Nearly three years ago, all eyes at 50CAN were focused on the Ocean State. We were preparing to do what we had never done before—bring the CAN model to a new state—with the launch of RI-CAN: The Rhode Island Campaign for Achievement Now.
I knew that in order for RI-CAN to succeed in making positive changes for Rhode Island kids, it would need a visionary leader at its helm. Someone with an unrelenting itch to do right by kids, someone with a deep knowledge of how things work in “Li’l Rhody,” someone unafraid to navigate through uncharted waters and build a new great schools movement.
That someone was Maryellen Butke.
Just the year before, Maryellen had cofounded Rhode Island Is Ready, a statewide, grassroots education reform campaign that played a leadership role in pushing through an equitable funding formula for Rhode Island public schools. A mom-turned-advocate through her personal struggle to find a great school for her daughter, she had already begun to make a difference for the children in her state. I knew she was exactly what RI-CAN needed.
Ever since then, Maryellen has been a true pioneer, helping define what a new CAN should look like, how it should be built and how we get things done for kids.
And so it is extremely bittersweet that this week she stepped down as RI-CAN executive director so she could devote her full energies to running for Senate District 3 in Providence.
It’s hard to overstate just how much Maryellen has given to the organization over the past two and a half years. Under Maryellen’s leadership, RI-CAN ran three issue campaigns – Be a Superhero, Put Achievement First and The Rising Tide– to keep front-and-center the notion that every child in Rhode Island deserves access to a great public school.
When a new governor took office and appointed a new Board of Regents, Maryellen rallied her team and advocates across the state to keep the reforms begun the year before on track.
When the new Board of Regents looked like it might deny the groundbreaking Achievement First nonprofit charter network permission to open a school in the state, Maryellen and her team embarked on a campaign to get Achievement First’s application approved. After a tough 9-month battle, RI-CAN won approval of two new Achievement First schools on a five-to-four vote in January 2012.
It was a stunning victory that serves as proof of the power of a committed group of people to change their state for the better. There will be thousands of Rhode Island kids who become the first in their family to go to college because of the commitment Maryellen and her team made to ensure those schools opened.
Along the way, RI-CAN also started important conversations about reforming school staffing policies, removing obstacles for implementing proven strategies in all of our public schools and funding for charter school buildings so they can be on equal footing with the rest of the system.
Over the past two-and-a-half years, RI-CAN has grown from a promising idea into a powerful movement, with more than 10,000 RI-CAN members across the state demanding change, dozens of authoritative research and policy reports and briefs that have grounded the conversation in the facts and more than 150 media stories and articles that have helped make education reform a central conversation in Rhode Island.
In the next few weeks RI-CAN will start the search for a great new leader to take the helm. Until then Ashley Daigneault, RI-CAN’s public affairs and policy manager, will be stepping in to keep RI-CAN’s important work on track. Ashley has been with RI-CAN since the beginning and has been a true partner in this journey. RI-CAN will be in good hands under her leadership during this transition.
Everyone at 50CAN gets a nickname that we hope captures their spirit and their unique contribution to our work. Maryellen’s is “The Natural.” She was born to do this work, fighting for a cause she believes in and working on behalf of the interests of kids. Just as sports teams retire the numbers of players who have achieved amazing things during their time on the team, we are going to be retiring the nickname “The Natural” in honor of everything that Maryellen has contributed to our organization and this cause.
We wish her good luck in the next leg of her journey and thank her for all her work on behalf of Rhode Island children.
**RI-CAN and 50CAN do not endorse candidates for political office**