Keeping Up With the Joneses

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Power couple share a passion for education

Allison Ross


JCPS chair member David Jones Jr. and wife Mary Gwen Wheeler pose for a portrait in the office at Chrysalis Ventures. .

Dinner conversations have gotten more lively around Mary Gwen Wheeler and David Jones Jr.’s dining room table since Jones decided a couple years ago to run for the Jefferson County Board of Education.

Debates on teacher quality, school choice, funding or parental involvement have increasingly been served up along with the main course, with the two education advocates at times heatedly discussing best practices, policies and ways forward.

Wheeler draws on her perspective as a member of the Kentucky Board of Education and as executive director of 55,000 Degrees when offering her take. Jones is influenced by his business background and his work on the county’s school board.

“We chew it over and argue,” Wheeler said.

While the two may at times be coming from different viewpoints, the couple have long shared a passion for education and a belief that a high-quality public education is fundamental to improving the community. Their drive has put the two at the center of education conversations in Louisville and Kentucky.

“They are out on the bow of the ship shaping institutional direction,” said Rowan Claypool, program director for Teach Kentucky and longtime friends with Wheeler and Jones.

He said their interest and involvement in education has been an “evolution” over the course of their careers and as they’ve worked to help their community. “They’ve been led to one of the biggest issues in the community: education attainment,” Claypool said.

Sharon Darling, president and founder of the National Center for Families Learning, said the perspectives the couple brings to education are in part what makes them so valuable, with Jones’ experience in business and governance and Wheeler’s knowledge of management, nonprofits and social justice. Darling also knows Jones and Wheeler well; Wheeler worked at NCFL for about a decade after she and Jones moved to Louisville in the early 1990s.

“They’re a power couple that uses their power in the right way,” Darling said.

Both Jones and Wheeler eschew the idea of being an education power couple; they say the term can get twisted or bring up unpleasant connotations, and they say they’ve been interested in education since they were young.

Yet there’s no denying the two play important roles in shaping education policy in Louisville and the state.

Jones last month was elected chairman of the Jefferson County Board of Education, which wrangles a $1.3 billion budget — the second-largest budget in the state, behind only the state itself. Wheeler, who is also on the statewide advocacy group Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, has seen her 55,000 Degrees initiative bring increased scrutiny to the number of college-educated workers in Louisville.

When they met

Wheeler and Jones met freshman year at Yale in English class, but didn’t start dating until senior year.

Both took teaching fellowships abroad after college — Jones taught in Hunan Province in China while Wheeler taught in Hong Kong.

Both say the experiences teaching abroad profoundly impacted them and shaped their views on education. Wheeler saw firsthand how education “can be an equalizer for those born into circumstances with a lot of barriers.”

Jones, who showed up in China shortly after the Cultural Revolution, during which schools across the country were shut down and many students were dispatched to rural areas, saw how a “yes-we-can attitude” helped rebuild the education system following a “paroxysm of craziness.”

“There were pockmarks in the buildings from bullets. … There was no glass in the windows, no heat or air conditioning,” Jones said. Yet, he said, students came to learn. “Louisville hasn’t had anything that bad,” he said.

After the fellowships and some time traveling around Southeast Asia, the two came back to the States. After short stints working, both decided to go back to Yale so Wheeler could get a master’s degree in management and Jones could go to law school.

The early days

They got married in 1986. They had their first child in 1989, while in Washington, D.C., where they had moved so Jones could work in the State Department’s general counsel office and Wheeler could consult with USAID and work with International Executive Service Corp. Their second child came two years later.

Jones had grown up in Louisville, where his father, David Jones Sr., had founded and built Humana Inc.

Jones said he’d always loved Louisville, so after he and Wheeler consulted, they decided to move there in 1992.

“There’s no chance we would have moved to Louisville if there was not strong public education,” Jones said. Wheeler added that, at that time, Kentucky was being seen as a leader in education reform, with the recent passage of the Kentucky Education Reform Act.

Jones did a short stint at a local law firm before opening Chrysalis Ventures, a venture capital company. He has served on Humana’s board of directors since 1993, serving at various points as vice-chair and chairman.

Wheeler became ever-more involved in education and family issues. She served as education adviser, among other duties, under then-Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson from 2003 to 2010. In June 2010, Gov. Steve Beshear appointed her to the Kentucky Board of Education.

Jones said he’d continued teaching in a number of different capacities through the years, whether that was teaching Sunday school or university classes. And he’d been involved in education initiatives, including being on the executive committee of the Business-Higher Education Forum.

Taking the challenge

He said he’d gotten disillusioned with progress in education, especially after seeing how, despite investments like the Every 1 Reads initiative, JCPS was ranked in the 6th percentile in the state. But during a conference, Jones heard Houston Mayor Annice Parker talk about how “nobody with any throw weight gets involved in education.”

That galvanized Jones to run for school board, winning the District 2 seat and taking over from Steve Imhoff, who did not seek re-election.

Stu Silberman, executive director of the Prichard Committee, said Jones has already made an impact on the board. He noted that, on his very first meeting as board chair, Jones got the board to start hosting some of its meetings at schools instead of district headquarters.

“He’s going to speak up when he believes it’s important to do that as the right thing for kids,” Silberman said. “So is Mary Gwen. … These are two folks who are dedicating their lives to improving Kentucky.”

Wheeler said what she and Jones have learned is that “you can’t separate an interest in education outcomes from a desire to improve the community.” She said that’s something cities and businesses must understand: “What used to be ‘location, location, location’ for businesses is now ‘education, education, education.'”

Jones said the successes help motivate him. He said one of the Chinese students he once taught is now a respected doctor; Jones said he called that student for advice when he had a friend diagnosed with cancer recently.

“We believe we can have an impact. We believe the education structure can really improve,” Jones said.

Claypool said everything Jones and Wheeler have experienced, from their work to raising their own children, has contributed to their passion for education.

“Now there’s a very challenging task of how to apply all that in a way that will move the needle,” he said.

Reporter Allison Ross can be reached at (502) 582-4241. Follow her on Twitter at @allisonSross.

Mary Gwen Wheeler and David Jones Jr.

About: Wheeler is executive director of 55,000 Degrees and is on the Kentucky Board of Education; Jones is the chairman of the Jefferson County Board of Education and is a partner at venture capital firm Chrysalis Ventures

Education: Wheeler has a bachelor’s degree in American Studies and a master’s degree in Public and Private Management from Yale; Jones has a bachelor’s degree in history and a law degree from Yale.

Family: Married in 1986; have two children, Nate and Becky