Education alumna Elizabeth Bleier invests in the region’s future as executive director of Teach For America St. Louis
After graduating from Grinnell College with a bachelor’s degree in political science, Elizabeth Bleier planned to go to law school.
Those plans took an unexpected turn when Bleier joined Teach For America – something she intended to be a short break before returning to school full-time. In 2006, the organization placed her in St. Louis sight unseen.
“I got the education bug, decided not to go to law school and have been here ever since.” Bleier said. “I feel like St. Louis just has so much going for it, and it’s such a great city to live in day-to-day.”
Bleier never thought she would stay put anywhere for 15 years, much less a city she had never been to before. However, in the intervening years, St. Louis became home and altered the course of her professional career.
Teach For America’s partnership with the University of Missouri–St. Louis College of Education allowed Bleier to earn her teaching certificate and further her education with an MA in special education while teaching at Gateway STEM High School.
Ten years later, she returned to Teach For America St. Louis, and last month, the organization named her executive director.
Going into Teach For America, Bleier had no idea where she would be placed or what she would be teaching. After being assigned to St. Louis, she found out she would be placed as a special education teacher, which turned out to be a perfect fit.
Bleier’s mother worked as a child psychologist, with the bulk of her career spent in education as a school psychologist. As a result, she was already familiar with some of the issues facing special education students.
“I was very much surrounded by conversations around students with special needs, the unique challenges of students in special education,” she said. “When that became my placement, I was pretty excited about it. It’s a unique and special opportunity to both teach and then also to be able to be advocate for and manage the caseload of students with special needs.
“I think that was a really helpful developmental opportunity to be able to not just focus on the teaching side but also the operational, the compliance and the additional student support side.”
Bleier was also excited about her post at Gateway STEM, known as Gateway Institute of Technology at the time, a St. Louis Public Schools magnet high school with a strong focus on mathematics and science curriculum and career preparation in highly technical fields. The diverse student body and staff appealed to her, as well as the career educators who served as mentors.
The school showed Bleier the ideal characteristics of an urban magnet school, while also opening her eyes to academic and operational challenges. She noted that working with veteran teachers helped her get up to speed in the classroom and instilled her with a sense of humility.
“I was really developing a stronger listening ear to see what’s working, what veteran teachers have been doing,” she recalled. “How can I replicate that and emulate that and put it into my own style, my own words, so it’s authentic to me?”
The master’s program at UMSL provided Bleier with vital pedagogical knowledge, particularly regarding special education. The environment also fostered relationships with other educators that would prove to be crucial in Bleier’s future positions at KIPP St. Louis and Teach For America St. Louis.
“It brings together so many educators from so many districts around St. Louis,” she said. “I think a huge part of the value I got from the program was being able to tap into networks and work with and learn from teachers in Hazelwood, Ferguson, Florissant and Parkway. Having this network of folks doing work across the ecosystem of education was incredibly valuable.”
Toward the end of her time at Gateway STEM, Bleier thought she would make the jump from teacher to administrator and entered a dual degree program at SLU for aspiring principals. In addition to studying educational leadership, members of the cohort also worked toward business degrees.
Bleier realized that she was interested in solving the challenges she saw at Gateway STEM from an operational, business standpoint. Instead of pursuing a school administrator position, she went to work for KIPP St. Louis as director of talent acquisition.
KIPP – the Knowledge Is Power Program – is a national nonprofit network of college-preparatory and public charter schools. The St. Louis chapter started with one school when Bleier joined in 2012 and has gradually grown to six schools. As the director of talent acquisition, she “stretched her operations and management muscles” by working to attract and retain talented educators and also got a behind-the-scenes look at a swiftly growing organization.
She continued her professional development as a Leadership St. Louis fellow. The nine-month FOCUS St. Louis program brings together local leaders in variety of industries, including business, education, social services and technology, to learn about the challenges and opportunities facing the region.
“It’s the idea that we’re taking local leaders across industries, exposing them to the different challenges so that we can help them innovate and solve some of St. Louis’s challenges and problems in a way that’s less siloed,” Bleier said.
After helping KIPP St. Louis grow for six years, Bleier returned to where her career started – Teach For America St. Louis.
“When I came back, it was cool,” she said. “I’ve never started a new job where I felt like I knew so many people already.”
She started as chief of staff and quickly moved to the chief operating officer position. In both roles, she worked closely with the executive director on daily operations, personnel management and strategic planning, which required analyzing large amounts of data.
Bleier also worked to support the organization’s alumni, who have collectively played an increasingly important role in driving progress across St. Louis schools. Teach For America didn’t have a presence in St. Louis before 2002 but has grown considerably over the past 20 years. There are now 600 alumni in the region, most of whom are still working in education.
As the newly minted executive director, she is leading a strategic pivot centered on that strong network.
“In terms of the data work, the strategy work, all of that it was a helpful kind of training ground now that I’m in the executive director seat,” she said. “I’m excited to see some of the work we’ve done already as we pivot from an organization bringing in new teachers to one that is focused on our existing network and teachers, offering support, opportunities and connectivity to our alumni.”
The overall goal is to focus on impact rather than scale. Nationwide, Teach For America set a goal to double the number of students on track for academic and college success by 2030. Bleier believes focusing on educators already in the education ecosystem, helping them stay in their roles long-term and move into leadership positions, will be most effective in moving the needle.
To that end, Teach For America St. Louis is continuing to invest in its existing programs such as the Aspiring School Leadership Fellowship, while also exploring new partnerships with local organizations doing similar work such as The Opportunity Trust, St. Louis Teacher Residency and WEPOWER.
Bleier is excited to be in a position to advance education in the city, though she knows there is much work ahead of her.
“Our ultimate goal is working toward educational equity so demographics don’t define the success and opportunities that students have,” she said. “I think we’ve seen progress in St. Louis, but we still have a long way to go.”
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