Jenna Wachtel Pronovost ‘02 on the Power of Education and Human Connection

6 mins read

Jenna Wachtel Pronovost ‘02 has devoted her life to making an impact on the community she grew up in through working in education. Originally a teacher, Pronovost has since worked at the nonprofit The New Teacher Center (NTC) and is currently at the Ravenswood Education Foundation (REF).

“I really credit my experience at M-A for helping me see the inequities in school systems and how differently prepared I was coming into high school compared to some of my peers.”

Pronovost grew up studying classical ballet and was on track to become a professional dancer, but she stopped during her sophomore year at M-A. She explained, “I wanted to pursue college, and I knew I couldn’t continue ballet on the path I was on.” 

Pronovost’s Bear Naked News memory board

However, she was still interested in dancing below the professional level, and joined M-A’s Baile Folklórico team. At the time, Baile Folklórico participated in competitions and performed at community events in Redwood City and East Palo Alto. “I was the only non-Spanish speaker in the group, which was really formative for me,” Pronovost recalled. “I learned a lot about what it feels like not to speak the language of your classes, or your peers, or your teacher. It showed me a whole new side of the school that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.” 

She further explained, “I grew up in the Menlo Park school system, and when I arrived at M-A, I still spent most of my time with the kids I went to Hillview with. By doing Baile Folklórico and an art class—which, at the time, was not a required course—I was able to open my social circle to different groups of people. I really credit my experience at M-A for helping me see the inequities in school systems and how differently prepared I was coming into high school compared to some of my peers.”

Pronovost also helped to start M-A’s previous student newspaper, Bear Naked News, during her junior and senior years. Pronovost and her close friend Lindsey Hoffman were the first editors-in-chief of the newspaper,  which was created in her Journalism class. She said, “I was really inspired to start the Bear Naked News by Doss Welsh, our AP U.S. History and Journalism teacher.” 

Pronovost at graduation

Pronovost’s humanities teachers were particularly inspirational to her on her path to becoming an educator. She said, “Bonnie Hanson was my freshman English teacher. It was her first year teaching, and she was amazing. She really made me think differently about how I was reading and why I was reading.”

She continued, “Mr. Welsh had us read a book called Amazing Grace by Jonathon Kozol. It made me consider, ‘How can we use our privilege for good or to disrupt systems of oppression?’ That very much set me on my path to becoming a teacher.”

After graduating from M-A, Pronovost attended Stanford University and earned a bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in Dance. “I was on the competitive salsa team there, and I think being in Baile Folklórico definitely mentally prepared me,” she said. Pronovost spent a fifth year at Stanford to earn a master’s degree in Education and her teaching credential and then went on to become a first-grade teacher in the Ravenswood City School District (RCSD). She said, “I decided that I wanted to give back to the community that I was from. I loved knowing that my students were going to be going to M-A, where I still knew some of the teachers and could help my students through the system.”

Pronovost’s mother was a teacher and her grandmother was a Girl Scouts Troop Leader and teacher. “Education is in my blood,” she said. Even so, her guiding motivation to work in education is the ability to make an impact. She explained, “I really think that education is my way of working towards a more equitable society. Reading Amazing Grace made me think about the importance of the impact a person can make, and education was the way that made the most sense to me, especially since I love kids and I always loved school.”

Pronovost taught in RCSD, then moved to the East Palo Alto Academy, and then became a teacher in Palo Alto. She shared, “Going from East Palo Alto to Palo Alto really heightened my awareness of the disparity between the communities in this area.” 

She then began working at the NTC, which supports both new and veteran teachers. Pronovost’s work focused on teachers of young children, and she created the NTC’s Early Childhood Initiative. Non-profit work allowed Pronovost to be able to approach problems in education and school settings creatively: “I loved being able to think outside the box and with more flexibility, and I really enjoyed traveling for that job.” 

Pronovost moved from the NTC to the REF after giving birth to her son. She decided, “If I was going to leave him with someone else so that I could work, I wanted to make sure that my work felt really, tangibly impactful.” Gina Sudaria, superintendent of RCSD, and Renu Nanda, then-executive director of the REF, recommended that Pronovost join the REF. As someone who had always worked on the teacher side of education, she said, “I had never thought of doing a job like this, but I really believed in Gina and Renu. They made me stop and think about it and now I’ve been doing this for almost five years.”

Pronovost explained that each of her positions, from teaching to non-profit work to the Foundation, have had unique value to her and unique impact. On teaching, she said, “When I was teaching, I loved having a concrete impact every day and building relationships with families. I’m still in touch with a lot of families from my six years in the classroom; many of my students are in or have graduated from college. It’s a lovely experience to see people grow in that way.” 

Now, Pronovost’s role at the REF allows her to indirectly impact each child in RCSD. “The Foundation provides $10 million per year, which is 20% of the district’s budget. I’m just one piece of the puzzle, but my work contributes to every student having art, music, P.E., dance, reading intervention and literacy coaches, and overnight field trips to Washington D.C., Yosemite, and Outdoor Ed. These things are only possible because of the philanthropic support the Foundation provides, and I love knowing that I’m contributing to kids getting these experiences.”

“Education is, in my opinion, the way to a more equitable society because it ensures that every human can advocate for themselves.”

Motherhood has brought Pronovost new perspectives on her work. She loves working in a setting where children are at the forefront, because it provides an understanding and flexible work environment as she balances her job and caring for her children. Furthermore, she found new value in her work as she strives to ensure that RCSD schools are places she would feel excited to send her own children. She said, “It’s motivating to think about schools from the parent side, making sure that kids get the education they deserve. I think it’s a real vote of confidence that so many people I work with send their kids to the district where they work. I feel fortunate that I get paid to do work that I love and that feels meaningful.”

Pronovost’s day-to-day work involves meeting with donors, writing communications, and meeting with district staff to understand their needs and how philanthropy can address these needs. Pronovost said, “Most school districts don’t have a partnership with their foundation in the way that Ravenswood [RCSD] does. 20% of the budget is a significant piece, and this funding comes with more flexibility than public funding. This allows us to be more innovative with our use of the foundation’s funding, and to be a thought partner with the district when implementing it.”

Throughout her career in education, Pronovost has leaned on her immediate family, extended family, and friends. She explained, “First and foremost, my loved ones provide emotional support. It is exhausting to work in education because it feels so high-stakes. In other jobs, it only affects you if you don’t do something. But in this field, if you don’t do it well, your students don’t learn or you don’t have the impact you’re working towards. It’s intense.”

Pronovost’s advice to current M-A students: “Open your eyes and your heart and soak it all in. High school is such a specific time in your life and it’s hard to see how it shapes you when you’re in it, but you’ll look back and see it.”

Pronovost’s advice to M-A students interested in becoming teachers or working in public education: “Call me! I would love to talk to you. We need great people doing this work. If you are called to it, I really encourage you to persist and make it happen. Education is, in my opinion, the way to a more equitable society because it ensures that every human can advocate for themselves.” Regarding the financial aspects of working in public education, Pronovost explained, “Don’t let that get in your way. You will never be the wealthiest person you know, but if you find a way to make it work, you will live a meaningful life. I’m turning 40, and many people I know who made different life choices are now trying to figure out how to live a meaningful life. If you’re called to it, you can find a way.”

Amala is a senior at M-A, and this is her second year in journalism. She enjoys using journalism to explore education policy and highlight extraordinary individuals in the community. She is also a part of M-A’s Leadership-ASB, and spends her free time at the beach.

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