By Sam Woods
This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Visit milwaukeenns.org.
While searching for a school for her children in 2013, Nelly Hernandez stopped into an office of a public charter school network just getting started in Milwaukee.
The network was recruiting parents for its inaugural year, and its staff was eager to make Hernandez feel at home.
Hernandez remembers one charismatic, attentive representative from California who wanted to have a meaningful conversation with everyone.
“You could tell she really cared about every person who was coming into that little office,” Hernandez said of her first impression of Brittany Kinser.
Kinser starts Sept. 19 as the new president and executive director of the City Forward Collective, an education nonprofit with a mission “to secure Milwaukee’s future by ending educational inequity and ensuring every child has the opportunity to attend a high-quality school.”
Kinser moved to Milwaukee to head the local chapter of Rocketship Public Schools, the public charter school network. She then recruited Hernandez to Rocketship as a parent and then brought Hernandez on professionally as a recruiter.
Kinser said in her new role, she will draw on lessons learned from her time at Chicago Public Schools and the Rocketship public charter school network in California, Nashville and Milwaukee.
Increasingly, Milwaukee parents are choosing to enroll their kids in private or charter schools instead of Milwaukee Public Schools. Since the 2010-’11 school year, MPS enrollment has dropped from 80,910 to 69,115 during the 2021-’22 school year.
City Forward Collective offers its schools services such as marketing and communications; school staff training and recruitment; policy analysis; and legislative lobbying. Since forming in 2019, it has also raised money for schools to address issues related to COVID-19 and organized town hall sessions for parents to question 2022 mayoral candidates Bob Donovan and Cavalier Johnson.
Kinser did not say whether her hiring marked a new direction for the organization, which was previously led by Patricia Hoben. Hoben will stay until December to advise the transition.
“I am really looking forward to immersing myself within City Forward Collective, learning from the team and board, talking with school leaders and teachers about what has been working … and from there deciding where we go,” Kinser said.
Trusting the power of parents
Kinser knew she wanted to work in education from an early age. While in high school, Kinser remembers giving students with disabilities support with daily tasks, such as eating or light physical therapy.
“That’s when I decided that I wanted to be a special education teacher. I got a lot of energy and joy from that,” she said about the experience.
Originally from the Chicago area, Kinser got a bachelor’s degree in special education from Eastern Illinois University and taught in Chicago Public Schools before earning two graduate degrees in designing science curriculum and educational leadership.
Cynthia Barron, a professor at University of Illinois Chicago and a leadership coach for school staff entering Chicago schools, met Kinser while working on developing science curriculum.
She remembers Kinser both because she was good at her job and because she worked well in a team.
“She was very coachable,” Barron said. “She entered situations as a learner, not as a person who wanted to fill a vessel with information.”
“And we know that’s what makes (educators) able to bring people together.”
After taking a job as an assistant principal at Rocketship Public Schools in San Jose, California, Kinser’s skills as a learner were tested when she was put in charge of parent engagement at her school.
At her first community meeting, Kinser’s goal was to have 85% of parents show up, but only 20% attended.
“I didn’t see the work it takes to get them,” she said. “What I learned was to ask parents what they needed to be able to show up,” which led to offering meetings at different times of the day as well as providing food and child care.
“What I learned from that is that you need to listen to parents and respond,” she said. “And if you don’t respond, you’ve broken that trust.”
As Rocketship expanded into Milwaukee in 2013, Kinser was first brought over to help establish the network and recruit parents, then to head the Milwaukee program.
By now, she had a few years’ experience within the Rocketship model, which allows parents to walk the halls, spend time in the cafeteria, have access to school leaders and gain knowledge about what goes on in the school on a day-to-day basis.
For Hernandez, this access and trust in parent voices made an impression.
“I knew as a parent that my principal really cared,” Hernandez said.
Though Kinser said she loved her time at Rocketship, she wanted to explore ways of creating systems-level change in education. At Rocketship, she was in charge of two schools.
At the City Forward Collective, she can be involved in crafting best practices for dozens of schools citywide as well as play an advocacy role.
Drawing from her experiences working in special education in high school and engaging with parents at Rocketship, she knows that schools need outside support to thrive.
“Partnerships are really key. You cannot run a school by yourself,” she said.