia Dukes, Program Director for Greenhouse E3.

I provide Herneshia’s bio below.

Herneshia Dukes is the Program Director for Greenhouse E3. She previously served as the Executive Director of School Leadership for New Schools for New Orleans where her primary responsibility was to develop and oversee the E3 Fellowship, a program focused on creating leadership pipelines for aspiring chief-level executives for charter organizations across the city of New Orleans. Prior to her work on E3, Herneshia was a charter school principal.

Charter Executives Crave Community, Professional Development, and Support.  Greenhouse E3 Provides Just That.

In late summer of 2021, Steve Corbett was entering his first year as a charter executive. After years as school leader at Willow Charter School, he was moving into the role of Chief Executive Officer of Audubon Charter Schools in New Orleans. It was still early in the pandemic, and students and educators citywide were grappling with the trauma and disruption of the virus. Then, a few weeks into the school year, Hurricane Ida hit.

The storm knocked out power, sent families and staff evacuating, and damaged homes. All the city’s public schools were closed for weeks. Corbett had to communicate with families and staff who were suddenly displaced or without power and make big decisions with a board he was just getting to know. He had to strategize with educators about helping students cope with the stress of the storm while making up for lost academic time. There was a lot on Corbett’s plate—being a charter executive is complicated work, even without a pandemic or a natural disaster.

“It’s not easy to be in this seat. But it’s a lot easier when you have a network of folks that you can lean on for help and support,” he explains.

I’m proud to call myself a part of Steve’s network—and proud to have been a part of the program that was supporting him during, and before, his first days as a charter executive. Steve was an inaugural cohort member of the E3 Fellowship, which I helped launch while working at the education nonprofit New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO). Through E3, we were able to offer Steve personal coaching, charter-specific development, and a community of fellow future-and-current charter executives with whom to connect.

“It put me in a spot where I was just tremendously more prepared for the role. And then, while in the role, I’ve been given the guidance I needed to execute with success—even in moments where I didn’t know how to navigate it, I was able to rely on others that did,” he explains.

Today, I get to help provide this opportunity for charter executives across the country. The E3 Fellowship has expanded beyond New Orleans, and I am now the national director of Greenhouse E3, a nonprofit that builds pipelines of future education executives and CEOs that are representative of the diverse students they serve. At our core, we’re creating small, powerful communities of education executives who can troubleshoot, connect, work together, and grow as leaders and a team. These executives come together from all across the country for high-quality professional development and develop as individuals with personalized coaching. We prepare these executives with the technical skills, networks, and leadership best-practices they need to thrive.

Steve tells us that this mix of community and coaching is essential.

“There’s a lot of ‘potholes,’ and areas that can be challenging. Leaders need to navigate those—whether that’s managing budgets in a responsible manner to ensure that resources are flowing into classrooms as needed, or it’s helping to steer or guide your program and your vision, so you’re headed toward greater success,” he explains. “This program has provided many of us with a skill set, and the ability to guide, and to lead, and to work with our staff and our communities to move in a direction that ultimately benefits our kids.”

Steve is now two years into his role as CEO, and his schools are thriving. And when he confronts a challenge, he says he still leans on his E3 community. He’s on a text thread with other members of his cohort, and they check in with each other, troubleshoot, and collaborate whenever they can.

Steve’s cohort was nine leaders strong. Today, Greenhouse E3 has 60 Fellows across 14 regions. And the story of that growth is simple: we started a program that filled a real need. Word spread, and we expanded to meet demand. We had started off at NSNO by talking to charter executives to find out what they needed to better serve New Orleans’ children.

As we did, two things became clear: First, charter executives felt isolated in their work. Second, they craved professional development, coaching, and skill-building. They were providing it to their teachers, but they didn’t have access to great development themselves. We also realized that the charter executives in our city weren’t often representative of the students they served—we needed a stronger, more diverse pipeline of future leaders.

We launched E3 to be a part of the solution—to support and develop current and future charter network executives. We brought together a small group of high-performing, promising executives—like Steve—who were ready to take their work to the next level. We offered development sessions focused on executive level competencies and skills, individual coaching, and national site visits. We took simple but powerful steps like creating a group text thread and watched things unfold—before long, these executives became one another’s “go-tos” for tough problems, quick questions, and shared celebrations.

John Gravier was another member of that first cohort. He was leading ReNEW Dolores T. Aaron Academy in New Orleans East at the time. He valued the community E3 provided.

“I think that collaboration is single-handedly the greatest potential of this group,” he said. “There’s nine of us, and we all work for different types of schools…and there is diversity in who we are…but at the core, we have a lot of the same values: we all want really great schools across the city, we don’t want any network or any school to be worse than the others,” he said.

Our professional development was making an impact, too. Nicole Saulny, Chief School Officer of Community Academies of New Orleans, was one of our first Fellows. She said that the coaching and support she received was transformational.

“I tell people all the time, it is one of the best programs that I’ve ever been in. Not only from the relationships I’ve built with my fellow members, but just the wealth of knowledge that I’m receiving. They’re pushing our thinking, they’re championing us,” she said.

Soon, word spread beyond New Orleans, and we got calls to expand our program. Charter executives craved the community we were creating, and they craved the coaching and development, too. Our charter executives were providing professional development to their teams, but they weren’t getting strong development themselves. From Jacksonville to Oakland, charter executives were seeking the chance to come together, learn, and grow. So last winter, we started a new non-profit, Greenhouse E3, to merge with the New Orleans pilot and expand the programmatic offerings. This includes creating customized support for large CMOs as we replicate this work nationally. Greenhouse E3 now works with executives from 14 of the largest charter school markets in the country. Instead of comparing best practices from across town, our Fellows can now benefit from collaboration with their colleagues across the country.

Greenhouse E3’s National Cohort of Charter Executives

As Greenhouse E3 expands, we are focused on some key promises—diversity, world-class execution, and building a strong organizational foundation to support this critical work for the long term. 

Greenhouse E3 believes that students should see themselves – and future possibility – reflected in the people running their charter networks. Since most of the schools Greenhouse E3 supports are primarily educating students of color, we want at least 75% of E3 executives to be people of color, too. We’re not there yet—currently, 68% of our leaders are people of color—but I’m confident that we’ll reach that 75% benchmark soon.

When it comes to world-class execution, Greenhouse E3 is committed to offering the highest quality programming. Our students deserve this, and our leaders do, too. We’ve brought education leaders from across the nation—like John King, former Secretary of Education of the United States, Howard Fuller, Distinguished Professor of Education and Founder of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University, and Dacia Toll, former President and CEO of Achievement First—to meet with Fellows. In the first three years of E3 in New Orleans, 100% of Fellows said they would recommend the program to a colleague. This tells us that we’re on the right track.

And as for the foundation of our work, Greenhouse E3 is starting strong while we grow to meet this national need. We’re still fundraising, but already have about a third of the funding we need to build a self-sustaining national organization. Greenhouse E3 has tripled the number of Fellows we serve within our first year. So far, our nearly 60 executives collectively serve more than 163,000 students, 85% of whom are people of color and 75% of whom qualify for free and reduced lunch. These executives represent more than half of the largest charter school markets in the country. Greenhouse E3 now works with schools and networks on the West Coast, East Coast, South, and Midwest. In Los Angeles, Austin, Chicago, Philadelphia, and beyond, our Fellows are making their marks.

Our rapid growth is easy to understand–there simply isn’t another organization or program like this for charter school executives. We’re incredibly excited about its impact and its potential to do even more. We know that longevity is key in these efforts. Students deserve the stability that comes with leaders that stay in their role, year after year. That’s why Greenhouse E3 has set a goal that our Fellows will serve as CEOs for at least six years. We’re confident we’ll reach that. When we talk to our Fellows, they say the program leaves them recharged– and we are intentionally building a community of support that will far outlive their time with us. 

For instance, Nicole Saulny, the early E3 Fellow and Chief School Officer at Community Academies of New Orleans, had been in education for nearly three decades when she joined us. After the Fellowship, she was energized to keep at it.

“The E3 fellowship has helped me, after 26 years of education, to want to do this 26 years more,” she says.

This gives me hope. This work is a privilege, but after 26 years—or any amount of time—it can weigh heavy on a leader. When we have others to lean on—to both troubleshoot the everyday issue and process the big challenges—we are stronger. When we have the best professional development and coaching, in addition to that community, we’re stronger still. I am proud to offer Greenhouse E3, and determined to keep growing it until every CMO executive that needs this community can be a part of it.