First State Educate, Action Fund name new executive director

Betsy PriceEducation, Headlines


First State Educate and First State Action Fund have named a new executive director, Julia Keleher.

Julia Keleher, a Pennsylvania educational leader who once was sent to prision on fraud charges, has been named the new executive director of First State Educate and First State Action Fund, two linked nonprofits devoted to improving education in the Delaware.

She succeeds Laurisa Schutt, who helped found the organiztions. Schutt will remain on the boards but is pursuing other interests as well.

Keleher’s two decades of education leadership roles have been characterized by innovation and creative problem solving, the agencies said in a press release.


Julia Keleher

She served as secretary of education in Puerto Rico from 2017-2019, led technical assistance and risk management initiatives at the U.S. Department of Education for seven years, and taught as well as acted as administrator in the Red Clay Consolidated School District from 2000 to 2007.

Keleher became a controversial figure in Puerto Rico. After leading Hurricane Maria recovery efforts and passing an education reform bill, Keleher became the target of a federal investigation and was sentenced to six months in federal prison and 12 months of home confinement on conspiracy charges.

That did not deter the interest of the First State Educate and First State Action Fund, who conducted a national search for Schutt’s replacement.

“Julia’s experiences these past fifteen years have led to a deep understanding of the power structures and intricacies of educational systems,” said First State Educate Board President Thère
du Pont. “The education and justice systems around our families are complex and unforgiving — Julia is uniquely positioned to spark significant change.”

Keleher was charged with fraud and accused of using her position to exchange 1,034 square feet of a public school in Santurce to a private company in exchange for an apartment in the Ciudadela apartment complex in San Juan, according to her Wikipedia profile. She found the charges and maintained her innocence, but eventually pled guilty to two counts of conspiracy to attempt fraud and went to prison for six months.

Du Pont in the press release said Keleher’s “combination of experience, well of compassion and empathy, and commitment to educational excellence is unmatched. We could not be more excited for her to work with our partners to build a cohesive and inclusive ecosystem that drives continued improvement in Delaware schools.”

“My roles in Red Clay, the Department of Education, and in Puerto Rico showed me how pivotal coalitions are in efforts to transform learning,” Keleher said in the press release. “As executive director of First State Educate, my focus will be elevating and integrating the voices of those most affected by our school system – and those best positioned to influence change.”

Educate/Fund foundings

First State Educate/Action Fund were founded in 2019 to catalyze radical change in education by activating the power of Delawareans. Since its founding, the groups have helped 16 game-changing leaders be elected to school boards throughout the state, including five school board members enrolling 45,000 students who now serve in leadership positions. The nonprofis also heped push numerous initiatives to change the conditions of teaching and learning, including the Wilmington Learning Collaborative, RISE UP Delaware and FaCE coalitions.

Among her degrees and certifications, Keleher has a B.A. in political science and M.S. in education from the University of Pennsylvania, and a doctor of
education leadership from the University of Delaware.

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Shortly after her release from prison, Keleher became a Smart Justice Ambassador with the ACLU of Delaware, advocating for legislative changes to reduce the prison population and address racial disparities within the justice system.

“There can be painful consequences to challenging powerful systems,” Keleher said in the press release. “I have seen first-hand the crushing consequences low-performing public schools can have on communities. I am emerging from my recent experience wholly moved to improve systems that affect educators and families.”

“Julia has a wonderful way of zeroing in on a problem and creating a positive workable solution. She is completely focused on how to help children succeed,” said Nancy Smith, veteran educator
and Mentoring Coordinator with Red Clay Consolidated School District.

Keleher plans to schedule meetings throughout the fall to hear what policymakers, educators, studentsl, and families see as key issues in their education communities.


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