Profile: New Missouri charter school group leader Robbyn Wahby chats about work in education sector May 1, 2015

Robbyn Wahby, executive director of Missouri Charter Public School Commission, served as deputy chief of staff to St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and senior advisor of education and children’s policy for 13 years.

When did schools and early childhood care become priorities for you?
I can’t remember when education wasn’t a priority for me. My father placed a great deal of importance on education. He was the first in his family to graduate from high school, and I was first in our family to go to college.

In high school I started working at a neighborhood community school, which was formed out of the Model Cities movement in the ’60s, and gained an appreciation for the importance of education to community development and to self-determination. I spent a decade working in community education. It is because of that experience that I knew that my vocation — both volunteer and profession — would center on education. I knew then, and I believe today, that an educated populace is a responsibility of a democracy. And that means every child, regardless of zip code, has the right to a good school.

How did you start working with IFF?
When district-focused reform efforts failed to produce the desired outcomes, the mayor asked for other strategies that could get good schools to as many kids as possible. The answer was charter schools. One of the barriers to entry for charter schools was (and continues to be) access to facilities. I read about IFF’s successes in Illinois and was excited when Trinita Logue called about IFF’s plan to expand to Missouri. Kismet!

IFF has been an important player in our charter school development efforts by helping with formulating our growth strategy, offering financial and facilities expertise on individual charter applicants, and providing access to capital (and capital partners) when a quality school wants to buy a building. IFF has also been a terrific advocate to national funding and advocacy partners on behalf of St. Louis’ charter school development. There is no doubt that the increase in performance and in public school enrollment was due in part to the long-standing support, advice, and research provided by IFF to the mayor’s office.

What are the challenges and opportunities you face on a broader regional level?
Like many other urban areas, our charter school challenges are mainly around accelerating replication of quality schools, attracting high school models to the Midwest, and bolstering quality in existing schools. Regardless of model, access and cost of facilities continue to be a barrier to opening. IFF plays an important role in helping think about creative solutions to facilities and financing.

Tell us about your new role and what you hope to accomplish.
On Thursday (April 30), I became the founding executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Commission, the statewide sponsor of charter schools.  Our goal is to accelerate the opening of high-quality charter schools in areas where children lack access and to provide a space for innovation that will unlock the creative genius of our educators. I’m excited to join a commission full of visionary leaders who are committed to both quality and innovation.

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