"I like going to the district’s community meetings because I see people’s passion for education and for their kids. It motivates me to work harder to make the right decisions."

Ashley Richardson had been on the management track at Kraft Foods for several years following college graduation when she realized something was missing. In her free time, she was volunteering with education organizations like Metro Mentors and KIPP, and that volunteer work provided her with a sense of satisfaction that her day-to-day job lacked.

Working with underprivileged kids as a volunteer, Ashley often thought back to the undergrad senior thesis she wrote on No Child Left Behind and its impact on African American children. Comparing it to what she was seeing firsthand, Ashley decided to take action, follow a different career path, and apply to Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

“That’s when the big transition happened for me,” Ashley says. “I wanted to gain credibility and knowledge about the education sector since I came from a business background. I didn’t realize that I could work in education without being a teacher, and Education Pioneers helped me with that.”

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As a Fellow placed with Chicago Public Schools (CPS), Ashley served as a Regional Portfolio Manager. That meant she was squarely in the middle of figuring out where money could be cut from physical facilities and put directly into resources that would drive student achievement, like learning programs, textbooks, and more teachers. Her work resulted in 49 school consolidations, 10 co-locations, and six school turnarounds.

She doesn’t deny that the transition was rocky, moving from a sales-driven position at a large food company to a relationship-oriented position in an urban district. “Sometimes we have to make these decisions that would seem like second nature in the private sector, but in education that’s not always the case,” she explains. “You have to balance making decisions about what’s best for the students with the political nature of public sector work.”

To help navigate these decisions, Ashley grounded herself in the district’s community meetings, where she quietly observed concerned parents and community members air their grievances about a slew of changes happening in the district – many of which she had a hand in. “I like going to the community meetings because I see people taking out their aggression toward CPS, and essentially toward me, and it’s oddly invigorating,” she said. “I see their passion for education and for their kids, and that motivates me to work harder to make those right decisions.”

Following her Fellowship, Ashley served as a Special Projects Manager for CPS, where she managed the district’s Mentoring the Next Generation initiative, which deploys CPS central office staff and community members to provide one-on-one mentoring to the district’s K-8 students.

After serving as the Executive Director at Spark, a Career Exploration and Self-Discovery Program that gives middle school students opportunities to pursue what's possible for the future, Ashely is now the Founding Associate Director of the University of Chicago's To&Through Project - Middle Grades Network. The network is a cohort of Chicago Public Schools dedicated to creating more equitable and supportive educational environments where middle grades students thrive.