Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Reid Saaris of Equal Opportunity Schools Is Helping To Change Our World
Praise those who devote their time and energy to the common good. There are many forces pulling us in so many different directions — towards personal gain, trying to keep our heads above water, battling all sorts of challenges and complexities. When people find a way to devote themselves to the common good — through teaching, nonprofits, ESG, government service, or otherwise, that is a beautiful and a special thing that you should celebrate every chance you get.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Reid Saaris.
Reid has devoted his career to growing educational opportunity. In high school, after his best friend was sent off on a different track, Reid became obsessed with ensuring that kids of every background get a great education. He’s done this work as a teacher, school administrator, national nonprofit founder and CEO of Equal Opportunity Schools, partner to thousands of school, district, state, and federal leaders, author of the book The Kid Across the Hall & the Fight for Opportunity in Our Schools and a leading paper on youth mental health, and most recently as a candidate to lead Washington State’s K-12 school system.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I saw both my foster sister and my best friend getting overlooked and underestimated by the schools and systems that were supposed to give them amazing learning opportunities. Because my mom was a career school counselor, she knew the system and pointed me in the right direction, which got me in to places like Harvard and Stanford, partnerships with Google, Echoing Green, governors, and the White House. I’ve always been puzzled as to why we can’t make great learning opportunities available to every kid and obsessed with ensuring we remove every last barrier so that each kid has a real chance to access the transformative promise of public education.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
The most interesting story is probably one of the longer ones, which I talk about throughout my forthcoming book — The Kid Across the Hall & the Fight for Opportunity in Our Schools — but I can give an abbreviated version here. I started out this work thinking I’d “save” folks like my best friend or my sister by getting them great learning opportunities. We called the low-income students and students of color not included in their schools’ most challenging classes “missing students”. And I made a career of helping educators — teachers, principals, superintendents, state chiefs — figure out why they were missing so many talented kids. It was really about What are you not seeing in students from these different backgrounds? What’s making you underestimate them? And what data can we show you, what coaching can we provide you to help you in your learning journey to find the incredible talent in students you didn’t see it in before? The irony — which is true of so much social impact work these days — is that it’s easy to point out what someone else is missing, or what they don’t understand. It’s much harder to actually be the one changing your mind and starting to see things differently. I saw many leaders who just couldn’t do it — just couldn’t look at the system they’d been running and say: “I really missed some big things, and that’s caused a lot of problems for people, and now we’re going to change.” That’s hard to do, it’s a hit to the ego. And especially for educators, we’re not in it for the money. We’re in it to do good work for children. So it’s hard to swallow the idea that we’ve messed up and could be doing things better. So here I was trying to help people see their own mistakes, acknowledge when things they’d been doing weren’t working, but of course I was making big mistakes myself, and really not wanting to acknowledge or admit to them. Just as the educators we partnered with were missing the talent and capabilities of “non-traditional” students, I was missing the talent and capabilities of “non-traditional” leaders on my own team. And as we grew to sixty, seventy people working across dozens of states, I doubled down on the idea that I knew the answer. And it really took a lot from my team to eventually break through to me and get me to start to examine the fact that I was doing the very thing that it was our mission to help other people fix. So I’m fascinated with this question of how we really understand mistakes in our leadership, in the systems we run, and how do we confront those and take them for all the learning they’re worth, instead of just pointing out how other people could be doing something better?
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
My first teammate and I got an opportunity to go present our work to all the superintendents in the state of Delaware. I was thrilled and asked my assistant to book us flights and motel rooms — not appreciating the difference between hotels and motels. She asked which of the options she’d found I preferred, and I said the cheapest would be just fine, and that she could decide and take care of it. I almost lost the first teammate — an incredible leader, essential to the success of the nonprofit we were launching, called Equal Opportunity Schools. It turned out the cheapest place in the middle of Delaware was not an optimal professional choice — a rundown motel next to a strip club, with associated trappings. Once I understood the importance of not always selecting the cheapest option and investing more in the experiences of my teammates, I decided it would be worth paying closer attention to some of the smaller details as we built out the company and the culture. And thankfully my teammate was understanding and gently coached me on some of the aspects of professional culture where I had a lot yet to learn.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
Equal Opportunity Schools closes gaps in access to college-level coursework in high school (classes like Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate), significantly accelerating students’ college aspirations. Research suggests that about one in three students added to AP/IB success will be a new college graduate (i.e., they likely wouldn’t have graduated college without our getting them that key opportunity to accelerate academically in high school). To date, the organization has successfully transitioned more than a hundred thousand students up to AP/IB success — mostly low-income students and students of color. We see it as directly impactful on those students, but also a powerful experience of change and progress for educators, who start to see much higher possibilities for more students who’d previously been under-estimated by their school system. That has an effect on expanding a wide variety of opportunities to many more students — from middle school algebra to after-school band and beyond — as educators are supported to achieve significant and tangible success in closing opportunity gaps for their kids.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
A student named Jodeci shared his story with us. How he’d been at a school where he wore a hoody in 96 degree weather just to create a barrier between himself and a school that he thought didn’t see him, understand him, or believe in his potential. When his family moved, he entered a school district we’d been working with for some time. There, a teacher reached out to him and suggested he try out an AP class, saying they saw strong potential in him. He became the youngest student in the school to complete that AP class, reported that he was “coming out of his shell,” went on to become class president and enroll in college. His brother looked up to him and followed in his footsteps. He said none of it would have happened without the teachers and the system in that school focused on finding strengths in each student using data and outreach conversations to connect everyone with the next level of their learning journey.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
I’d say in whatever area you’re working on, when you see gaps by income or race, ask “Why?” and “Does it need to be that way?” Count how many people are affected by that gap and build a plan to close it in the near term if you can. Some gaps are huge and will take significant time and effort, but there are people making progress every day around the country, insisting that historical gaps needn’t mean a divided future.
We talk a lot in this country about racism and the idea of someone bad thinking something bad about someone else based on the color of their skin. The way that gets addressed is by people spending real time with people across differences, building real relationships. Do that whenever and wherever you can, and don’t worry about “thinking bad thoughts” as much as about all you could be learning if you really spent time with those who have different experiences and perspectives.
Measure progress and insist on equal opportunities — when it comes to schools, jobs, housing, relationships, pay, etc. I came at these issues initially through the data. It’s powerful. We have to count the impacts that our current systems are having in terms of the number of people not yet being reached or served. Don’t get too lost in the abstraction of the webs of bad things happening. Count what’s going on in your school, in your workplace, in your community, and focus on solving it and you might be surprised how much you can accomplish this year, or even this month.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
To me it’s about bringing people together in common cause. What’s worthy of our time and attention, and why? And what can we do about it? With Equal Opportunity Schools, the nonprofit I founded and led for a decade, we focused on finding students like my best friend who could soar with additional learning opportunities — classes that they were often stuck just across the hall from. I think it took the abstract ideas like an “achievement gap” and made it tangible. For me in my first school, I could start talking to students and find out why they weren’t in advanced courses. I could close gaps. And when you start to connect those dots between the big issues we care about, the people around us, and the actions we can take, I think people are excited about that type of leadership. What can I do with my limited time on this earth to make a difference? And how do we know? And why should I choose this area to focus on over all the other things I could be doing? And is it working? Are we succeeding? I think leaders answer those questions and thereby connect individuals, through movement and action, to a brighter future.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why.
1. You’re great, but you’re also not so great. I think people need self esteem, but they also need humbleness, and I was short on the latter for a time. I was scared to make mistakes, to be seen as making mistakes, which makes it hard to learn.
2. Keep weekends and evenings for yourself and your family. I have done my best work when I kept my balance. It’s counter-intuitive, but it’s true, and it’s hard to execute on. I would love more people to lead in this direction.
3. Sharing power can be great. If I had it to do again, I’d broaden the leadership team earlier and give each member — and the whole body — additional power. I think the idea that one person holds most of the answers or most of the authority is of limited use in certain circumstances. But for growing, changing, and evolving challenges to be successfully met takes an empowered leadership team, not just a good individual leader. And a true team makes things more sustainable, too.
4. You will have to confront letting others down. If we take on big challenges and responsibilities, it’s inevitable, and endeavoring hard to pretend otherwise will only twist you up in knots. Understand the stakes and work as hard as you can to meet the moment. And acknowledge when you haven’t, so that you can do better next time.
5. Praise those who devote their time and energy to the common good. There are many forces pulling us in so many different directions — towards personal gain, trying to keep our heads above water, battling all sorts of challenges and complexities. When people find a way to devote themselves to the common good — through teaching, nonprofits, ESG, government service, or otherwise, that is a beautiful and a special thing that you should celebrate every chance you get.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I spent a couple years recently doing a deep dive into youth mental health. We chose the topic because we analyzed all the areas we could conceivably put pro bono teams to work on, and youth mental health turned out to be as impactful as the next three most impactful areas combined. We put out a paper on a few key things that could be done by schools to close the care gap and help address a majority of the suffering and struggle our youth are currently facing. I would love to see regions, states, and the country take us out of the “olden days” of mental health care being an individual affair with a hodgepodge of individual providers and into more of a system (as physical healthcare has become over time). Let’s imagine — and invest — in a world where we respond to the fact that one in ten youths are attempting suicide annually with the same urgency and expertise that we would respond to a youth with a broken arm. It’s urgent. And the good news it’s addressable by doing the things that different localities, states, and countries have already proven are workable and affordable. Let’s make it systematic and close these huge gulfs in access to effective care — especially for our kids.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Students will rise to the level of expectations.” -Jaime Escalante. I got to meet the famous AP Calculus teacher before he passed away, and he believed that what you believe and how you lead sets the stage for student learning. It’s hard to execute on when we find ourselves often in school systems that throw up lots of obstacles, but we should aim high and make plans for getting there, and collaborate like crazy along the way, and we’ll surprise ourselves with the new possibilities that come quickly into reach.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Christopher Murray, who helped the world organize our understanding of health (see the book Epic Measures). I’d love to think together about how we could similarly get more focused on what makes the biggest difference in education for students and teachers.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
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