Meet The Transformative Business Leader Preparing Chicago’s Students Of Color For ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution’

Phyllis Lockett is a transformative force in public education.

As CEO of Chicago-based LEAP Innovations, this bold business leader has developed an organization working directly with educators and experts nationwide “to pilot, research and scale” personalized learning approaches and strategies within classrooms and outside learning platforms. Says Lockett of her goal: “As you know, education has been the pathway for African Americans’ access to freedom and the American dream. I started LEAP because I wanted to command resources to rethink how learning can be redesigned to enable more of our students to be competitive in this fourth industrial revolution.”

She is perfectly suited for this mammoth undertaking. The Chicago native hails from a multi-generational family of educators, which started with a great grandfather born into slavery and extended to both parents who served as teachers for the Chicago Public School system that she attended. Earning a degree in industrial engineering from Purdue University and a Master’s from Northwestern University’s J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management, she held marketing, sales, and business development positions at such major corporations as IBM, Kraft Foods, and General Mills.

When she returned to Chicago and visited her grandparents’ neighborhood years ago, Lockett says she was struck with an “a-ha moment” that led to her to marry her business chops with her renewed sense of community service. As a result, she became involved with the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, a phalanx of CEOs dedicated to advancing local economic development and education, among other areas, and then took the position of president and CEO for New Schools For Chicago, raising more than $70 million to open 80 new schools in high-need Chicago communities.

Her visionary zeal and experiences led to the creation of LEAP, which has served more than 140 schools. Using the four-step LEAP Learning Framework—which guides educators through creating classrooms that are learning focused, learner demonstrated, learner led, and learner connected—has had a demonstrative impact on students, teachers, and administrators. In fact, LEAP has been so effective in the Chicago Metro that Lockett has “codified some of our resources and tools that are being used across about 23 states and organizations in the country. We’re looking at how to help more educators in the pre-service space, as well as practicing educators, develop their competencies in this new learning system.”

LEAP is also focused on equity in education. Using the hashtag #EdEquity, the organization has partnered with New America to bring together educators, researchers, and advocates on Feb. 6 for a special forum to explore how inclusive teaching practices and innovative instructional models can help educators in the PreK-12 system “overcome implicit biases in the classroom, raise expectations for students of all backgrounds, and prepare all students to succeed in today’s increasingly dynamic world.”

As part of our BLACK ENTERPRISE C-Suite Interview Series, Chief Content Officer Derek T. Dingle talked with Lockett, who is a board member of CME Group and a member of the BE Registry of Corporate Directors, about LEAP’s organizational evolution and driving a diverse pipeline for the 21st-century workplace. The following are edited excerpts from that conversation:


A More Targeted, Dynamic Learning Approach

In designing innovative programs for education, one size does not fit all. With that said, how do you effectively replicate the personalized instruction model from school to school?

Every student has a pathway tailored to [their] needs, interests, and strengths. That learning has to enable agency. We talk about this construct we call “learner led,’ where we are enabling learners to co-design and set goals with their educator. They have choice in their learning. We’re building their confidence to get their problem solved and take ownership and agency for their learning.

We are “learner demonstrated,” which is focused on competency-based approaches. This is the part about the notion of a high-stakes task is really defining the capacity of a learner. It’s really about learners having multiple ways of showing what they know. If learners are demonstrating that they have mastery, they can move on, and they don’t have to wait for the rest of the class. If they need more time, they can take it.

What are other aspects of this approach?

The next is being “learner connected.” That is connecting students to relevant learning experiences beyond the classroom. We’ve translated those into teaching and learning practices, which we have worked with over 140 schools across Chicago to implement with educators, to shift their practice. You can imagine how we grew up, one teacher teaching 30 students. In most U.S. classrooms we have students who are at a low proficiency levels. The notion that we can have one educator to tailor to the learning of every single student is really hard. We are shifting educator practice and their roles. We’re also enabling this through a pilot network and helping schools redesign their entire constructs, to be able to deliver learning in this way. We’re leveraging technologies in math and literacy that enable educators to access data in real-time, so they are better equipped to pinpoint a specific need that a student has. It’s a much more targeted, dynamic learning approach.

How do you target schools you’re going to work with and get them to embrace this collaborative model?

We knew a couple of things. No. 1, principals had to buy into the new construct. We also knew that top-down never works. We needed this to be a collaborative approach with the educators at the table with the principal leader, co-designing this experience.

We started small. Some of those early adopters started with four to six classrooms at a time in [one] school. We worked with those educators for six months initially to unpack the realism that they aren’t tailoring learning to every student. Lots of folks come to our professional learning with the idea that “I know my kids. I’m differentiating for every single student.” We have them literally walk in the shoes of their students…walk home with them, engage with parents, sit down and talk to the students about what’s going on with them.

A full engagement approach?

Yes. Real in-depth engagement. They journal this learning journey. They come back with the admission, “Wow, I really didn’t know my kids.” That really helps to engage the educators and principals around this journey as well as shape the communities that they’re serving with the students that they’re serving. They’re really the experts if you will, given the opportunity to redesign the experience. That’s how we got it going.

[There has also been] higher teacher engagement and satisfaction in their jobs. It turned into wildfire in Chicago, such that Chicago Public Schools established an Office of Personalized Learning. We believe that this is igniting what educators have been wanting to do in their practice for a long time. I have personally heard from more than 30 veteran educators telling me that they will never go back to the old way of teaching again and they’ve rediscovered their love for teaching. They’re inspired by the way our students are engaged.

Instilling Students With Learning Agility In Preparation For The Unknown

What has been the impact on students?

The results have been pretty extraordinary when you consider student engagement, reduction in suspensions, increased attendance. It is a demonstrable difference in the thrill of learning, the passion for learning. What we need to be implementing in our students is that agility around problem-solving, curiosity, ability to collaborate and self-discovery, especially when you consider that the majority of the jobs for students who are in school right now don’t exist yet. This is about instilling the skill sets around learning agility that we are creating in our students of the youngest of ages.

So you’re preparing students for the unknown related to future jobs and advanced technologies. You’re giving them the confidence and proficiency to figure out what will come next in terms of an ever-changing business world.

That’s exactly right. In addition, we’re working with educators because we need an army of them that understand how to deploy these kind of practices that enable exactly what you’re talking about as well as what is the design of schools that enable our students to thrive in any type of environment.

Let’s talk about resources, which is always challenging for schools. How much does your program cost? How is it made affordable to schools?

So, one of our programs enables schools to do this in a stair-step fashion. It’s about $75,000 over an 18-month period. That’s really over two budget cycles. What we’ve found is an important element of ownership at the school level. We have them contribute a little less than half of the total cost of the program. Then we supplement the balance through philanthropy. Ultimately, we’ve set up an investment in professional learning and leveraging some education technology resources. What you have is a sustainable model.

Creating A Diverse Pipeline For The Tech Space

I talked with John Thompson, chairman of Microsoft, a while back, and he shared the fact that there is a shortage of workers in the tech space. Assuming that trend continues, more African Americans and Latinos will be required to become more tech proficient to fill that void. In that context, has LEAP been able to attract major corporations as partners?

I think the corporations play a critical role in the process. I’m thankful to John for making the connection. You see all the projections on the skills we have, right? If you even consider the top students that have graduated, 50% of them are working in jobs that don’t require a college degree. That is a severe mismatch. We have had a number of corporations provide philanthropy support. I think the next level, to your point, is connecting corporations to the student pathways. We have some examples of that that need to be scaled.

Lindblom High School, which also happens to be my alma mater, is a school that we’ve worked with for a number of years to transform their model into personalized learning. What they’ve done is created colloquiums for students [tied to] their interests and passions. They’ve had students who are involved in biotech in which they have a partnership with Baxter International. There’s a club and a program with the corporation involving students—some of whom have received internships. Same thing on the cybersecurity level.

The lines are going to blur in the future, and we absolutely have to do better in connecting the needs of future economy and corporations to how the K-12 system is preparing students. We’ve got to really drive these linkages. We can’t do it without addressing the talent pipeline in the African American community. We’re never going to get there as a country.

Do you envision LEAP developing that corporate pipeline through a partnership with HBCUs in the future?

Absolutely. It’s a must. In Chicago, only 19% of our students who graduate go to college and earn a degree. There’s something that is structurally off. I think that system worked really well for our parents’ generation, even ours, because the construct of the economy was different. This new one is going to require a very different construct. LEAP is engaged, and our passion and priority is to ensure that we are ushering in how that new construct can work. We are creating a bridge for that so that our kids can get access to the American dream, ultimately.