Vernon-James Riley: Rapid Rise To Educational Leadership

In the five years since we honored Vernon-James Riley, he has earned two master’s degrees and has emerged as a respected educational leader.

Plunging immediately into school leadership wasn’t what he had in mind when he left Michigan State with a master’s degree in 2009. But three months later he was Dean of Students at a charter school in Brooklyn, N.Y.

“Originally I didn’t want to work in a charter school,” he told me. “I wanted to work in a public school, where I thought good people were needed. But when I returned home to New York City, I learned that a hiring freeze was in effect in the public schools.”

Instead, Mr. Riley, who grew up in Harlem, accepted a summer internship with Education Pioneers, an organization that places graduate students in high-impact positions with educational organizations across the country.

“They placed me at a new charter school, Excellence Girls, in the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn,” he said. “I met a lot of hard-working people who were trying to do the best they could for the kids who attended the school. It made me realize that charter schools are mischaracterized.  Charters are public schools. They don’t charge tuition, and they are available to all students as long as there are open seats.”

As September approached, he renewed his job search, applying to several New York City charter schools to teach social studies, his field as an undergraduate at Yale, but there were no openings. Instead, recognizing his leadership potential, the principal of a new charter school, Summit Academy in Red Hook, Brooklyn, asked him to apply for the position of dean.

“I went right into a leadership role,” he said. “It was quite a steep learning curve, especially for someone 21 years old. But I learned a lot.”

After two years, he was named Founding Director of Operations at Amani Public Charter School, a brand new school in Mount Vernon, N.Y. In this position, he was in charge of the business side of running the school, sharing leadership responsibilities with the Director of Curriculum and Instruction.

Mount Vernon is part of wealthy Westchester County, but a large part of the city has more in common with the adjacent borough of the Bronx, in terms of demographics and income.

“That’s what drove my interest in joining the founding team of the school,” Mr. Riley told me, “and, of course, the opportunity to be a pioneer.”

During the summer of 2012 he began the 14-month Summer Principals Academy offered by the Teachers College at Columbia University. Sandwiched between two summers of study, he completed a 450-hour administrative internship at Amani Public Charter School. In this program, he earned a second master’s degree while fulfilling the requirements for a license to serve as a school principal in New York State.

This summer Mr. Riley took another big step up the educational ladder when the highly-regarded North Star Academy Charter School in Newark, N.J., selected him as an Instructional Fellow.

During the first year of the two-year fellowship, he will teach several subjects and pursue professional development opportunities. In the second year he will serve as a mid-level educational leader. This will prepare him to assume the leadership of a charter school in Newark.

There are many ways to have an impact in education. Mr. Riley’s talents and education have enabled him to have an impact through educational leadership. In this capacity, he has been making a difference for students in urban areas where the educational challenges are monumental.

Congratulations and best wishes for future success to Vernon-James Riley, one of the 24 Alma Exley Scholars who are setting an example for those to come.

-Woody Exley