Harvard grad chose Greenville to affect change in public education
August 23, 2017
With his education and experience, Ansel Sanders could be working anywhere in the world earning more money.
But his choice of work is in the nonprofit field, right here in Greenville.
Sanders, who recently earned a doctorate in education leadership from Harvard University, is the new president and CEO of Public Education Partners (PEP).
PEP, founded in 1985, is an organization that collaborates with the community, educators, and elected officials to support and strengthen public education and student achievement in Greenville County.
Sanders, a native of Virginia who was born three years before PEP was started, admits to having a wide variety of options after earning his doctorate degree.
He said the possibilities in education in Greenville and South Carolina get him really excited.
“I think we could absolutely be on par with a lot of the innovative, creative and forward thinking great things for kids that are happening in a lot of other places in the U.S.," he said. "Why not us? I think this organization can be a real, strong leader in that.”
Sanders helped to lead innovation in education in Greenville long before taking on his current role at PEP in January.
He was working as an administrator at Mauldin Middle when he was asked by former Greenville County Schools superintendent Phinnize Fisher to help plan and open the A.J. Whittenberg Elementary School of Engineering.
“She painted the vision," Sanders said. "My job was to take the unique vision of what an elementary engineering school actually looks like, feels like and put that into practice.”
A few years later, Burke Royster, who succeeded Fisher as the district’s superintendent, painted a similar vision for a middle school.
Sanders said he was asked to be the lead planner in that project, collaborating with architects and consultants on what would become the Dr. Phinnize J. Fisher Middle School.
“I got a chance to think outside of the box in terms of programming and the design of the facility,” he said.
Years prior to focusing on programming and facilities, Sanders focused on students.
After graduating from college, he joined Teach For America, a program that places college graduates in high-need schools and school districts.
The program placed Sanders in Baltimore city public schools, where he taught eighth-grade English-language arts and “loved it.”
“I loved the classroom, the relationships I was building with my students, as well as the amount of trust and psychological safety we had built between the two of us,” he said. “I think that was the platform ultimately for great student achievement, gains, and growth that I saw in my students.
The experience, he said, also showed him that education was the place, the profession, the sector of the community that he wanted to be in for the long haul.
It was through his wife, Helen, who he met in college, that he discovered a love for Greenville.
“She was in Greenville and I was in Baltimore. We wanted to be closer together but also pursue our individual interests professionally,” he said.
They considered others places to settle up and down the East Coast. The administrative opportunity at Mauldin Middle aided their decision to stay in Greenville.
“I was growing increasingly interested in expanding the impact I was seeing in my middle school classroom to kind of the level of the school,” he said. "It was like if I can make a difference here, what would it mean for an entire school leadership?"
In 2012, while juggling his duties at A.J. Whittenberg with that of the lead planner at Fisher Middle, Sanders was admitted into the doctorate program at Harvard.
The three-year program is built on a cohort learning model. It prepares students from diverse backgrounds for system-level leadership positions in national nonprofits and philanthropies, state and federal departments of education, mission-driven for-profits, and school systems.
Sanders, his wife and their young daughter moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts.
When he graduated in 2015, he had options. But when he looked at the differences he wanted to make, he saw Greenville, which educates about 77,000 children.
And it's very diverse, he said.
"You've got a place that, in my mind, checks a lot of boxes," Sanders said. "We're big enough that if you move the needle, you have significantly affected a large system."
Also, while in graduate school, he became interested in influencing the school system from the side versus from within.
“If you do have some autonomy, if you do have some independence potentially you can be more innovative,” he said. “You can work and play in circles that you may be under pressure not to do if you’re part of a system.
“So I grew really interested in kind of that role of the periphery organization and Public Ed Partners fits that to a T,” he said.
PEP can also be a think tank and an advocate to try things, say things, do things, and work in circles in that have an “immense potential to show what kind of contemporary, forward thinking, progressive public education could be and look like, not just in South Carolina but the United States,” Sanders said.
Like PEP, Sanders is a staunch advocate for public schools.
Teacher shortages and figuring out what it could take to make Greenville the magnet or mecca for teacher talent are a couple of the goals Sanders has as president and CEO of PEP.
“There is no doubt that a strong, healthy public school system is probably the strongest lever for overall community health and prosperity," he said.
Class of 2018, Fellow