An Immersive Summer Experience in Education Policy: The Urban Leaders Fellowship

Dec 09, 2020
Dr. A. Janelle Scharon, an Urban Leaders Fellow placed in Indianapolis, IN

The Urban Leaders Fellowship (ULF) is a 7 week paid summer fellowship for early- to mid-career professionals who are already leaders in their own right and are looking to accelerate their leadership through a fellowship with a focus on policy and practice. Fellows work half-time on high-level policy projects with an elected official and half-time alongside partner organizations in cities across the country. The program is offered in 9 cities: Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Indianapolis, KCMO, Nashville, New Orleans, Oakland, and Washington, D.C. Fellows receive a base stipend of $2,500. 

We enjoyed talking to Urban Leaders Fellow Dr. A. Janelle Scharon, Dean of Instruction-STEM at a charter school in Chicago who was placed in Indianapolis, IN to learn more about the program and get some application tips!

1. What inspired you to apply for the Urban Leaders Fellowship? 

I applied to the Urban Leaders Fellowship because I had spent a number of years in education working with schools, students, and teachers but continued to see a gap in the impact I was hoping to achieve. Even with my experience working with the Illinois Board of Education in different ways through committee work for teacher licensure, advocating for students and their families, and strategizing solutions to teacher shortages, my contribution was not enough to make significant change. 

I questioned my level of understanding about where my energy should be spent. I continued to explore what really matters and where I need to be in order to widen my influence and advocacy to lift the voices of our diverse communities and underrepresented.  That’s when I realized that education policy was critical for me to get access to as a leader in education who self-identifies as Latina and is a parent and community advocate. There was urgency for me to better understand the policy landscape so I could evaluate what was going on and assess how policy impacted others in the community especially those who identify as people of color and their families. 

I was excited to be selected to join the Urban Leaders Fellowship program. The program design allowed me to seamlessly transition to a summer balanced in learning about policy and working with others on policy including a partner organization and elected officials focused on local state and city policy. 

2. How has the fellowship experience influenced your current work?

As someone new to policy, I saw this opportunity as a game changer for my work experience and impact especially for someone like myself with a limited background in policy. The Urban Leaders Fellowship was the bridge I needed to join relevant policy conversations while also receiving support from my cohort who served as a network of collaborators. Being placed in Indianapolis gave me access to a summer experience with other fellows that challenged my assumptions and helped me hone in on my interest in policy specifically around equity and education and a newfound interest in environmental policies impacting my local community. 

Prior to ULF, I worked on several projects in education at the local, district, and state level. They were specific to program implementation. I never really challenged the policy that was being implemented or the interpretation of the policy. I had a research background in education, so I felt I could analyze and do research to understand different perspectives and strategies for creating opportunities, but the primary goal was to understand the barriers and opportunities for program execution.

ULF helped me understand the policy landscape. My exposure to policy was definitely deeper than I expected as a result of my time with my partner organization – Ascend Indiana. I worked on a policy report that spanned several places of influence in education including teacher credentials, youth apprenticeship, and work-based learning experiences. I also saw the impact of those policies on communities of color in addition to the larger impact on the state’s initiative with workforce development. I participated in conversations with elected officials and agencies to gather context and understanding and proposed ideas and research comparing statutes from other states. In addition to my partner organization work in the afternoons, I spent my mornings with my ULF cohort understanding how policy works. I had additional work experience during the remainder of the week working on local policy work on e-learning with the Indy mayor’s office. These daily experiences were eye opening for me as a professional in education — policy was threaded in all of the places I hope to influence and contribute to greater impact in education spaces. 

I was also surprised and thankful to have access to conversations with other fellows in my cohort. We had opportunities to learn more about their partner organizations and policy work. We also had time to learn from guest speakers’ policy work and journeys. These additional conversations expanded my understanding of policy and helped me identify where I can explore my interest in science and the community. For example, I learned about environmental policy and racism. As a result, I began to research and learn more about this area of policy in my local community. My interest led me to applying to the Green Commission in my village and successfully being appointed by the mayor to the Green Commission. I would have never imagined taking on a commission position prior to ULF or expanding my level of impact beyond education policy. I can attribute the influence of my cohort fellows to my success. Among my ULF cohort colleagues, there was diversity in experience, policy knowledge, and backgrounds, and an exceptional spirit of camaraderie and a shared interest in applying our knowledge and ULF experience to improve outcomes for our communities through policy. 

3. What tips would you give others applying to the Urban Leaders Fellowship?

The Urban Leaders Fellowship offers you an opportunity to explore policy in a way that gives you an intense learning and work experience like no other over a short summer engagement. You are going to work long days with your cohort, be assigned local elected officials, and matched with a partner organization. The long days will pay off in developing and expanding your knowledge of policy, building relationships with organizations, and expanding your network. If you are committed to exploring policy and the impact policy has on communities, apply! You don’t need to have a career, background, or a degree in policy to make a difference. ULF will give you the opportunity and access to gain the knowledge and experience you need. 

To make your application stand out, you need to show confidence in your writing since you will communicate largely through writing in this fellowship. You need to be curious and interested in how policy can influence and inform local and state decisions and have implications short and long-term on communities. You need to have some flexibility in your assigned partner organization since your match is dependent on local partner interest and availability. You can make the most out of the experience by sharing your interest and identity, and learning more about what others are doing in your cohort and what they bring to the experience. 

Dr. A. Janelle Scharon is Dean of Instruction-STEM at a charter school in Chicago and is a member of the Advance Illinois Educator Advisory Council. She has a Ph.D. in Science Education and was previously teaching computer science and science in Kankakee, IL. She is also currently wrapping up her service as a US Fulbright Specialist in online learning. Dr. Scharon and her students were recently featured in as the 2019 IL District 2 Congressional App Challenge winner representing IL Congresswoman Kelly.

Interested in applying? Bookmark the Urban Leaders Fellowship to your ProFellow account.

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