Paying It Forward

Jodie Brodhead Moore ’68 uses education to make the world better.

For Jodie Brodhead Moore, Mary Institute Class of 1968, the image of the consummate educator was Ronald Beasley. Kind and approachable, he ate lunches with students, hosted Tuesday afternoon discussions with seniors in his office and was always ready to step in as goalie during the yearly students vs. faculty hockey games. Tall and imposing, he towered over his students as he joined them in Mary Eliot Chapel for their daily chapel service. On special occasions, he would send off his students with a repeated benediction. In a stentorian Cambridge accent, echoed by the voices of his students, he would repeat, “Watch over our school, oh Lord, and bless and guide our daughters wherever they may be, keeping them ever unspotted from the world.”

Moore was enamoured with the history teacher and leader who served as the second Headmaster of Mary Institute, and was the namesake for the MICDS Lower School.

“He was the most unbelievable human being. He was highly intellectual, keenly interested in women’s education, extremely available to talk with students and a superb public speaker,” she said.

Recalling the leader of the school she attended from kindergarten to her sophomore year, Moore remembers that his vision for the pupils of his school was unusually progressive for that historical moment. While many girls’ schools at the time were intent on molding dutiful wives and mothers, Ronald Beasley had loftier goals.

“His constant communication to us was that we were women who should be leaders. He reiterated that much was expected of us, that we had incredible gifts and talents and that it was our job to change the world. He was extraordinary in his vision for women and women in education,” she shared.

After her time at Mary Institute, Moore left St. Louis for boarding school at Miss Porter’s School, followed by college at the University of Pennsylvania. Upon receiving her undergraduate degree in Russian history, she moved to New York City to accept a position with McMillen, a residential interior design firm started by a St. Louisan in 1924 and widely considered the oldest design firm in the country. While at McMillen, Moored pursued an associate degree in design at the New York School of Interior Design. In 1972, Moore married a Philadelphian and moved to the City of Brotherly Love, taking a job with Innerspace, a local commercial design firm. In the wake of an oil crisis and the resulting economic slowdown, much new construction was delayed or halted in Philadelphia. Although the firm was profitable, it wasn’t growing. Looking for business opportunities for the firm outside of Philly, Moore investigated what Pittsburgh locals were calling Renaissance II, an influx of construction and business growth in the heart of that city. After investigating the opportunities in Pittsburgh, she pitched the idea of an office in Pittsburgh to the leadership at her firm. He agreed, and she opened a satellite location at the height of the construction boom. Within three years of opening, the office housed over 30 employees.

While Moore achieved success and recognition for her work in design, it’s not what she’s known best for in Pittsburgh. Primarily, she’s been lauded for helping to transform Pittsburgh’s educational landscape by co-founding The Neighborhood Academy, a rigorous college preparatory school that has been in operation for nearly two decades. In fact, she was recently honored as a Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania by Governor Tom Wolf for her work in education. For 18 years, The Neighborhood Academy has helped empower its student body to achieve great successes. It’s now the alma mater of a cadre of Pittsburgh youth who have gone on to meaningful careers in education, social work, medicine and other industries.

Moore had never planned to start a school and her decision to do so was unexpected, even to her. For many years, she worked with Dan Meyers to develop and facilitate an afterschool program for African-American youth. As she continued to spend time with young people in Pittsburgh, addressing their needs became paramount in her mind. As she put it, “I responded to a call to work for social justice in the best way I knew how. I didn’t set out to start a school, I set out to right a wrong.” Ultimately, she believed that providing a haven for learning, development and personal growth was the best way to address the injustice she witnessed.

Moore is a woman who makes friends easily and the idea for starting The Neighborhood Academy was born out of a unique friendship. While attending classes at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, she forged a relationship with the Rev. Thomas E. Johnson, Jr., a history teacher and coach at Shady Side Academy where her son Tory attended school. The two bonded immediately, and Moore invited Johnson to join the afterschool group as a facilitator. Not long after, Johnson began a summer program for the children in the group. This was the perfect laboratory for testing out the approach and philosophy that would later come to fruition in the founding of The Neighborhood Academy. As Moore and Johnson watched the summer program grow and outcomes improve, they began exploring the idea of creating a school to meet the needs they saw in the community on an even larger scale. While the two of them imagined what such a school might look like, the memory of Ronald Beasley resurfaced for Moore.

After the summer program had been in operation for almost a decade, it seemed like the time was right to start a school. In many ways, the two were an excellent team for the endeavor. Johnson’s background as an educator found a perfect complement in Moore’s business acumen and passion for planning. As the process began moving forward, Moore applied for a grant.

“I wrote a grant proposal and submitted it to the R. K. Mellon Foundation to see if they would fund a feasibility study for starting a school. Charter schools were really gaining traction in Pittsburgh in the late ’90s and foundations were funding the charter school movement. R. K. Mellon gave us a small grant that allowed me to investigate the possibility of opening a school,” Moore explained.

The business plan she put together for the feasibility study described a school that would start with an 8th and 9th grade and then expand into a high school, adding a grade each subsequent year. With that in place, she formed a board of trustees, hired a development officer and began a three-year fundraising campaign to build the school and prepare it for students. Moore and Johnson wrote a mission statement, began developing the curriculum and continued to engage with the community around them. The doors of The Neighborhood Academy opened on September 12, 2001, and the adventure began.

“Everything we do at The Neighborhood Academy is purposeful and intentional,” said Moore. “especially our emphasis on developing a technique for teaching children who enter the classroom with gaps in their education. We understand that in order to teach a given subject, we need to fill in information gaps at the same time that we teach new material. Then, we put systems in place to support both the contextual information and the new information. In addition to their intellectual development, we also think about how students function physically, how they process and adapt emotionally and the psycho-social support necessary for them to learn. The traditional view of school as simply a place where you are taught information doesn’t work for our kids. At The Neighborhood Academy we relieve children of the traumatic baggage they carry so that they are ready to learn and to respond to our rigorous expectations. That’s how our students thrive and achieve.”

Eighteen years after the first two classes walked through the doors of The Neighborhood Academy, the school continues to serve boys in 6th-8th grade and both genders in 9th through 12th grade. Admitted students have access to small classes, arts and STEM education and opportunities for national and international travel. They attend theatrical performances, receive extensive college counseling and have access to highly-trained counselors in order to support their social and emotional wellbeing. One hundred percent of all graduates go on to college and many embark on career paths that change the trajectory of their lives. Above all, Moore says, “The Neighborhood Academy is a place where kids learn they count and that their lives matter. It’s the utmost privilege and honor to be a part of helping young people achieve the American Dream, which is getting harder and harder to grasp. The key is having rigorous expectations while providing holistic support. Within that environment, they thrive.”

50 years after Ronald Beasley served as Headmaster of Mary Institute, on the other side of the country an entirely different chorus of voices ends graduation in exactly the same way. Students at The Neighborhood Academy repeat the same closing words in chorus:

“Watch over our school, oh Lord, and bless and guide our sons and daughters wherever they may be, keeping them ever unspotted from the world.”

These students may not know the story of Ronald Beasley, but the legacy of his commitment to education is the framework for their school day and the philosophy that undergirds the founding of their school.

In 1965, Moore learned from Ronald Beasley that “education was meant to open your eyes to the world and to help you see how you can make it a better place.” By creating a school that lifts up and supports Pittsburgh youth, there’s no question that Jodie has fulfilled her Headmaster’s exhortation. Mr. Beasley would be incredibly proud.