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2012 Forty Under 40: Patrick O'Donnell

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Patrick O’Donnell
Where were you, and what were you doing in 1991?
A fifth-grade student in Beverly, Mass., playing a lot of basketball and having one of my all-time favorite teachers, Mrs. Pendergast.

When you graduated from high school, what did you think you wanted to be as an adult?
To return to Ecuador, where I had volunteered in high school, to work in education and economic development, or to move to Los Angeles to become a screenwriter and actor.

Was there an event in the last 20 years that had a great impact on your aspirations and/or career path?
After college I joined Teach For America and taught English in a high-poverty middle school in South Central Los Angeles. When I met my students at the beginning of my first year, they were performing multiple years below grade level because they hadn’t had the opportunity to attend excellent schools. With a lot of hard work by everyone in our classroom, my students made almost two years of academic growth by the end of the year. The resilience I witnessed in my students as we worked toward achieving our academic goals cemented in me a deep conviction that all children—regardless of their socioeconomic background—can achieve at the highest level when given access to an excellent education.

Have you been mentored by (or had any significant interactions with) previous Forty Under 40 honorees?
David Harris, CEO of The Mind Trust, is an advocate for advancing educational opportunity in Indianapolis and a member of Teach For America’s board.

Where/what do you want to be 20 years from now?
I can’t predict where I’ll be in 20 years, but I do know that I’ll still be working in public education.
 

Executive director, Teach for America-Indianapolis
Age: 30

Although he hasn’t been in Indianapolis for two years yet, Patrick O’Donnell already is making an impact. As executive director for Teach for America-Indianapolis, he now oversees 110 teachers in Indianapolis Public Schools and city charter schools, and he aims to bring in 100 more this year. He’s also had a hand in recruiting six Teach for America alumni to become principals, and he expects another eight to make that move this year.

“We’re looking to scale our own efforts so we can be one important contributor to creating system change in the city,” he said.

O’Donnell’s interest in solving America’s education problems dates to his undergraduate days at Boston College. Working with middle-school students as a volunteer for a local Boys and Girls Club, he was shocked to see how far behind the kids were in school.

He wanted to do something to solve the problem, so he joined Teach for America and spent two years teaching in south-central Los Angeles. There, O’Donnell said, he was able to motivate his classes to make up two reading levels in one school year by getting students and parents to buy into his goal, offering tutoring before school, after school and on weekends, and through sheer hard work.

From there, he moved into the position of recruitment director for Teach for America, then got the call to move to Indianapolis.

So far, O’Donnell said, he’s found Indianapolis to be a welcoming and friendly community—in part because between current teachers and alumni, Teach for America has 300 representatives in the city. And rather than be dismayed by the state of education here and throughout the country, he’s energized to prove that “It’s solvable at a classroom and at a school level.”

“If we could do this in my classrooms,” he said, “we can do this in all classrooms.”•

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