Jeff Nelson

Fellow Follow-Up: Jeff Nelson

2011 Bluhm/Helfand Social Innovation Fellow, Jeff Nelson, is on the fast track to success as a young social entrepreneur. But, his story started way back 2007 as a corps member for Teach for America. (Read more about Jeff here!)

How did you start your project? What were the first steps to turn your idea into action? What were the biggest initial challenges? What lessons did you learn?
As a TFA corps member in Chicago, my sixth graders made tremendous progress academically and socially. However, statistics predicted that only two of my 32 students would graduate from college. Knowing that my students deserved better, and that we were failing to meet students’ needs in classrooms across the country, I joined US Empowered in 2007. Together with help from key supporters, the co-founders grew US Empowered from scratch, motivated by the idea that a teacher-led movement could change these statistics in Chicago and beyond.

We leveraged this unique opportunity and convergence of resources to build a model that inspires teachers to invest long-term in challenging schools; convinces families that college is an option; inspires school leaders to operate with optimism when resources are limited; and moves supporters to get involved despite troubling statistics. Philanthropists, business leaders, district officials and community partners are desperate for concrete solutions and meaningful ways to change their communities. Our incredible progress to date and the sense of possibility that guides our work convince me that US Empowered is that solution.
More specifically, our first five years of operations were focused on honing the program model. We developed and tested pilots, defined and refined our theory of change based on our experiences on the ground in schools, and raised seed funds. Our biggest initial challenges during this early period were 1) proving that a teacher-led model was a viable path to transformational outcomes, and 2) testing pilots while growing and at an exponential rate, trying to meet demand.
Our biggest lessons during this time were learning how to fail faster, as gracefully as possible. We are a small team and learned how to best work efficiently, be flexible, cultivate allies, and rely on solid data for all decisions, even preliminary data.
There is one particular story about learning that fits here: In 2009, the US Empowered executive team and I began to identify concerning data trends in our after-school model. Enthusiasm for and commitment to the program remained high according to surveys, but student gains were unremarkable and teacher retention began to slip. I led my team through an important reflection process during which we carefully analyzed our data and identified the root cause of the concerning trend. We realized that we needed to transition our model into a credit-bearing, daily in-school course for all US Empowered students.
Many stakeholders voiced doubts, and initially our board of directors was wary of this change. But we saw an opportunity to increase student outcomes, cut costs significantly and retain more teachers by shifting our delivery model. We made the difficult decision to implement an in-school model, and the choice has paid dividends. As we continue to hone our model and build the necessary infrastructure to grow and scale our movement, we are constantly evaluating every aspect of US Empowered with a scrupulous eye on data. Careful reflection and disciplined evaluation are the heart of US Empowered, and play an especially valuable role when faced with challenging decisions and circumstances.
Connect with US Empowered:
Twitter: @TEAMUSEmpowered
 Jeff Nelson has led US Empowered since March 2007, guiding vast programmatic expansion and strategy planning efforts.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.