Sometimes your life only makes sense when you look at it in the rear-view mirror. Jen Davis Wickens ’96, the CEO of Impact Schools, now sees her life mission clearly, as she leads the effort of creating a successful network of public charter schools in Washington State.
It was the intersection of tragedy and fortune that anchored Jen’s future as an education advocate. Jen was a freshman at Seattle Prep, when her sister, Amy, died in a car accident. “She was my best friend, and it rocked my world,” she says. Both sisters were students at Prep and both members of the varsity tennis team. “The accident happened prior to state finals,” says Jen. “I wasn’t playing in the final tournament, but my sister was scheduled to play doubles. I was asked to play for her.” She did and Prep won the tournament. Jen however did not return for the remainder of the year.
“I think I would be in a very different place if it weren’t for Prep,” says Jen. “It was people like Kathy Krueger who helped me navigate an incredibly challenging time in my life. She helped me work through the decision to return to Prep. I am so grateful for this place. Kathy is a symbol for what the faculty and staff represented to me, a big safety net.”
So, it’s not a coincidence that today Jen works with communities where many of the students are coping with trauma. “What’s different is that I am a white woman and I work mostly in BIPOC communities,” she says “I don’t deeply understand poverty and other issues my families are facing but I do understand loss and trauma. I have a lot of empathy for it.” Ironically, the work has also been healing for her. “I feel so lucky to have had a cocoon to find that passion and ignite this deep love of service,” she says.
After graduating from Willamette University, with an English degree, Jen completed her Masters in Teaching at Seattle University. From the minute she stepped into her first teaching assignment at Nathan Hale High School, she knew she had found her calling. “I loved the kids. I felt most connected to the ones experiencing tragedy and loss. I wanted to create a loving environment but also highly rigorous. Prep did that for me.”
Degree in hand, Jen took a job at Tyee High School (at the time the highest poverty school in the state). Racial tension, insufficient resources and an inadequate curriculum did not deter her. With a visionary principal at the helm, she joined a team of five teachers who traveled around the country learning from the highest performing high-poverty schools. Jen says, “I saw schools with kids who have some of the greatest needs receiving the most amazing educations. I said, ‘we need that in Washington State. So, we set out to do just that.’”
A subsequent Gates grant provided monies for a restructuring that called for 3 principals at Tyee. The teaching staff overwhelmingly called for Jen to be one of the principals. I was a new teacher, so I went to my mentor and said they are asking me to do this, but I don’t feel ready. He said, “you are never ready, but you are ready. You need to do this.” Jen sought formal training and was admitted to New Leaders for New Schools, a selective urban principal training program, in Oakland, California. She drew inspiration from the most challenging environments. This motivated her to found her first charter school – Impact Academy, which to date is one of the highest performing public schools for low-income students in the Bay Area. 2 years later, Jen was chosen for a selective Principal Fellowship at Stanford University.
Jen returned to Seattle in 2011 to be closer to her father who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She got a job at Seattle Public Schools (SPS).
“When I took the job at SPS I had to find out if we could create great schools within the district system. Very early on the answer was no. There were impossible barriers. The conversations were all about the adults and their needs and not the kids. I knew right away this was not what I was meant to do.”
At the time there were no public charter schools in the state of Washington. Jen set out to change that. She joined a group of advocacy partners and they drafted the first charter law. It was approved by a narrow margin. Jen quit her job at SPS and started a state association to create the infrastructure for public charter schools. “We need charter schools here,” says Jen “because we have families that need choices. Not every family can go to school at special places like Prep.” Washington has been one of the last states to allow public charter schools.
As co-founder of the Washington State Charter Schools Association Jen also launched the first public charter high school in Washington State —Summit Sierra. In only its second year, Summit Sierra, located in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District, was named one of the most innovative schools in the world. The thriving school has a 99% college attendance rate to 4-year colleges, with the majority being the first in their family to attend college.
After this initial success with Summit, families began to ask for a school for their younger children. That was the impetus for the creation of Impact Public Schools which today serves 1,200 underserved students in the diverse areas of South Seattle, Tukwila and Tacoma. Impact is the first homegrown charter network in Washington with an innovative elementary model that centers social emotional learning and infused trauma informed instruction with rigorous instructional practices. The schools start with free, full day transitional kindergarten which Jen says is a game changer for families. The schools outperform neighboring school districts on state test scores and have long wait lists.
Washington charters serve a high percentage of students of color and students in poverty. Yet, the opposition to charters is strong. “The politics of this job are in the state legislature,” says Jen. Charter schools don’t get the same level of funding as district schools even though they are public, free and serve high-needs kids. It’s the protection of the status quo practices that are designed for some to have a lot and others to not. Those are the systems we need to disrupt. I will need to keep up the political fight, so kids get the funding they deserve.”
At her core Jen is a teacher.
“Yes, I am a CEO of a multi-million-dollar non-profit, and we open schools every year, but I love teaching. I love human beings. I want to see what makes each person unique. As a teacher in the classroom, I got to do that with my kids. Now, I do that with adults. With each person I coach or manage, I picture them in their greatest light, and I think about how to get them there,” she says.
One of the advantages to being a public charter school is the ability to be nimble, shares Jen. “Whenever we have a chance to share or partner, we are all in. COVID created opportunities for both. We were able to disseminate the effective practices we learned and bring them to small, rural districts in Eastern Washington that were really struggling. That is a partnership that continues today.
Jen says, “Many of our families experienced tremendous hardships during COVID—loss of homes, hunger, jobs. Finding resources to stabilize them was real. And it still is. I would say the most challenging time was reopening this fall. Our families and educators were holding two years of COVID trauma. Our motto was ‘one child at a time and we will figure it out.’”
“A failing education system is a problem, for everyone,” says Jen. We have the ideas, the wealth, the passion and the talent in this city to have an amazing educational system. Whether or not you choose for your family to opt into it. We all have to care about schools because it’s our community. My hope for Washington and Seattle, specifically, is that we can stop talking about charter, public, private and just talk about excellent schools.”
Jen was bestowed with the 2022 Distinguished Alumni Award, at this year’s graduation, in recognition for her ongoing efforts changing the face of educational opportunity.