Meet Chris Meyer, the new CEO of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation

Meet Chris Meyer, the new CEO of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation


By Mukul Verma
Imagine your first day of high school. Everyone is dressed to impress. You’ve shown up in gym shorts. It does not go unnoticed.

It’s freshman year at Caddo Magnet— among the best schools in the state. The kids with driver’s licenses are rolling up in their luxury cars. But not you. Your commute began at 5 a.m. near the parish line, where you were the first kid on the yellow bus.

Photo by Tim Mueller

It’s no secret you’re from the wrong side of the tracks. As strong-willed and loving as they are, no one in your family has gotten a college degree. Your dad didn’t finish high school, but he doesn’t shy away from hard work; he drives long-haul trucks. Your mom, a nurse’s assistant, juggles her job, takes care of the kids, and keeps the household humming. Your younger sister looks up to you for the example you’ll set.

Before jumping on the bus that first day, you put on gym clothes. You figure it’s probably not going to make a good first impression, but fashion isn’t on your mind at the moment.

And there you are at Caddo Magnet, all alone because your pals went to the local high school. But you took the advice of your football coach—who was also a rigorous English teacher—and earned yourself a place in a tough magnet program. That first day, one of the mean girls at your new school looks you up and down.

“Gym class isn’t until sixth period,” she sniffs.

Today, as the new CEO of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, you’ve long since forgotten that mean girl’s name. But you hang onto the memory of her condescension— a useful reminder of where you came from. You want to stay mindful of your past because it will prompt you to work harder for those kids who need, just like you did, a chance to do better.

Chris Meyer owns his childhood. His parents were working class, blue-collar people, like their own parents before them. When his dad, John, was not on the road driving freight long distances, he worked to make Chris stronger. No complaining. Got knocked down? Get back up, dust yourself off, double your efforts. His mom, Cindy, held it all together, every day.

Chris’ parents met at a church Christmas celebration in Shreveport. When the party ended, his mom hopped on the back of her future husband’s Japanese motorcycle and they rode off together.

“Dad gave her a ride home, and they fell in love,” Chris said. “They were two kids from very humble backgrounds who needed each other.”

Chris was their firstborn. Early on, the Meyer family bounced around the poverty line. Home was a trailer park. But when his dad lost his job, they moved in with Chris’ maternal grandparents.

“We had a lot of love in the family. A lot of support,” Chris remembered. “But my dad got injured on the job, and they fired him because he couldn’t drive a truck anymore. We were literally a slip away from poverty.”

Five years after Chris was born, his sister Stacey came along. By that time, the Meyers had managed to struggle up a few rungs on the economic ladder. Their big triumph came when they moved into a real house.

“Our parents worked hard. They took us to church, made sure we got up and went to school,” Chris said. “They loved and supported us, but they never projected any sort of grandiose goals for us.”

Looking around in middle school, Chris knew he was not like his more well-to-do classmates. His friend’s house in Marvin Gardens had a backyard pool with a slide that seemed to tower two stories above the water. Chris’ own neighborhood was run down and getting shabbier.

Sorting themselves into cliques, some of the students picked on Chris, mostly for the clothes he wore and the neighborhood where he lived.

“Kids were mean,” he conceded. “But that just put a chip on my shoulder. And my father didn’t suffer a pity party. He’d say, ‘We are never going to be ashamed of who we are and what we have. Let’s just keep busting our tails.’”

Then came along a man who recognized the worth of a kid who was willing to “keep busting his tail.” John Williams was the middle school football coach. He also taught English, insisting on precision and clarity in his students’ writing. Coach Williams could see in Chris what others had missed. He pushed the boy to do more, to be more. Coach Williams wanted Chris to apply to Caddo Magnet, one of the best high schools in Louisiana.

By the end of middle school, Chris faced a tough choice: go on to his local high school with the friends he’d grown up with, or take the long, early morning bus ride to a much harder school where he’d be more of an outsider than ever.

“Our families don’t come in parts and pieces, and our communities don’t either. How are we aligning strategies all around our community so that opportunity truly is unlocked in a more systemic way?””
His parents did not intervene; they left the decision to Chris. But Coach Williams didn’t. He knew that a 14-year-old like Chris had tremendous potential, but needed guidance. “You deserve something different,” Williams urged Chris. No matter Chris’ hesitations, his coach wouldn’t give up on him. “You can do this. You can compete with anyone.”

“So I went to Caddo,” Chris said. “John Williams helped me unlock that opportunity and changed the trajectory of my life, and that of my family.”

Chris didn’t merely succeed; he excelled. Like anywhere else, Caddo Magnet had its share of mean girls and snobs, but students there were dedicated in a way that he hadn’t known before.

“It was all about accomplishment,” Chris explained. “I attended a world-class school where everyone talked about college. It was the first time I’d thought about going to college.”

And when he’d finished at Caddo Magnet, that’s what Chris did. The first in his family to attend a university, he moved from Shreveport to New Orleans and enrolled in Tulane University.

Always mindful of where he’d come from, though, Chris didn’t forsake his hometown friends. A dozen of them invaded his dorm room for Mardi Gras. “We had the best time,” Chris smiled. “Now when I go back home, there’s always a night when we get together to cut up, and we are right back in those endless summers.”

In 2004, Meyer graduated from Tulane University with a bachelor’s in political science and political economy. His college degree was a proud first for his family, but his younger sister soon followed his example. Stacey attended C.E. Byrd, and then earned a degree from Northwestern State University in Natchitoches.

After college, she became a teacher— just like Chris had done when he graduated from Tulane.

Chris Meyer joined Teach For America and was assigned to John McDonogh Senior High School in New Orleans, one of the worst performing schools in America.

“I coached the basketball team at McDonogh,” Chris recounted. “It was out of strategy: I wanted a way to bond with the kids. And what better way than volunteering for this?” To be sure, it was a kind of volunteer work; he was paid only $200 to coach an entire season.

“We had to combine the junior varsity and varsity teams because we consistently didn’t have enough players,” Chris said. The team made the playoffs.

Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and scattered McDonogh’s students. The school was stricken and disabled, like the rest of the city.

“We needed help and, in some ways, that felt very demoralizing. Our school leadership at the time felt paralyzed,” Chris said. “Frankly, I was ticked off that we felt so helpless. And that feeling took me back to some childhood memories: No one wants to feel like they don’t have the ability to help their own family or escape their circumstances. It was stifling.”

His plans changed. “And so I said, ‘All right, I’m not going to law school.’ I started thinking more about public service and what I’d need to do to be trained in helping others. Transforming how government works was my motivating factor.”

Driven by a new sense of purpose, Chris Meyer returned to college. He earned a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard Kennedy School in 2008 and was one of 14 selected as a White House Fellow. He was dispatched to the Department of Defense, where he served Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Meyer held top security clearances and traveled around the world with Secretary Gates for a year that straddled the administrations of presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Chris learned much from Secretary Gates. As head of the Defense Department, Gates operated a $600 billion organization comprised of more than 1 million troops and more than
1 million civilian employees. But how does one move such a massive organization, Chris wondered. How can anyone make meaningful changes and improvements on such a scale? He recalled Secretary Gates’ approach. “His focus was, if I can move the needle on five things, then the time will be worth it.”

One of his top objectives was improving the safety of the troops in his charge. “He understood that if we really focus and make this one of our top five priorities, we can muster the will to get it done.”

Gates delivered. Cutting through a vast and tangled bureaucratic system, he procured safer armored vehicles for the men and women at the point of the spear, the ones leading the fight overseas.

Meyer returned to Louisiana, armed with important lessons learned from Gates about improving inefficient systems. Back home, he put those lessons to use serving as a special advisor in the Louisiana Department of Education and then deputy superintendent of the Louisiana Recovery School District. In 2012, Chris became the founder and CEO of New Schools for Baton Rouge, a nonprofit started by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation and seeded by our fund donors.

His new mission was to effect meaningful and measurable improvements in East Baton Rouge Parish’s struggling public education system. It was a formidable undertaking; many before him had tried and failed. This time, though, NSBR embraced a different strategy: The first step was to research and recruit only the best charter schools to the parish, and then to support them in the start-up phase while they proved their worth. If a charter school faltered or failed, it would be held accountable.

Ten years on, NSBR has achieved some exceptional successes.

“We can be a city in which every single resident excels, and people use their resources and their time and energy to help others.””
It has raised more than $80 million to recruit and support some of the most successful charters in the nation, including Basis, IDEA Schools and KIPP. The organization has invested more than $200 million to build schools that now serve more than 11,000 students, one of every four in public schools.

“We started with the belief that every kid ought to go to an excellent school,” Meyer said. He knew there’d be skeptics and scoffers. But Chris is an optimist.

“It is possible,” he insisted. And he has encouraging evidence to back him up. “We’ve made a ton of progress. When we started, 90% of the kids in North Baton Rouge were attending D and F schools. We’ve cut that percentage nearly in half within a decade.”

But Chris Meyer is not satisfied. “It’s not where we want to be. We still have 15,000 of nearly 50,000 public school students attending D and F schools.”

Getting good schools to come to Baton Rouge was a critical piece of the puzzle, but Meyer also knows that problems this big aren’t solved piecemeal. Instead, he says that wider, systemic changes will need to take place before East Baton Rouge can truly turn public education around. So, Chris wants the Baton Rouge Area Foundation to tackle those fundamental, systemic problems that hold children back.

“I feel great about the strategy we’re pursuing at NSBR,” he said. “But our families don’t come in parts and pieces, and our communities don’t either. How are we aligning strategies all around our community so that opportunity truly is unlocked in a more systemic way?”

Meyer has some ideas, but he wants to learn more first; the best decisions are the most well-informed ones. There are big barriers blocking many kids from achieving the education they deserve, so Meyer wants to take on long-term civic projects designed to decrease childhood poverty. Making excellent early childhood care and education available to all children is a priority. But, as with NSBR, success in each project is something that has to be measurable, unfolding over one-year, five-year, and ten-year timetables, with well-defined indicators at every step along the way.

“I think we can be one of the fastest improving cities when it comes to measures of opportunity,” Meyer said. “Compared to other cities, Baton Rouge can be among the fastest moving when it comes to eliminating and reducing childhood poverty. And one of the fastest, too, for improving earnings and high-wage job credentials. We can be a city in which every single resident excels, and people use their resources and their time and energy to help others. This is something we can do.”

A little more than an hour into the conversation, his thoughts returned to Coach John Williams. He recalled a best friend growing up who was much like himself, but he chose a different path and went to the local high school instead of the magnet academy. His friend was smart enough to go to Caddo, but he was missing something: He didn’t have a Coach Williams in his life.

“I’m so glad, so grateful that he pushed me to take that opportunity to get better schooling,” Chris said. “To me, that’s the sad part: Not every kid has a hero like him to help them change their lives. Instead, what we need is a system that works for everyone.”

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