We’re thrilled to welcome Elysa Severinghaus to EdNavigator as our new Executive Director in Boston. (In the photo above, she's right in the middle.) With nearly a decade of experience in schools and education organizations across Boston, Elysa brings a multi-faceted perspective to our team. She’s served in a range of instructional and operational roles with Match Education and KIPP Massachusetts, including as a member of the founding team at KIPP Academy Boston Middle School, where she built the English Language Education program and taught 5th and 6th grade. Immediately prior to joining EdNavigator, she served as senior program manager at Empower Schools. Recently, we sat down with her to get to know her a little better.
Let’s start at the beginning. When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I was very into math and science as a kid, and my career interests were closely tied to that. When I was in middle school, I really wanted to be a marine biologist—I liked animals and loved the ocean from the opportunities I had as a child to visit my family in the Dominican Republic. I tried to write a research paper on dolphin communication when we got to choose our own topics, but there weren’t many resources to support that interest where I grew up in Vermont, a landlocked state whose most storied sea life is Champ the lake monster. Likely because of my parents’ medical professions, I got interested in how doctors and nurses help people, and how I might use science to help others too. I got particularly interested in neonatology because I had been cared for as a preemie at my local hospital. I kept my long-term science interests throughout high school, despite a teacher who discouraged me from continuing in honors track science classes, and my interests were continually informed by what I was exposed to.
How did you get into education?
While I was in college, I worked with a summer program called SEAD (Summer Enrichment at Dartmouth) that brought a small cohort of high school students to campus every summer starting in 9th grade, culminating in college essay and application preparation right before they went back to school for their senior year. Students in this program had been initially identified in 9th grade by their teachers as students with high potential who would thrive in a cohort-based program that was as focused on the importance of socio-emotional development in high school as academic development. My work as a staff member for the program both began my own development of my identity as an educator and showed me what kind of role model I could be for these students, particularly for students who looked like me. My work with SEAD was one of the primary reasons I decided to pursue opportunities in education after college.
You speak Spanish and French, in addition to English. Tell us about that.
I grew up speaking only English—we lived in an area where so few people spoke Spanish, and my parents chose not to raise us bilingual. I heard a lot of Spanish as a child, like when my mom was on the phone with our family in the Dominican Republic or when we visited them, but never learned to speak it. Because Vermont is so close to Québec, and it was the '90s, my school started teaching French in 4th grade. I picked it up quickly and really enjoyed learning another language, and the doors that it opened to other people and cultures—I had a pen pal in Côte D’Ivoire who I’m friends with on Facebook 20 years later! I started taking Spanish in 9th grade, and they placed me into Spanish 2. It came to me pretty easily, but still now, I’m not as fluent or capable as a native speaker. I can translate an entire IEP meeting at school, but won’t remember all the names of the vegetables I want to buy at the grocery store—it’s really just based on usage! I’ve used both Spanish and French a lot in my teaching career, and I really value the role it has allowed me to play for parents as a bridge from home to school when they hadn’t always been well-connected or well-informed about their child’s education.
What brings you to EdNavigator? Why do you care about this work?
When I was a teacher, partially because I was an ELL specialist and partially because I speak multiple languages, I ended up doing a lot of ‘navigation’ for families. One way this came up frequently was sitting down with parents who were new to my school and had really never had their child’s past report cards and academic progress explained to them in an effective way. I had 5th graders whose parents didn’t know they were reading at a 1st or 2nd grade level, and as a teacher, I saw it as an integral part of my job to be willing to have those tough conversations that could lead to our working together to support their student in the ways they needed to be successful.
When I worked on starting the Match Community Day School, student recruitment was my primary responsibility. Throughout my community outreach, I met many families who were not eligible for the two grades we were enrolling in that founding year, so I started carrying around a list of all the other charters and the grades they served, since this was before the single Boston charter app existed. I’d look through the list with families and circle those they could apply to for their children. It made me realize what an incredible gap there was between the information that was out there and how much was actually getting to families in a way they could use—especially families with limited or no English language ability.
In both of these roles, I felt how much trust parents were putting in me, and it made me think about these challenges in the context of my own family. In my hometown in Vermont, we had one elementary school that fed into one middle school and one high school. In stark contrast, when my mom moved to Washington Heights in the '60s, no one was helping her or my grandmother ‘navigate’ her school options and academic trajectory. She was assigned by their school assignment system and persevered through a system that was not designed to actually meet her academic and language development needs. What drew me to EdNavigator was the opportunity to be part of an organization that wants to address those challenges that families face on a broader scale.
What’s one thing you think more parents should know about schools?
Many families I’ve worked with have expressed that they don’t feel qualified to ask questions of school. As a teacher, and now as a Navigator, one thing I will always emphasize is that you know your child best. You have a right to ask questions and you deserve the answers. When it comes to your child, you are the most qualified person there is. School staff must work in collaboration with you to best support your child—it’s part of our job.
What are you reading right now?
I actually have four books that I'm "reading" right now, which also seems like a totally unrealistic number! I run a book club, but don't always finish the book, and then want to get a jump into the next one so that I do finish it in time. As a result, my 'currently reading' list includes: Ta-Nehisi Coates' We Were Eight Years in Power, Ari Berman's Give Us the Ballot, Tayari Jones' An American Marriage, and Michelle Obama's Becoming. Someday, maybe I'll bring my list down to one at a time—our list of possible books is ever-growing, and currently over 50, so that might not be a realistic goal!
What’s your hidden talent?
I was a competitive gymnast when I was young, and while it's certainly getting harder as I get older, I can still do a back or front handspring on a good day!