Howard School Class of 2004 graduate and current Harvard University Ph.D. candidate Daphne Penn speaks during the Public Education Foundation 30th Anniversary luncheon at the Chattanooga Convention Center on Wednesday, April 10, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.
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Daphne Penn graduated from Howard High School in 2004. Since then, the Hustlin Tiger alumnae has earned degrees at Vanderbilt University, Purdue University and is now pursuing her doctorate as a Ford Foundation Fellow at Harvard University.

Penn doesn't attribute her success to just her own hard work, though. Instead, she attributes it to the individuals and organizations, such as the Public Education Foundation of Chattanooga, that helped her along the way.

PEF’S Transforming Public Education Award Finalists

In honor of its 30-year anniversary, the PEF gave four awards to individuals in each of its focus areas at its annual luncheon on April 10.

College and Career Success Award

> Sarah Broadnax, college and career advisor at Tyner Academy (winner)

> Susan Street, community advocate for education

> Rebecca Suttles, director of scholarships at Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga

Teacher Leadership Award

> Jessica Hubbuch, chemistry teacher at Howard High School

> Carrie Bishop, eighth grade language arts teacher at Hixson Middle School (winner)

> Arthur Williams, STEM Instructional Coach at Lakeside Academy

Innovation Award

> Shannon Seigle, science teacher at The STEM School Chattanooga

> Chris Senard, VW eLab specialist at Dalewood Middle School (winner)

> Brittany Harris, curriculum coach at East Brainerd Elementary

School Leadership Award

> Blake Freeman, director of Future Ready Institutes for Hamilton County Schools (winner)

> Jackie Hauth, principal at North Hamilton County Elementary School

> Juan Moreno, principal at East Ridge Elementary School

"When I reflect on my journey from Howard to Harvard, it's not solely about my aptitude and my hard work, it is also a story about what happens when a bright student is provided with the tools and opportunities to exceed others' and their own expectations," Penn said Wednesday at the foundation's annual luncheon, this year marking its 30th anniversary. "My success was made possible by my parents, hardworking educators and life-changing PEF initiatives that enabled me to tap into and realize my full potential."

Initiatives like the Passport Scholars program that sends high-achieving high school girls to travel and study at universities across the country during summer breaks, Camp College that prepares rising seniors for life after high school and even programs that benefited the educators who engaged with Penn, such as the Leadership Fellows and the Principal Leadership Academy, are the hallmarks of the PEF's success for the past 30 years.

The organization, founded in 1989, has grown to be one of the biggest partners and advocates of public education in the region. Through private donations, grants and foundation funding, it focuses on providing programming and supporting initiatives that fall under four focus areas — college and career access, innovation, school leadership and teacher leadership — every year.

"Every single day in public schools, the mission impossible is to make sure that every child gets the kind of education we would wish for for our own children," said Edna Varner, senior adviser for leading and learning at the foundation. "We believe that every child should have access to that. That's why, when the Public Education Foundation was established, the idea wasn't 'Please contribute so we can support a few things,' it was about supporting bold ideas."

PEF is one of the founding members of Chattanooga 2.0, the community's landmark education initiative uniting nonprofits, businesses and other organizations to strengthen local education, and works closely with the Hamilton County school district, as well as other districts in the region such as Bradley County Schools and Cleveland City Schools.

"There's nothing more important to our future than our public schools," said President Dan Challener. "In some ways, over the last 30 years you can say, PEF has gone from stocking libraries to creating [digital fabrication labs]. But in truth, we think our most important work is not in donating stuff, but rather making investments into the knowledge and experiences of principals, teachers and students."

Other programs PEF has launched include the Project Inspire teaching residency; the Teachpreneur program that connects classroom teachers with funding for innovative ideas; and fellowship cohorts focused on leadership, policy and STEM.

The opportunities that PEF provides to students, teachers and school leaders, Penn said are vital for giving students opportunities to tap into their potential.

"Another reason why I reject the narrative that my success is solely the result of my extraordinary intellect is because it obscures an important fact. Ability is evenly distributed in the population, but opportunity is not and ability minus support minus opportunity equals unrealized potential," Penn said. "Hamilton County, the Opportunity Zone and Howard are filled with potential, there are so many students who have the aptitude but simply need someone to offer them the opportunity to stretch and grow."

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.