August 12, 2008

Giving Children a Better Education

Amanda Alpert Knight ’99 leads Chicago office of Resources for Indispensable Schools and Educators

By Dan Edelen

For proof against the old saying “Those who can’t do, teach,” look no further than Amanda Alpert Knight ’99. As executive director of the Chicago office of Resources for Indispensable Schools and Educators (R.I.S.E.), this self-professed “Type A personality” not only taught, but never stops doing, working diligently to guarantee children a better education.

“You can have every piece of technology, every fancy book, every perfect curriculum, but if you have terrible teachers, kids are not going to succeed,” says Knight. “R.I.S.E. helps schools recruit and retain quality teachers so that students can achieve.”

Founded in San Francisco in 2001, R.I.S.E. partners with schools to improve faculty and develop better working environments, the key to keeping the best and brightest teachers. Knight, who came to her role when R.I.S.E. opened a Chicago-area office in December 2007, says, “We only accept about a quarter of those who apply to be R.I.S.E. teachers. When principals hire off the R.I.S.E. network, they’re getting excellence.”

The government and law graduate’s drive for academic excellence began at Lafayette with a book assigned by Joshua Miller, professor of government and law, called Savage Inequalities. Disheartened by the book’s depictions of wildly disparate educational results in today’s public schools, Knight found her calling. She began working with the Easton Boy’s and Girl’s Club program and Lafayette’s Landis Community Outreach Center. Challenged by the work, she enrolled in Teach for America (TFA) after graduation. Knight taught special needs students for two years in an underprivileged Houston neighborhood, envisioning enrolling in law school afterwards.

What she didn’t anticipate on her way to a legal career was falling in love with teaching. Nor did she expect to win Special Education Teacher of the Year honors. A legal career would have to wait. But how best to channel her new goal?

“While I was doing special ed., I found there were many things about education policy that bothered me,” she says. “I realized I needed to know more if I was going to change any of the issues I felt strongly about.” With the encouragement of future mentor and Chicago Fed Chairman Michael H. Moskow ’59, who sits on the visiting committee of the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, Knight moved closer to her native Lake Forest, Ill., and got her master’s degree in public policy.

In 2003, armed with her awards, schooling, and experience, Knight joined the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), where she served in a variety of roles including ethics advisor and director of planning and development for the office of new schools. During that time, she married her husband, Robert, started a family, and also found time to be state certified as a school principal.

While Knight was on maternity leave from CPS, a friend told her about R.I.S.E. “The mission and vision really piqued my interest,” she says.

In her role with R.I.S.E. she’s “like a mini-CEO of the Chicago region.” A typical day consists of relationship building through one-on-one meetings with principals, teacher leaders, and R.I.S.E.-approved job applicants. In addition, she oversees recruitment, manages budgets, and ensures the purposes of R.I.S.E. continue to make a difference for schoolkids throughout her region.

Knight stays involved in school-related issues outside her job, too.

“The only way the education market is going to improve is with healthy competition. Charter schools provide that.” To that end, she is cofounding the auxiliary board for Chicago International Charter Schools, which will support the largest charter school network in the metro area. The group will focus its attention on supporting charter schools that serve the underprivileged. As she says, “For those of us who grew up in a place that had every opportunity in the world, I have to do something to make opportunities for less fortunate kids.”

Her heart for others extends to her founding of the Amy Marie Bosman Foundation in honor of her roommate and fellow TFA teacher who passed away at 25 years old. The foundation seeks to advance Bosman’s ideals, remember her courage, and promote education.

Despite a packed schedule, Knight finds time to devote to one other educational organization she loves.

“I do alumni admissions interviews for Lafayette, and I talk about the personal attention I received, the relationships with professors and the impact they had on me,” she says. “I still talk with my professors, even ten years out. The people who are involved with Lafayette — the professors, administration, and alumni — have helped me figure out my path, my life, and I have a lot of gratitude for it. I’m indebted to Lafayette.”

Knight expresses that thankfulness in numerous ways: as vice president of the Chicago alumni chapter, she organizes events for fellow Leopards; as class correspondent, she keeps classmates connected; as an alumni admissions interviewer, she promotes Lafayette to prospective students; and as a supporter of the Annual Fund, she gives her time and money to ensure continued excellence at the College.

Having had the benefits of an outstanding education throughout her life, Knight strives to pass that legacy on to the next generation. “It is our responsibility to make sure that all children have access to a high-quality education,” she says. “All children can achieve. We just need to give them the environment and opportunity to do so.”

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