Leadership Matters: Meet Three New Leaders Committed to Bold Change in St. Louis

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In education, as in any sector, talent and leadership are paramount. The Opportunity Trust is focused on developing local talent pipelines and recruiting national talent with capabilities and experiences to accelerate change. Meet some of the national leaders recruited to St. Louis as part of our efforts in year one:

Daphné Robinson, Head of School, Hawthorne Leadership School for Girls

With an undergraduate degree in business followed by a job in financial services, Daphné Robinson felt she wasn’t living her true purpose. During that time, she volunteered with children and she soon realized she wanted to create change for them.

“My parents, who emigrated from Haiti, instilled a spirit of service in me,” she says. “Service is what drew me to education. In education, I wanted to be able to offer students emotional support.”

That light-bulb moment led to additional education and ultimately a role in school counseling. Going further, Robinson soon became a founding member and principal of a charter school in Indianapolis where she drove change for 13 years. Under her guidance, the school achieved National Distinguished Title 1 designation, Indiana 4-Star status and 100% of the school’s graduates were accepted by a selective four-year college or university.

In 2017, she became director of charter schools for a Memphis school district that included more than 50 charter schools, yet she missed the daily interaction with students. Coming home to her native St. Louis as Head of School for Hawthorne Leadership School for Girls is allowing her to see firsthand the impact of a strong education on students.

“I’m most excited to strengthen our instructional programs and expand academic supports for girls as we focus on STEM education,” Robinson says. “We’re also building more community and business partnerships to provide girls with more exposure to career opportunities, so they are prepared with 21st century skills. Yet above everything else, we want to shape good, productive people who will make meaningful contributions to their community.”

Mia Howard, Founding Partner, The Opportunity Trust

Mia Howard came to St. Louis in August 2019 as the founding Partner for The Opportunity Trust. In this role, she manages the overall strategy to increase access to world-class schools, makes recommendations for grant support, and is working to connect grantees to each other and to best-in-class resources locally and nationally.

Mia’s path to education was atypical: She studied communications at Vanderbilt and applied her skills at a Wall Street bank in New York just before the country’s financial crisis in 2008. Her experience led her to law school at the University of Pennsylvania with the goal of helping “Main Street” better understand finance. To speed that process, she decided to teach financial literacy in schools beginning in fifth grade and realized through that experience that her true calling was in education.

In her third year of law school, Mia received a national fellowship that allowed her to design a new school with a lens of financial literacy education. The fellowship took her to two dozen high-performing charter schools around the country. It also provided incubator support, fundraising, a development board, and an operating strategy to start a school. Intrepid College Prep, a network of high-performing schools Mia founded and led in Nashville, rose to become among the top 5% of public schools in Tennessee.

“The schools created a multigenerational impact in Nashville,” Howard says. “We worked closely with parents to teach them about college affordability and helped them launch 529 college savings plans with financial incentives to match contributions. This provides not just an academic foundation, but also a real runway for students to head off to college.”

Her experience designing and launching a new, innovative school was exactly what The Opportunity Trust needed, and she believes that real progress is possible. “I want to see St. Louis become one of the fastest improving regions in the nation related to education,” Howard says. “The community is willing to talk about issues at the core of the challenge, like racial inequity,  so openly, which gives me great optimism that we can turn talk into will for change and progress.”

Amira Mogaji, Chief Academic Officer, The City Garden Montessori School

Although Amira Mogaji lived hundreds of miles away, City Garden in St. Louis was always on her radar as principal of a Montessori school in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

“I’ve had a crush on City Garden for years,” Mogaji says. “So, when an opportunity opened for me to join the school, I jumped on it. One thing I love at City Garden is that we’re able to say out loud that the school is an anti-bias, antiracist school. It’s so exciting to be open about it.”

Mogaji is the school’s first chief academic officer. The position was created with support from The Opportunity Trust to strengthen curriculum and instruction, build capacity to support expansion of City Garden, and support the launch of the City Garden’s Teacher Training Institute.

“The Opportunity Trust is giving us the resources so we can do our job well so more students can achieve at the highest level,” Mogaji says. “It’s all about continuous school improvement.”

After starting her career as a teacher in her hometown of Philadelphia, she became a principal hoping to make a larger impact.  While serving as Head of School at a Montessori school in Philadelphia, she was recruited to Michigan by Kalamazoo Public Schools to lead its Northglade Montessori Magnet School.

In Michigan, Mogaji participated in change-making experiences that will support City Garden’s anti-bias, anti-racism approach.  Those experiences include serving on her district’s anti-racism team, acting as a Culturally Responsive Education (CRE) facilitator, and serving on the Eliminating Racism and Creating/Celebrating Equity (ERACCE) Regional Team, which is a partner of Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training.

Additionally, she has developed her leadership capabilities to help execute and improve upon the Montessori model.  Mogaji is an American Montessori Society (AMS)-credentialed administrator, having completed Montessori training that included primary, lower, and upper elementary, and she is currently the vice president of the AMS board of directors.

“I’m most excited to have the opportunity to eliminate obstacles that prevent student success,” Mogaji says. “Through our new Montessori Training Institute, we are aligning and codifying our curriculum and are better integrating our anti-bias, antiracist philosophy to help eliminate inequities in education. The beauty of having both the Institute and the school at City Garden is that it creates a direct bridge between what we’re teaching at the Institute and what the teacher teaches in the classroom.”

The Opportunity Trust invests in educators and school systems eager to build the capacity required to make significant and measurable change.

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