When we launched, we thought tech would be the biggest piece—everything would flow from there…but, pretty soon, we realized that the most important aspect is relationships.
Scott Van Beck
Executive Director of Houston A+ Challenge
Q. We know that A+ Unlimited Potential is only one of the initiatives that Houston A+ Challenge (A+) is working on. Can you share the bigger picture for what A+ is all about?
A. Scott: Houston A+ Challenge started back in 1997 with a grant from The Annenberg Foundation. The intention was to improve public schools in Houston. Over time, our focus and our views about what’s really needed have evolved: now, our goal is to save public schooling in Houston. In fact, our mission is to be a catalyst for change and a model for innovation in education in the Houston area and beyond, to ensure that every student is prepared for post-secondary success.
Q. That’s a powerful mission. How does A+ think about the change that they are hoping to catalyze?
A. Scott: It is important to understand our framework for stronger schools and teachers: G.R.E.A.T. Personalized Learning. This framework is constructed from six equally important imperatives:
1. Growth: Learning is about development in the academic, social, and emotional realms.
2. Relationships: Learning requires strong bonds between kids, educators, and families.
3. Empowerment: Learning should equip and support all kids to be self-directed.
4. Anytime, Anywhere: Learning is a constant—unrestricted by time or place.
5. Technology: Learning can be enhanced and supported by virtual platforms and devices.
6. Personalized Learning: Learning must inspire and unleash kids’ passions and interests.
Developed over our 20 years of experience, we bring this framework to bear in all that we do. We see that personalized learning is the future for education.
We have three roles when it comes to learning: scholars, learning coaches, and parents…they are the decision makers.
Q. Tell us about the work that A+ does to bring your mission and framework to life.
A. Scott: Our efforts can be thought of in three mutually reinforcing buckets of work: 1) strengthen; 2) innovate; and 3) connect.
1. Our work in the “strengthen” realm is about making change in the traditional education system. We believe that, until we can fully move to a personalized system, we have both a moral and ethical responsibility to make the current system as productive as possible. So, we offer a wide range of fee-for-service professional learning opportunities to our public schools and educators—all of which seek to strengthen instruction, school culture, family engagement, and technology integration. With our G.R.E.A.T. Personalized Learning framework as the backbone, we run professional learning workshops, organize monthly working groups called academies, and provide customized on-site support to campuses throughout Houston.
2. Our “innovation” stream of work has really taken on a life of its own with A+UP, Houston’s first mobile, personalized learning middle school. This wasn’t our first venture into the innovation realm, though. In years past, we helped to launch the region’s first early college and public international high schools. Now, with two new A+UP campuses opening in August, we’re excited to see our pilot become more than just an incubation test case.
3. Finally, our “connect” bucket of work focuses on convening teachers, administrators, community leaders, families, and learners to explore what public education should mean for kids and families. To do this, we host meetings, informal cocktail hours, and, in partnership with Chevron, a free, public speaker series.
Q. It sounds like you’re firing on all cylinders! Let’s dig a bit deeper into your “innovation” arm. What inspired A+UP?
A. Scott: It originated out of some level of frustration. We didn’t feel like they were moving to learner-centered education fast enough with our consulting work in the traditional system.
Texas has been under the standardized testing edict for years. And, don’t get me wrong, we’re all about standards, but we think that there are personalized paths to standards. So, we launched A+UP with 50 kids in the Houston Museum District. This was our way of showing what our personalized learning framework—our six imperatives—could really mean for kids when it is fully realized.
Q. That must have been a big leap—from sharing the framework with traditional public schools to actually starting a school of your own. Can you share what you learned?
A. Scott: I’d say one of the things that surprised us most was around the role of technology. When we launched, we thought it would be the biggest piece—everything would flow from the tech aspect. But, pretty soon, we realized that the most important aspect is relationships. Technology can enhance, support, and broaden learning—but it isn’t the end of all, be all.
Taking our focus on relationships a step further, we’ve cut out the middle gunk of the education system at A+UP. We’ve simplified. We have three roles when it comes to learning: scholars, learning coaches, and parents. Those three together—they are the decision makers.
This takes kids, in particular, a bit of time to get used to. When you’re asking them to be self-directed, they don’t always know what to make of it. Our first three months, all the kids were just sitting back and waiting for the adults to tell them what to do—we just had a bunch of people staring at each other. But, once it started to settle in that we did want them to take the reins, we saw a huge change in what was possible.
We launched A+UP with 50 kids in the Houston Museum District. This was our way of showing what our personalized learning framework—our six imperatives—could really mean for kids when it is fully realized.
I’ll share an anecdote that highlights both what it means for a kid to be an empowered learner and the adjusted thinking that it demands from the educator. One Friday night, one of our learning coaches was out on a date, and she kept getting text after text from one of our scholars. Worrying that something could be wrong, she read the texts—only to discover that he wanted her to grade his math homework. It was 11pm on a Friday night! But, instead of ignoring him, she slips into the bathroom to grade it. Moments later, she gets another text asking for more homework. Can you imagine this happening in our current system of education?
Q. It’s always inspiring to hear about a kid who is that engaged in their own learning—and with their math homework, no less! You shared that A+UP is based in the Museum District. How are you thinking about expanding the canvas for kids’ learning even beyond that?
A. Scott: When we designed A+UP, we had a lot of design folks and architects at the table, so this has always been top of mind: How do you ensure that learning can be “anywhere, anytime”?
Houston has a lot of social capital areas that are currently underutilized by schools. We are now identifying them and exploring how to leverage the opportunities they offer. We’ve also been watching the rail line being built in Houston and think that will be the primary way to connect all of these social capital meccas. Our kids are now using it all the time.
And, we are not only excited about the opportunities for our current cohort of A+UP scholars but also eager to launch new cohorts in different areas around the city. We see all these potential cohort themes that could run through a city the size of Houston—we have museum-based and could look at career-based or transportation-driven. The opportunities are unbelievable!
Q. With your newly granted charter status, you are now looking seriously at what that expansion will mean for the A+UP model. What are you seeing?
A. Scott: Our design team is now thinking at the scale of 5,000 kids. With two campuses opening this August and another in the pipeline for next August, we’re on our way. We are also in conversation with those in the traditional system considering what it would mean to have a cohort of their own. For example, a soccer coach at one of our partner schools wants to create a cohort comprised of his players—he wants to spend more time training them and sees opportunities to foster learning pathways out of their passion for the sport. Seeing personalized learning as the future of education, we’re eager to see where all of this can go.
Our design team is now thinking at the scale of 5,000 kids.