Baltimore charter school advocate among new crop of Casey Foundation fellows

Unimpressed with the elementary school in her Baltimore neighborhood, Bobbi Macdonald set out to create her own. She founded the City Neighborhoods Foundation in 2003, the year her oldest daughter started kindergarten and the state of Maryland began allowing charter schools.

Ten years later, the nonprofit is running three schools: City Neighbors Charter School, City Neighbors Hamilton and City Neighbors High School. All are known for student engagement and attendance rates that top 90 percent.

Though Macdonald is proud of the work she's done for Baltimore school children, she believes she can do more. And the 47-year-old mother of three believes she will learn how as a participant in the Children and Family Fellowship program of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Macdonald is one of 16 people from around the country chosen for the program, founded in 1993, which provides leadership training for people working to improve the lives of children and families. Since its start, there have been nine sessions, and the current crop of fellows brings the total to 109. Other fellows learning alongside Macdonald are from as far away as Seattle, Los Angeles and Omaha.

"Over the past 20 years, we have developed a philosophy, a methodology and a point of view about Casey's brand of leadership development," said Donna Stark, vice president for talent and leadership development. "It's all about understanding the difference you want to make or the results you want to achieve."

In the early years of the program, fellows lived in Baltimore and immersed themselves in the program for nine months, said Stark. Several years ago, the format was modified so participants could keep their jobs and also put their new knowledge to work right away. Now, the group meets 10 times over the course of 20 months, for week-long seminars that take place in locations throughout the country.

Macdonald said her husband and children support her decision to accept the opportunity, even though it involves a fair amount of travel.

The Casey Foundation provides transportation, accommodations, meals and faculty for the seminars. It's a major investment, said Stark, but one that pays off for the participants and for the Casey Foundation. The insights gained during the seminars become the basis for other leadership programs run by the Casey Foundation, Stark said.

The first seminar was held last week in Baltimore, and Macdonald said she's already learned some new things, met some exciting people, and gained inspiration. The fellows broke into groups, she said, and considered the populations they want to serve, and how to change negative trends. They were encouraged to "step way out and notice all the partners who could help achieve that vision," she said.

"After today, I realized what a small role I'm playing in making a difference for kids," said Macdonald. "There are so many people working on it from so many different perspectives. I feel a deeper appreciation for all those partners, and I also feel this urge to strengthen our work."

Macdonald was chosen from about 300 nominees in a rigorous selection process that included two days of interviews with Casey leadership. Macdonald said her philosophy during the interviews was, "I'm going to go ahead and be really authentic about myself and my work at City Neighbors."

Molly McGrath Tierney, director of the Baltimore Department of Social Services, completed the fellowship program in 2001, while she was living in Chicago and working for the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services.

"It was a life-changing experience," she said of the fellowship. "It opened up my consciousness about a community of people in our country who believe we can make it better for vulnerable kids and families."

Macdonald anticipates a similar transformation.

"This fellowship is all about results-based leadership," she said, "and also thinking about broadening your own possibility as a leader, knowing yourself and what is the way you can do your best work."

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