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One on One: Jen Holleran

Jen Holleran, Photo by Briget Ganske

For most, Facebook is a fun diversion, a way to reconnect and keep up with old friends. But, for Jen Holleran, Ed.M.’95, the social network is a means to a much more serious enterprise. Last fall she was tapped by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who studied at Harvard as an undergraduate, to head Startup: Education, a nonprofit established to aid the public schools of Newark, N.J., a system in dire need of reform.

With a background that includes teaching in independent schools, management consulting, and urban school reform, Holleran — who also spent four years as executive director of Bay Area for New Leaders, a division of New Leaders for New Schools — jumped at the challenge. As acting director of the foundation, she is in charge of allocating Zuckerberg’s $100 million grant and is working closely with Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who, as a condition of the gift, has been tasked with raising a matching sum to further benefit the schools.

“I feel incredibly lucky to have this opportunity to make a difference for so many students,” she says. “I think Newark and New Jersey have the leadership and the resources, and this is the moment to do great things. I feel lucky to be part of that.”

What are the goals of Startup: Education? Startup: Education is interested in trying new, bold things instead of tinkering with what has been. [We want to] start new school models, give principals more autonomy to run their schools, have the central office be more responsive to schools instead of vice versa, and — perhaps most of all — find ways to recognize teachers and school leaders who are moving student achievement.

This is one of Mark’s real drivers to get involved in education, to improve schools for all kids.

What sparked this drive? His girlfriend was a teacher for a while, and he was surprised by how much less attention their peers gave her than they gave him and his technology startup. Well, he was in Silicon Valley, and he was starting Facebook. … But it made a big impression on him in any case.

He thinks if we are going to get the great people we need to run our schools and give a high-quality education to all kids, we need to shift the perception and the rewards teachers get.

What’s first? Our first goal as a foundation is to dramatically improve the schools in Newark, so every student there gets a great education. That, in and of itself, is an enormous and critical challenge to meet. If we can do that, we will have at least part of a model to replicate. We’ll need to be very careful to evaluate what worked and what didn’t in the process, and then we could try to impact urban education reform elsewhere. There are many people working together to create a model that works for kids — all kids, not just some kids — [and] to scale models that work to whole cities and the nation.

Why Newark? Mark really believes strongly in leadership. He was very impressed with Mayor Cory Booker and Governor Chris Christie and their commitment to transforming the schools in Newark. They have a strong bipartisan partnership in which they have put politics aside to focus on results for students. Mark wanted to back this bold approach that will provide every child in Newark with great schools. He was impressed they were committing themselves to this critical work, and he wanted to support them to help make the work a success for kids.

How involved is Zuckerberg in day-today operations? Mark is very interested in the Newark education reform work, but he is also busy building a company on the other side of the country. I communicate with him regularly, but don’t see him frequently.

And the Newark city government? Mayor Booker is coordinating and driving much of the work in Newark, and so we work relatively closely with him as he and the governor work with the community to develop a plan for reform. Chris Cerf, the commissioner of education, is also central to the work in Newark.

Has your time with New Leaders for New Schools helped your current work? New Leaders allowed me to work with extraordinary, dedicated people who would stop at nothing to turn schools into great places for the kids they served. It was inspirational, and it was an opportunity to learn more of what it takes to prepare and support the kinds of outstanding leaders our schools need to ensure every child receives a great education and achieves at high levels.

There has been some criticism of Zuckerberg’s gift. I have a pretty simple perspective on this: We have a crisis in this country because our schools are failing so many of our kids and limiting their potentials in a way that is devastating to the kids themselves, their families, and the country. It seems to me we need everyone to bring whatever resources they have to offer to step up and help fix the problem, which is what Mark Zuckerberg has chosen to do, and other wealthy people are doing as well. We need to solve this problem. Mark is setting an example — taking a risk to make a big difference — and I encourage others to follow with their talents, time, or money.

How do you feel about the media attention? We just try to keep focused on the work. Until we have significantly improved the schools in Newark, we haven’t accomplished anything.

What will make the foundation a success? Having many, many more kids get a great education — and doing whatever it takes to allow our schools and country to provide that education — is what will make Startup: Education a success. Anything we can do to support that innovation and opportunity is our aim.

If Hollywood ever makes The Social Network 2, who would play you, and would you cameo? I wouldn’t mind Sigourney Weaver. As for a cameo, I may be too camera shy for that!