Elsa Duré never imagined she would be CEO of a nonprofit before the age of 30.
But she doesn’t even mention her position at the Rhode Island Mayoral Academies as one of her greatest accomplishments. What she does mention is the success of the students at the schools the organization helped establish.
“I interned at RIMA during a time where Blackstone Valley Prep had just opened,” Duré said. “They opened with 76 kindergarteners in a very small building in Cumberland, and now they’re serving 1,400 students in five different schools.”
She later returned to RIMA as the director of policy and research in 2013 and helped open its newest school, Rise Prep Mayoral Academy, in the middle of what she calls a difficult policy and political climate.
“They’ve only been open for a year and their students have shown tremendous growth,” she said. “Ninety percent of their students are reading at grade level. What’s amazing to me about that is they are serving students from communities that have a 60 percent high school graduation rate.”
With the exception of a brief time in her childhood that she had her sights set on becoming a luchadora – a Mexican wrestler – Duré always knew she wanted a career that allowed her to make the world a better place.
“There are a lot of things in the world that are very unjust and unfair, and I think it’s the responsibility of everyone really to help,” she said.
Duré says it was only after moving to Providence for college that she understood the opportunities not afforded to her as an immigrant child. She was born in Mexico and spent time in Haiti when she was young, but eventually moved to Houston at the age of 9.
“I was fortunate enough to have a mom that provided food,” she said. “I never went hungry. I had a roof over my head, sometimes it was multiple roofs. I went to 10 different schools. But I never realized what other opportunities looked like until I came to Brown.”
Duré, who has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in urban-education policy from Brown University, says it was a class she took her senior year that showed her the role education often plays in human resilience. She saw the power of education and its potential as a path for closing that disparity for the next generation.
“Education in particular sits at the center of making communities great,” she said. “I considered teaching because I didn’t know about this whole other world of education that includes policy and partnerships and the nonprofit world.”
Before replacing Michael Magee as CEO of RIMA in September, Duré says her previous roles with the organization focused a lot on policy.
“One of the things that I’ve seen in my time at RIMA is the gap that exists in understanding the policy work and the work that’s going on at the Statehouse … and the impact the legislation does have on schools and education,” she said. “Education is just like any other policy issue where we don’t see enough engagement of everyday folks.”
As CEO, Duré hopes to increase that engagement and elevate the voices of parents, students and teachers. One of her other goals for RIMA is continuing to build partnerships between its public charter schools and traditional district schools.
“While my organization historically has focused on public charter schools, there’s never going to be enough,” she said. “There are 145,000 students in Rhode Island. … So how can we use our resources, capacity and knowledge to build each other up and really help each other improve?”
Blackstone Valley Prep has very strong relationships with traditional school districts in both Central Falls and Pawtucket. Blackstone is bringing all the public school teachers in Central Falls together for shared professional development and to learn from each other, according to Duré. Blackstone also reached out to the Central Falls district for help in improving its special-education services.
Now that she’s CEO, Duré said she “wears all the hats,” and that includes not only identifying problems but also being in charge of finding solutions, which can be challenging.
“I came to it with eyes wide open, but I am surprised every day by both the challenges [and] the opportunities,” she said.
Duré says the best way to stay motivated during the challenging times is to stay focused on the students.
“Because education and education policy [are] both deeply personal and also very political, I always have to remind myself every day why it is that we’re doing this work and who we’re doing this for,” she said. “That is always a challenge every day – not to get lost in the sort of politics of it all. When you’re in the middle of conversations around funding and local control, it sometimes can be easy to lose sight of ultimately wanting to make sure we’re creating and supporting great schools for all students.” •