Ashley Esposito is not an educator. She does not yet have children in the Baltimore schools—her son is still a toddler. And she had no previous experience in public office before she launched an election campaign for a seat on the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners. What she did have, however, was a toolkit of lessons she learned from her time as a student at University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC).
Those strategies, along with a powerful campaign platform, carried Esposito to victory in a highly competitive November race for two available seats on the 12-member board that provides oversight for Baltimore’s public schools and their 78,000 students.
“I think the likeliness of someone like me serving on a school board is almost none. Most people on school boards are educators or people who had good outcomes from schools,” Esposito said. “It took me 20 years to get my degree. So, my work with the school board applies to the real-time voice of someone who has not seen good outcomes with the education system.”
Esposito, who has a degree in software development and security from UMGC, describes herself as hardheaded, a trait that helped her in the first election in which school board commissioners were selected by public vote. A majority of the commissioners were named by the Mayor.
Hardheadedness is also what took Esposito to UMGC after failing out of three other universities. “I wasn’t going to take on a school that was more expensive than the last three—I was still carrying the debt, but no degree, from the other places I enrolled. So UMGC seemed like my safest last shot,” she explained.
She ended up with an education that went beyond the coursework, serving on the Student Advisory Council and developing her leadership skills. Esposito said she also learned from the way UMGC delivered its courses.
“I like the way UMGC does virtual learning. It’s smart and it had an impact on my community organizing, especially the asynchronous aspect,” Esposito said. “Rather than being rigid, UMGC lets students self-regulate, take the initiative, and plan their own work.”
She has carried the idea of asynchronous meetings to her interactions with parents whose students attend the Baltimore schools.
“There are parents who work second shifts or don’t have childcare, so it is difficult for them to take part in school board meetings,” Esposito explained. “I try to focus on creating asynchronous opportunities to hear their concerns and give my feedback…I want to be able to hear from people directly.”
Esposito said UMGC’s focus on diversity—in its faculty, student enrollment, and academic leadership—also aligned with her ideas on inclusivity. She was an at-risk student as a child, spending time in foster care. And she is neurodivergent, in her case someone with dyslexia, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Because of this, Esposito feels well positioned to advocate for students with learning differences, including students with autism and those viewed as “socially different.”
“It concerns me that every time someone needs assistance, we give them a Band-Aid in terms of accommodations, rather than assessing where their talents are and building an educational option that suits the way they learn,” she said.
Esposito said Baltimore City schools need to meet the needs of their students who learn differently and for students who suffer from trauma, including through broader in-school mental health services.
Esposito said the use of technology at UMGC, including text-to-voice software compatible reading material, contributed to her academic success as someone with dyslexia. But most of all, she said her involvement with the Student Advisory Council helped build the leadership skills she relies on for her work on the school board.
“The UMGC student advisory council was the first place I was thriving,” she said. “I never considered myself a leader, but this took me out of my shell. It helped me with my social anxiety.”
Esposito eventually ended up as president of the council and, in 2016, was asked to speak at a White House Symposium on higher education innovation. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she served on the Mental Health Committee of the University System of Maryland Student Council.
Esposito uses her UMGC education in her job with a tech company. In her spare time, she engages her entrepreneurial and creative side through graphic design, website design, photography, and painting.
As she serves on the school board, Esposito said she is mindful that Baltimore juggles the many challenges that mark older U.S. cities, including historical segregation, redlining, poverty, aging infrastructure, and students suffering from trauma. Since January, for example, seven students in the Baltimore school system have died from gun violence.
Esposito serves on the board’s operations committee and policy committee where, she said, she prioritizes “community voice.”
“When people change policy, they look at what best serves the majority, but I look at the 10 percent and the 20 percent who are not going to be accommodated. I look at what supports could be made available for them,” she said. “What if these are children with no parents? How are you making it so their experiences and their voices are equal?”