Jesse Hahnel's Teaching and Advocacy

by Ted Jou '99

Jesse Hahnel '94 credits his Magnet education for inspiring him to become a teacher, and later to work on education reform and advocacy: "I look back upon my experiences at Blair and feel incredibly fortunate."  When interviewed for this article, he called the Magnet an "incredibly high quality education," and when Hahnel went on to college at Harvard, he "felt extremely well prepared."  But he remembers his Magnet experience in the context of the larger student body at Blair: "I got to see what kind of education students not in the Magnet were getting."  Hahnel fondly remembers his time on the soccer team as "a time when I developed friends and relationships outside of the Magnet Program," and he cites the influence of coach Bob Gibb alongside those of his Magnet teachers.

Jesse Hahnel
Hahnel says that his experiences at Blair showed him that
 "it's possible to have a really incredible public education," but "not every kid is getting it."  He set out to change that when he graduated from Harvard and became a middle school math teacher in Washington, DC.  His mother was a special education teacher in MCPS and his father was a professor at American University, so teaching was a natural career choice.  But Hahnel was surprised when he found that teaching was "incredibly difficult."  He followed his time in DC Public Schools with a stint teaching high school in New York City, but soon he felt "burnt out."  As he looks back on those experiences now, he has incredible respect for his fellow teachers: "The level of energy and preparation it takes to be a great teacher at one of these schools was extraordinary."

He became more interested in education policy during his time in New York City, and he found an opportunity with the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Foundation as a senior researcher responsible for gathering data on KIPP charter schools around the country, analyzing it, and using it for program improvement.  While at KIPP, he applied to law school, inspired by one of the Vice-Principals at his New York City school who was involved in a school finance lawsuit.  Hahnel began to see himself pursuing a career in education reform: "I could make a difference for more students than just the ones in my classroom."

Hahnel went to Harvard Law School with a specific interest in school finance litigation, and he transferred to Stanford after meeting Bill Koski, the founder and director of Stanford's Youth and Education Law Project.  He received several Public Interest Fellowships while he was in law school, and he was recognized by the California Bar Foundation as a Jim Pfeiffer Scholar.  He received a Skadden Foundation Fellowship upon graduation from law school, and he began his legal career at the National Center for Youth Law (NCYL) in Oakland, CA, which he described as "a wonderful place to be an attorney."  Hahnel focused his efforts on foster children, and he founded the Foster Youth Education Initiative (FosterEd) from his office at NCYL with support from the Mind Trust.

FosterEd
Hahnel continues to work as the director of FosterEd, pursuing the goal of improving the educational interests of foster children across the United States.  He had been interested in foster care issues since his teaching days, when he tried to call the homes of some of this struggling students and learned that several of them were in the foster care system.  He saw many of these students transfer in and out of his schools as they bounced from home to home.  According to several research studies, foster children have the worst educational outcomes of all at-risk subgroups, and Hahnel called this "legally and morally a real tragedy."

Hahnel also expressed real hope for improvement because of the unique legal status of foster children.  In his teaching and earlier work in education reform, one of the limitations that reformers cited was that they could only impact children's lives during the hours of the school day  But with foster children, he said, "we don't have that excuse: the state is in control of all aspects of their life." Hahnel sees this as both a responsibility and an opportunity to find better ways to "make decisions in the best interests of the child."

FosterEd has focused on providing technical assistance to state and local agencies to help them design and implement programs and policies for foster children.  Hahnel has been working intensively in certain states, such as Indiana, California, Arizona, and New Mexico, where FosterEd has made multi-year commitments.  He described three core strategies:
  • Proactive identification of educational strengths and needs: Rather than just reacting after a child fails a grade or is disciplined, each child receives an "education screen" when they first enter foster care or first enroll in school.  The strengths and needs identified in that screening are used to define a plan for each individual child.
  • Support by teams of adults: Responsibility doesn't just fall on a single teacher or social worker but a team that can include teachers, social workers, relatives, foster parents, and court-appointed advocates.
  • Identify an "educational champion" for each child: While there must be a support team, ultimately one person should be the child's educational champion.  This could be a relative, a foster parent, or a teacher, but the champion should have legal status to advocate for the child and training to learn how to support educational success.
As Hahnel explains, these strategies are designed to model the role of a parent in a child's life who is "pushing us to do well in school" and "expecting [us] to go to college."  FosterEd tries to help jurisdictions provide that same support to foster children in their care, and Hahnel is excited about the results so far.  He estimates that FosterEd has affected 75,000 foster children.  He admits that "it is oftentimes difficult work that requires long hours," but seeing results is an "incredible feeling."

Learn more and see ways to get involved at www.foster-ed.org.