World-Class Support for Exceptional School Leaders: An Interview with The Mind Trust School Fellowship Fellow Keeanna Warren

Jun 22, 2022 • Views -

 

After years of experience teaching both children and adult learners, Keeanna Warren had the unique opportunity to develop her leadership skills and receive the support, training, and mentorship, to develop, create, and open a high-quality school in Indianapolis through The Mind Trust School Fellowship.

This Fellowship took Keeanna throughout Europe and South Africa to compare and learn from different models of education, and allowed her to foster deep connections with educators, mentors, and local leaders in Indianapolis. Starting in September, The Mind Trust will be accepting applications from educators with a proven track record of success to join the 2023-2024 fellowship cohort. Each Fellow receives one or two years’ salary at up to $100,000 a year, healthcare, and benefits as they develop their school model. 

ProFellow Founder Dr. Vicki Johnson recently spoke with Keeanna Warren to learn more about the experience and any advice she has for prospective applicants. Watch the full interview above, or read a condensed transcript of the conversation below. 

If you’re interested in applying, don’t forget to register for an upcoming 2022 virtual Happy Hour being hosted by the Mind Trust! These are opportunities to meet Keeanna and other Fellows, The Mind Trust staff, and local leaders and learn more about The Mind Trust School Fellowship. 

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

Hi everyone! My name is Dr. Vicki Johnson, and I’m the Founder and Director of ProFellow. I have a very special guest today to interview regarding her experience on the Innovation School Fellowship, sponsored by The Mind Trust. This is a special fellowship that takes U.S.-based K -12 school leaders and gives them the funding, resources, and support to launch great schools in the Indianapolis area. Today I wanted to interview one of the former fellows, Keeanna Warren, to learn more about her experience leading up to the fellowship, during the fellowship, and also to gather some application tips about this really unique fellowship program. Keeanna, thank you so much for joining us today.

Keeanna Warren:

It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

Keeanna is a passionate educator, and she is the Associate Director of the Purdue Polytechnic High Schools in Indianapolis and South Bend. She is an advocate for all learners, which is evident in her experience. Keeanna started in elementary school, teaching 5th and 6th graders in the Washington Township, then moved to connect adult learners with skilled work and opportunities at the Excel Center in the Meadows neighborhood of Indianapolis. She now leads the students and staff at the Purdue Polytechnic High School North. She’s motivated to continue this work until every learner has access to quality education. 

Keeanna earned her Bachelor’s degree from Purdue University and a Master’s in teaching from Marian University, where she was part of the Turn Around School Leadership Program. She is scheduled to complete her Doctorate in School Administration this spring at Indiana State University. 

Keeanna, I’m so excited to talk to you today because this is a very unique leadership opportunity, and we’d like you to share your experience with ProFellow because this Fall (2022) applications are going to open again! We want to hear all about this opportunity, but first, before we get into the fellowship, let’s talk about your background. Tell me about how you entered the field of education. What inspired this from your early childhood and onwards?

Keeanna Warren:

I wanted to enter the field of education because I had an interest in making an impact in areas that really mattered to my community and the folks around me. Throughout my entire life, I had this passion for justice and for making sure that everyone had access to high-quality education. So that’s really where the love of learning and education came from, especially as I got older seeing the disparities and understanding that a lot of people’s ZIP codes determine the quality of education they get. I just knew that wasn’t fair and I wanted to do my part to help and support high-quality schools.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

Awesome. I can see the trajectory here. Later, you were a Mind Trust Innovation School Fellow from 2017 to 2019. I want to get into the details of the experience, but first, tell me a little bit more about how your career in teaching led to the fellowship.

Keeanna Warren:

I started teaching 5th grade and did a little bit of middle school math, but I also had an interest in high school and just naturally a love for learning. One summer, a friend who I went to grad school with asked me if I would come on board with him. He was a school leader at the time at this really cool adult high school. At first, I said, “No, I really like working with younger kids and that’s really where my passion is.” Then he called me later and said, “Hey, we need a sub for the summertime to teach one of our classes. Can you just come in and do that? Do me a favor?” I said, “Sure, that sounds like a great opportunity for something to do during my summertime.” So I went in and I absolutely loved it. I ended up staying, and within a year was promoted to be the school leader there.

I really enjoyed that opportunity. I loved the impact that we were making. The students were telling us that we were providing a beautiful educational environment and the second chance that they always wanted. But students would constantly say to me, “If I had more teachers like the teachers here, if I had a principal like you, I wouldn’t have had to finish my high school education later in life.” That always stuck with me. And that’s really what encouraged me to think about what happened before the students came to us. It really drove my passion for wanting to create a school environment that provided students with what they needed so that they could be successful within their high school careers and beyond. So, that’s really what led me to the fellowship.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

Tell me now about The Mind Trust Fellowship. What first inspired you to apply for this opportunity? What were you hoping to get out of it?

Keeanna Warren:

Well, I think to launch a great school you need the time and space to really plan out every single detail. There are so many things that go on behind the scenes in creating an excellent school. The fellowship provided an opportunity to be able to plan and learn from those who had had the experience before. The fellowship that The Mind Trust offers is world-class, and I haven’t seen anything quite like it that provides so much support, so many resources, and the opportunity to focus on creating the best educational opportunity for the students.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

What did you do during that first year of the two-year fellowship?

Keeanna Warren:

The fellowship gave me an opportunity to apply for some grants, so it gave me the support and time to make sure I was able to write and submit really high-quality grants. We wrote the charter during the first year. I got an opportunity to visit high-quality schools, both in the United States and outside of the United States, which was a very special and unique opportunity. I got to be a part of a cohort with people who were also in the same or similar stages of creating new schools, so I got to learn from them and alongside them. My cohort met once a week and received professional development, and the opportunity to collaborate and get feedback from people who were in very similar situations was extremely helpful.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

What were some of the countries that you had the chance to visit during the fellowship?

Keeanna Warren:

Our first year, we had the opportunity to go to Manchester and London. It was really cool to see the differences and how schools were performing and how they looked in the city versus Manchester, where it was very different. That was really nice. And the following year, we got to spend some time in France before traveling to South Africa. So that was an outstanding experience.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

That’s incredible. Tell me about the second year of the fellowship. How did that build on the first?

Keeanna Warren:

The second year was really when things were ramping up. You select your facility, start hiring staff, start buying furniture, you build, you budget. So the first year really gives you the planning, and then the second year is the implementation. We were authorized by our charter authorizer by the first year, and that second year we really worked closely with them on our pre-opening checklist to make sure we were hitting everything that needed to happen prior to opening our doors.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

It sounds like there was a real benefit to having that full year of planning and networking before getting into the really hard administrative work of getting the school open. This is really a fellowship that’s cultivating leaders. What did you learn about yourself and your leadership style during this period of the fellowship?

Keeanna Warren:

I think the fellowship really helped me hone in on the leadership qualities that led to my prior success and dive deeper into those. From my previous leadership principal role, I had learned and gotten a lot of feedback that I was really good at creating culture and making staff feel empowered. During the fellowship, we got to do 360 evaluations, so I was able to look at how the folks that reported to me previously, how my supervisors, and how my peers viewed my leadership. That was really helpful. And one of the things that I learned and grew in during the fellowship was a better understanding of restorative practices and how to implement them in a way that is sustainable for staff, students, and the community, as well as in a way that would get the results that we needed.

Without the fellowship, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to receive that high level of professional development, which helped me train my staff. That first year we became trainers in restorative practices so that we would be able to use the “trainer of trainers” model. None of that would have been possible without a year of planning. Because restorative practices are very powerful, they increase outcomes, especially for historically marginalized populations, but it takes time to really be trained well in it. That made a solid impact on our students in the first year of operation and beyond.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

As we’re thinking about this fellowship, what would you say are the types of work experiences and qualities that they would be looking for in incoming fellows? What kind of backgrounds are they coming from and what sort of qualities are they bringing into this fellowship?

Keeanna Warren:

I think the biggest quality is to have that entrepreneurial mindset of “I’m going to be creative, I’m going to be innovative, I’m going to do what it takes to get the job done.” as well as a record of raising student achievement because you can launch a school that has really fun ideas, school furniture, and a nice facility, but at the end of the day it’s about getting the outcomes for our students. So, that’s a really important piece. Also, someone who has strong ties to the community, someone who can communicate well, and someone who has a track record of leading teams. You don’t have to come into the fellowship with 100% knowledge on finances, budgets, or HR; you get support with that. But I really think it’s that mindset of understanding that all kids deserve access to high-quality education. Just that flexibility to be able to pivot as needed and the understanding that roadblocks will happen as you’re creating a new system or new organization, but a track record of persevering despite obstacles.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

For those of you who are watching this video and seeing yourself as someone who might be a good candidate for the Innovation School Fellowship, listen up, because now I’m going to ask Keeanna, what are your top application tips for people who are applying to the fellowship?

Keeanna Warren: So The Mind Trust team is fantastic and they are open to questions and two-way feedback. I definitely suggest anyone who’s completing the application to attend the office hours and attend a meet and greet to learn more about the fellowship. The fellowship is a partnership with The Mind Trust, so you want to make sure that it works for you and for them. I also think it’s really important also to understand some of the dynamics of Indianapolis, so I would really suggest, if you’re coming from outside of the city, to make sure you do your research and understand the ecosystem.

I would encourage that even if you’re not sure if you want to do it or not to still get connected and attend the information sessions because it’s an opportunity that is just literally life-changing for students, staff, and all of the stakeholders involved. You miss out on all of the opportunities you don’t go for, so I would say just go for it and learn more.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

Thank you for those tips! The upcoming virtual Happy Hours are a great networking opportunity even if you’re not ready to apply for the fellowship this year. They’re great opportunities to meet other school leaders in the Indianapolis area. Which brings me to another question: If someone has never lived or worked in the Indianapolis school system, what are some things that might be surprising to them, or what do they need to know?

Keeanna Warren:

During my fellowship time, there happened to be more people from outside of Indianapolis or outside of the state of Indiana who relocated for the fellowship. Some of the things they told me were surprising to them are the disparities that exist in Indianapolis schools. We have a large opportunity gap that we’re working really hard to close. Our students face a lot of trauma, and I think because Indianapolis isn’t quite the largest city in the United States, people underestimate some of its challenges. 

But I also think we have beautiful parks, we have really strong tight-knit communities who start to feel like families, and we have some amazing school models that exist. There are so many opportunities for beautiful partnerships and several resources and organizations that are aligned to do this work. I know a lot of people that I’ve spoken to feel like they need to be in big cities like New York and Chicago to have an impact, but there’s a lot of opportunity for impact right here in Indianapolis. So that is definitely something that I want to point out about our city. There are great educators and great talent already within Indianapolis. I’ve had great success just being able to work with outstanding educators. So there’s just so much beautiful opportunity, and the students here are amazing.

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

That is incredible. Thank you. I think this is a really exciting leadership opportunity for people working in the K-12 space in the US, so I’m really excited to share this. Thank you for giving us so much insight into your experience. Do you have any other final thoughts that you want to share with the aspiring applicants?

Keeanna Warren:

I will say that The Mind Trust Fellowship was an outstanding opportunity for me. I received so much support and so much encouragement. Even to this day, I have a mentor at The Mind Trust who I meet with regularly. There are so many people I can call on at any point and say, “I need support with this.” The level of support is outstanding. It’s a great opportunity. It was fun. It was exciting. People ask me if I could do it all over again, would I do it? And my answer is absolutely, no questions asked. 

One of the beautiful things about The Mind Trust is that they’re focused on making sure that the leadership in the schools represents the demographics of the students. Their unapologetic commitment to advancing equity is a beautiful thing. 

Dr. Vicki Johnson:

If you want to meet some of The Mind Trust Fellows like Keeanna and others like Brandon House (read his story here!), and also meet The Mind Trust staff and some of the partnership leaders in the Indianapolis School District and community, I would encourage all candidates to come to some of the upcoming virtual Happy Hours that The Mind Trust is hosting. 

Keeanna, thank you so much for your time with me today. We’re excited to see you making such a great social impact before, during, and after your fellowship. 

Learn more and apply to The Mind Trust School Fellowship here. 

Keeanna Warren is the associate director of the Purdue Polytechnic High Schools in Indianapolis and South Bend. Keeanna taught 5th and 6th graders in the Washington Township, then moved to connect adult learners with skilled work and opportunities at the Excel Center in the Meadows neighborhood of Indianapolis. She now leads the studenKts and staff at the Purdue Polytechnic High School North. Keeanna earned her Bachelor’s degree from Purdue University and a Master’s in teaching from Marian University, where she was part of the Turn Around School Leadership Program. She is scheduled to complete her Doctorate in school administration this spring at Indiana State University. 

Hear from another Fellow in our Interview with The Mind Trust School Fellowship Alumnus Brandon House.