Remembering Linda Brown: A Tribute

About thirty years ago, while teaching in one of the original charter schools in Massachusetts, I had the pleasure of meeting Linda Brown.

At the time, I didn’t know who this woman was when she walked into my classroom. But she had a strong presence. She carefully examined every piece of academic work that my students produced. She genuinely scrutinized their work, asking them if we were challenging them enough, if they were working hard enough, and if they were motivated to give their best effort in order to go to college.

Linda Brown

Her approach was different from any other visitor we had. While others would pat us on the head and commend us for doing good work, Linda focused on the students themselves. She didn’t see them as just another group of children with books, but she genuinely cared about their educational journey.

Linda Brown established and led Building Excellent Schools, a national non-profit organization that identified, selected, and trained individuals who aspired to establish high-achieving charter schools across the country. I had the privilege of joining Linda at BES as the fellowship director and chief academic officer.

Linda Brown passed away at the age of 81 on Christmas day.

Linda profoundly impacted my life, but what is even more remarkable is the impact she had on tens of thousands of lives. She trained, motivated, and supported hundreds of school founders who, in turn, have educated and continue to educate tens of thousands of students.

Linda and I referred to each other as “work spouses.” Together, we shared the vision and values of Building Excellent Schools and its fellowship program. Our love and respect for each other ran deep. We pushed each other, challenged each other, understood each other, and worked side by side to ensure that students had access to the very best schools. These schools had to meet the highest standards, not only for the students we served, but also for ourselves.

Linda recognized that in order for such schools to exist—successful, rigorous, and inspiring schools—we had to find, train, motivate, support, and connect the most exceptional individuals to lead them. We sought people who displayed humility, hunger for success, intensity, and energy. We valued intelligence, ambition, the ability to listen and learn, and a strong work ethic. Driven by a “fierce urgency of now,” Linda identified those individuals who made it happen, and continue to make it happen.

For hundreds of successful charter school leaders, Linda was the founder of founders. She served as the switchboard operator, connecting one leader to the next and passing along what she knew worked.

Whatever it took. Urgency. Academic achievement above all else.

I wanted to ask former fellows what Linda meant to them. But where would I start? Andy Boy, Ravi Gupta, Charlie Friedman, Hrag Hamalian, Shara Hegde, Jane Henzerling, Mia Howard, Linda Lentz, Lester Long, Scott McCue, Julia Myerson, Lagra Newman, Bill Spirer, Yutaka Tamura, Natasha Trivers, Roblin Webb, Shantelle Wright? And what about those who weren’t fellows but were still influenced by Linda as founders, individuals whom she supported and had immense pride and love for: Jon Clark, Mike Goldstein, John King, Emily Lawson, Dana Lehman, Doug Lemov, Brett Peiser, Josh Zoia. The list goes on.

“Until I met Linda,” Malka Borrego of Equitas Academy in Los Angeles shared, “I couldn’t get anyone to listen to me or believe in me. Linda invested in me and knew that I was capable. She often said, ‘I believe in Malka,’ and this belief made everything else possible. Now, in 2023, I see five beautiful school buildings in my community. It’s not just about the buildings themselves, but rather what they represent: a $75 million investment in education in a neglected community. Linda made all of that possible. Linda is the reason why an entire generation of people are being treated differently.”

Kayleigh Colombero of Étoile Academy in Houston reminisced, “She saw potential in a teacher from western Massachusetts who had never even been to Houston or Texas. She believed that I could open a school, and together, we made it happen. Two determined and motivated women, using every ounce of our five-foot frames, willed a good school into existence for the children of Houston. Like Shackleton in the Antarctic, Linda fostered collective determination in those she led to overcome all odds.”

David Singer of University Prep in Denver described Linda as the Yoda of public education. He said, “She was small but mighty. A simple glance from her could motivate and inspire change. With a phone call, she could drive positive change. She could captivate a room with a small ‘BUDDA – BOOP’ and a clap of her hands. She may have been physically small, but she stood tall and strong, much like the mighty redwoods in the California forest. During my time in the BES Fellowship in 2009, each morning would start with an email from Ms. Brown, usually sent early. It was like an alarm bell, urging us to go out into the world and defy the impossible. When challenges arose, she encouraged us to persevere. If you need encouragement, she sent you a heartfelt note. If you thought things were difficult, she reminded you that someday, you would be responsible for the well-being of other people’s children. She motivated us to press on, assuring us that we can do this, and we will do this. It has been almost 15 years since my first phone call with our tiny Jedi Master, and even when I’m not consciously thinking of Ms. Brown, her influence guides my thoughts and actions. Is this good enough for our students? Are we operating with urgency? What is our standard of excellence? Does every child feel welcomed and valued as they enter our school, knowing that they are seen, heard, and loved?”

Ros DaCruz of RISE Prep in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, expressed her gratitude for Linda by saying, “I love you, Linda Brown. You showed me what was possible in American public education. You gave me the opportunity to do this work, to share that same sense of urgency.” Ros recalled that whenever she spoke to Linda, Linda always asked, “What can I do? What do you need?” And within minutes, Ros would have 14 emails from Linda in her inbox, providing her with everything she needed.

Linda, you will be missed. You demonstrated what could be achieved in American public education, over and over again.

Sue Walsh, formerly the fellowship director and chief academic officer of Building Excellent Schools, invites you to read this document for additional memories and reflections from former BES fellows about Linda Brown.

The article In Memoriam: Linda Brown was first published on Education Next.

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