From AIDS Relief to Education Reform

A charter school CEO uses unconventional experience to change young lives in Boston.

Excel Charter School East Boston
Maria Tarazona, a 6th grader in Brett Pangburn's English class in Excel Charter school in East Boston, gets support from her peers through snapping while she answers a question. Snapping is a way to signal agreement, support and encouragement. (Photo by Joanne Rathe/The Boston Globe via Getty Images).
is a freelance writer based in San Francisco, who writes about economic crises and political snafus.

Managing AIDS relief in Africa is not a frequent resumé entry among America’s charter school leaders, but Dai Ellis believes that, for him, it was excellent preparation for expanding education options to desperately needy students.

“The situation in 2003 in HIV/AIDS treatment was similar to what you see in education reform in Boston today,” says Ellis, the CEO of the Excel Academy Charter School network. “We knew then it was possible to turn people’s lives around with treatment, but had to figure out how to get the drugs from [a handful of people] to tens of millions. With effective management, we scaled up HIV/AIDS treatment from 50,000 globally in 2003 to the 6 or 7 million today.”

He says he is similarly determined to offer a charter education to more and more children as the years go on.

“High-performing charter schools can transform many lives.”

As Executive Vice President of Access Programs at the Clinton Foundation HIV/AIDS Initiative, Ellis was a key figure in ramping up treatment in Africa over the course of this past decade.

In 2010, he started looking for a new gig that would specifically allow him to take a small, healthy program and develop it so it would reach vast numbers of people. He saw an opportunity in Excel Academy Charter School, a middle school that had been thriving in East Boston since its launch in 2003.

Although Ellis had cofounded Generation Rwanda, a nonprofit that helps Rwandan children attend school, he did not have any experience working in education. But he applied for the CEO position and convinced the board that he could help guide Excel into a new era.

In 2011, a year after being hired, Ellis, 37, opened a second Excel Academy Charter in Chelsea and plans to open a third school next fall.

“I was a nontraditional candidate, but I have experience in scaling up.”

Excel Academy Charter Schools serve a population of middle school children from low-income, mostly immigrant communities. More than two-thirds of Excel’s arriving students test two or more grade levels below average in reading and computing.

After attending the school, though, the students quickly rise to the top. According to the 2011 MCAS test, over 93 percent of Excel’s students scored advanced or proficient in English and math. Excel alumni (from the 2006 and 2007 classes) had high school graduation rates of approximately 84 percent and, of these, 83 percent were college bound. 

Ellis credits his students’ success to a structured yet warm learning environment, high expectations for every student, and heavily screened teachers who are aligned with the school’s mission.

He adds that running a charter school has its share of challenges, the most notably talent, politics, and funding. With these in mind, Ellis encourages any individual who wants to help or get involved with the charter school movement to check in with their local school and volunteer their time, even if it’s just to teach an extracurricular class, or donate money.

“In a place like Boston, where there is so much talent and money, there is no reason why you can’t create an equitable public education system.”

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