Julia Rafal-Baer '00 is a driving force in educational policy and leadership. As the COO for the national educational advocacy group Chiefs For Change, she is in a unique position to positively impact the lives of millions of American children. She has also served as Assistant Commissioner of Education in New York State after earning a Ph.D. in comparative educational policy from the University of Cambridge on a Marshall Scholarship.
Her personal educational journey, however, was not always easy.
"I've dedicated my career to education, but I wasn't the student whizzing by with As in middle and high school,” she said. "I was a student with learning disabilities and often felt like I was that square peg and our school system was the round hole.”
Fortunately, she was able to find support and direction at Morristown-Beard School. "I had access to something so many students don't have—a school with incredible resources. I know the privilege I had to attend MBS,” she said. "And understanding that every kid doesn't get that privilege was what cemented my desire to spend my career focused on bringing more resources to students who struggle with disabilities.”
From an early age, Rafal-Baer was a competitive figure skater, and MBS helped her nurture that interest and develop confidence. "The flexible scheduling of Morristown-Beard allowed me the ability to pursue my passions as a competitive figure skater. Being a skater truly saved me—the rink was a place where I didn't feel inhibited by my learning disabilities. I could truly compete and be me,” she said.
At MBS, she also participated in theater productions, studied abroad in Spain, and led community service efforts. "I've always felt that there was a moral imperative to do more with what we've been given,” she said.
Her studies at George Washington University furthered her desire to serve the needs of others with disabilities, and that inspired her to apply for Teach For America. "As a special education teacher in New York City, I was deeply frustrated by the policies that impacted my students,” she said. "The students I worked with were every bit as brilliant as those I grew up with at MBS, but the opportunities presented were lightyears apart.”
After teaching for a few years, she was determined to dismantle and reimagine what educational systems can – and should – look like. At the University of Cambridge, she began to discover just how much power lies at the top of school systems. She also had a chance to witness the best practices of other countries, and bring those policies to the U.S.
As Assistant Commissioner of Education in New York State, Rafal-Baer worked with John King, who later became President Obama's Secretary of Education, and helped advance policies that touched the lives of 3.1 million students and more than 100,000 teachers.
In 2016, she joined Chiefs For Change to help ensure that the country's educational system has dedicated and diverse leadership at the highest levels. The national network includes 35 state chiefs and district superintendents from across 24 states, leading more than 7.6 million students and 465,000 teachers. "Our members are leading bold changes in how we approach education, with a deep sense of what's possible in transforming education for a changed world,” she said. "I am especially inspired by the focus we are putting on lifting up women's leadership and shattering the glass ceiling in educational leadership.”
But Rafal-Baer says there is still a long way to go: "There are not enough leaders like the ones we support, so we're also building a diverse pipeline of people to lead state and district systems through our Future Chiefs program. We've worked with three dozen bipartisan leaders – and are eager to hear from anyone who can help provide financial support to grow this group.”
She says that the toughest part of her job is facing school systems that are failing kids, but it has motivated her to work even harder.
"I see so many things in schools today that I experienced when I was teaching 15 years ago. That is gut wrenching,” she said. "But it also inspires me to work hard and move with urgency — the lives and futures of our kids are at stake.”