Alum in Action: Opening Opportunities in Education

Dana Laurens (MPP ’10) and her son Jackson visit UVA's Memorial to Enslaved Laborers
Dana Laurens (MPP ’10) and her son Jackson visit UVA's Memorial to Enslaved Laborers. (Contributed photo)

Dana Laurens (MPP ’10), who currently serves as the national deputy director of Education Reform Now, knows firsthand how much good schools matter. When she was a child, she and her parents immigrated from Trinidad so she could get a better education, and she became the first in her family to go to college. She received a full scholarship to UVA, and joined the second class of graduates in Batten’s newly formed Accelerated Master of Public Policy program.

After post-graduate work in both policy and classroom teaching—including as a Teach for America member in New Orleans—Laurens joined Education Reform Now in 2017, and was promoted to deputy director in 2020. This year, she was named to Washingtonian magazine’s Most Influential People list, which highlights experts and advocates outside government who will be “shaping the policy debates of the years to come.”  

We caught up with Laurens to reflect on her time at Batten, her path to education reform and what’s next for her. 

What led you to the Batten program?

It was a brand-new program, it had only been around a year. It was a whole new sphere from what I had been exposed to in my undergrad space. There was no policy major then, the most government-related thing was politics. I knew I didn’t want to major in that, but I didn’t realize I actually cared about policy until Batten came about. It really kind of opened my pathway to being able to do the work I cared the most about. I also had a couple of friends who were in the first class, and they really encouraged me to apply.

Why education policy?

It came from my life experience, immigrating from Trinidad for the ability to have a quality educational experience, going to good public schools in Virginia, and seeing my parents moving around from county to county to be able to find the best schools. And then at Batten, I did an internship with D.C. Public Schools, where I was first exposed to the vast inequity in public education.  

Growing up in Fairfax County, the schools I went to were not very diverse—racially or socio-economically. When I interned at the district office at D.C. Public Schools, my job was to talk to parents and hear their concerns—of which there were many. It was not what had I experienced in my education experience, for sure. And the data on student outcomes reflected and affirmed what parents were experiencing and was an important pathway to my present understanding of educational inequity.

Tell us about your role with Education Reform Now.

I work mainly on K-12 policy at the federal level, where we work to close educational opportunity gaps for students from low-income backgrounds and students of color, in particular, by insuring resource equity, access to high-quality teachers and public school choice.

A decade into your career in education policy, what stands out to you as the most valuable part of your Batten education?

I think just having as much first-hand experience in the policy area that you’re working in, in whatever form you can get it. Making decisions based on input from the actual stakeholders who are being impacted, and not making decisions in a theoretical sense, was an underlying theme of a lot of what I learned at Batten.

What are your long-term goals?  

I definitely think that I’ll be involved in educational equity and that it’ll be part of my work, whether it’s my full-time job or something I’m doing on the side. I think the broader goal is more about giving all students, and really all children, the ability to live choice-filled lives. Whatever the future holds for me, it’ll include doing what I can to help move closer to that goal.

Do you have any advice for current Batten students?

Try to reach out and build as many connections with folks in all of the different areas you’re interested in, from elected officials to your professors to the speakers Batten hosts. You’re going to get a lot of access to people who can help guide your later down the road and open doors you may not realize you needed to open.

That internship I had with D.C. Public Schools came about because a DCPS staff, Margie Yaeger, came to UVA to talk on a panel about Teach for America. After the panel I went up to her and asked questions and got her info, and she told me about this internship that D.C. Public Schools hosts. I applied and got the internship, and ended up joining Teach for America afterwards, and making ed policy my focus area during Batten. Had I not approached her, I would never have known about that internship. It’s all about being brave enough to go up to somebody and ask questions and tell them who you are.

Garrett Hall at Sunset

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