When Brittany Packnett, the new executive director of Teach for America St. Louis, was a senior at John Burroughs School, she took a challenging and provocative elective in African-American studies.
The teachers encouraged her to ask herself and her peers difficult questions, “knowing that nobody was going to give me the answer but people were going to support me in finding my own answer,” she said.
Packnett found her voice in that class.
“When I watch my Teach For America Corps members lead students to that place where they find their voice, where they find their confidence and where they connect the dots of how hard work and their ability to think critically will help push them through college,” she said, “that light bulb moment is always incredible for me because I remember my own light bulb moment.”
Packnett grew up just off of Old Jamestown Road in North St. Louis County, and it’s been a little over a month now that she has been back in St. Louis. As the new local leader of Teach for America (replacing Scott Baier), she will lead a team that supports 190 teachers in four school districts: Hazelwood, Normandy, Riverview Gardens and St. Louis Public Schools.
Before receiving her position in St. Louis, Packnett served as a director on Teach For America’s Government Affairs team and delved into federal education advocacy issues in Washington, D.C.
She gained her policy knowledge working and interning for U.S. Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay for almost two years. She first started interning with Clay during her last year at Washington University, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in African and Afro-American Studies. Packnett is also an alumna of Wash. U.’s John B. Ervin Scholars program.
After college, her next move was not a big surprise for those who know her family. Her mother, Gwendolyn Packnett, is assistant vice chancellor of academic affairs at University of Missouri – St. Louis. And her father Ronald Packnett (who passed in 1996) was a former pastor of Central Baptist Church.
“Social justice has always been the family business,” she said. “It was always made clear to me that excellent education and the power of knowledge was what was going to unlock any door I could ever want and that my peers could ever want. A just society is one that educates all of its children well.”
Direct impact on children
That was the impetus for Packnett to go into the classroom. She joined Teach for America in 2007 and became a third-grade teacher at King Elementary in Southeast Washington, D.C.
“I felt like I had this great policy understanding, but I wanted to know that I could make a direct impact on children’s lives,” she said. “I felt it was important for me to branch out and see if I could fly.”
In those two years as a teacher, she said her biggest lesson was that every single child is brilliant and capable.
“It raises the bar for what you expect from yourself,” she said. “You know if these kids are capable of anything you put in front of them, then I have to keep the highest bar possible.”
After gaining classroom experience, she went back to work as a legislative assistant with Congressman Clay to look at education equity on a macro level in 2009.
“Having that macro level impact still meant that I was helping at home,” she said. “The funds that I helped find, the conversations I was having – I was bringing St. Louis to the table, and the things I was able to get were going right back to my district, to my family, to my friends, to my cousins. So it was always with an eye towards home.”
For the last two years, she and the Teach for America Government Affairs team were reminding policy makers about what children are capable of, she said. In her advocacy, her job was to make sure children’s voices were represented in the Congress.
Yet, home always kept tugging at her, she said.
“It was time to stop looking over my shoulder and seeing what was going on back home,” she said. “It was time to come back and get my hands dirty and work alongside people who have been fighting this fight for a long time. I am excited to be back. I’m proud to be doing this on behalf of my kids.”
Packnett’s vision for Teach For America is to help to bring more great talent and great teachers to St. Louis. Packnett said the nonprofit organization is like a movement of leaders who are working to ensure that every child receives an excellent education. For her, this mission is deeply personal.
“When I say every child, I mean my cousins and people I grew up going to church with,” she said. “Those are children I love.”
Teach For America recruits nationally for its teachers, and in St. Louis, they impact 13,000 children on a daily basis. The recruits go through an intensive semester of reading and student teaching, where they receive daily critiques of lesson plans and teaching styles. Recruits do not need to have an education degree, but they must remain in the program for two years.
Nationwide, 90 percent of recruits had never considered a career in education. However, 67 percent stay in the classroom. St. Louis itself has 380 alumni, 150 of whom have stayed in the classroom. Even more are working in education in some way.
Packnett’s responsibilities will be to oversee the staff that support this network – as well as raise funds for the organization.
For Packnett, educational equity is a fight for justice, she said.
“I truly believe that this is the social justice movement of my generation,” Packnett said. “And if we are going to see other things in society turn around, if we are going to break the cycle of poverty, if we are going to make sure people have equitable health care, then people need to be educated really well.”