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Tanesia Simmons joined The Opportunity Trust as partner working to empower and support the most marginalized families and students, and to design and drive change as part of a broad coalition. She grew up attending St. Louis Public Schools. Most recently, she co-founded KIPP: St. Louis High School and led the school to graduate its first class last spring.

Talk about your own education journey.

I am a graduate of St. Louis Public Schools and was in the magnet program kindergarten through 12th grade. In first grade, I was tested and identified as a gifted student, and tracked all the way through high school. Everyone in my family—my mom, my siblings, every one of us—went to Soldan High School. I have a lot of pride in that, but no one talked to me about college until I was a senior, after I’d tagged along with friends to take the ACT.

My road could have been much easier if there had been support at my school to make sure I was prepared to navigate college. I spent one year at Harris-Stowe State University and then went to cosmetology school and worked as a hairdresser for 10 years. In Chicago, I became a working college student, got a job at a charter school and graduated from DePaul University with a degree in education. I then got my master’s degree from the University of Houston in education administration. My hope is that schools do a better job moving forward.

Describe your role at The Opportunity Trust, and the impact you hope to have.

My role is to help work with organizations that are elevating parent and student voices. Another is to help build community coalitions. There are lots of people in St. Louis who want to improve our education ecosystem. They just don’t know how. One of my focuses will be connecting the right people so that we can start working together to make things better for our kids.

How would you characterize the dialogue around education in St. Louis, and is there anything you think should be different?

St. Louis is an interesting place where lots of the people who should be talking about education are silent or are letting other people speak for them. In Chicago, it’s much different. You have parent organizations, charter organizations, the teachers union. They’re all talking and involved. The dialogue here just isn’t happening. We want to hear from parents, from students. We want to hear from districts, charters, everybody, so we can build a better system for our students in the end.

What role should The Opportunity Trust play in our region’s education system?

The Opportunity Trust needs to play a role of holding the bar high for what is possible and providing the support needed to get there. I believe in the opportunity for parents to choose the best school for their kids. Whatever option you choose should be a great option.

It’s not all about test scores. Students want to feel safe. They want to be involved in extracurriculars. Students need social emotional support. Students sometimes want a specialized education. Whatever option people choose, it should be quality and every student should have a quality option. It’s about empowering parents to find the option but also empowering parents to have a say in what that looks like for their kids. What may have been a quality option when I was a student in the ‘80s and ‘90s isn’t the same now. The world has changed. What students need currently is very different.