Aveson Charter Schools: A Conversation with Kate Bean
Q&A 10 August 2017 By Kate Bean
I found myself making all classrooms look the same and learning how to get test scores up. This didn’t feel right.
Executive Director, Aveson Charter Schools
Q: What led you to open Aveson Charter Schools in 2007?
A: My parents are educators, but I never thought I would be a teacher. After finishing undergrad and looking into Masters programs, I ended up being recruited into teaching by Los Angeles Unified School District. I taught there for a few years, but I was still unsure whether or not teaching was my calling. So, I left for the business world, stepping into the roles of financial planner and life coach.
Eventually, I got pulled back into education with a particular interest in the middle school cohort, which launched me into exploring education from a consulting perspective. I started working for a national consulting firm during the comprehensive school reform days of “breaking the mold” and doing things very differently through technology integration and project-based learning. This was really exciting and fun.
At the turn of the century, NCLB came along, and suddenly, comprehensive school reform became the exact opposite of what I was consulting on. The focus was to get everyone on the same page, rather than seeking ways to “break the mold.” I switched to a company that specialized in the idea of building fidelity throughout a district. I specifically coached administrators of low performing schools that needed to revamp everything. I found myself making all classrooms look the same and learning how to get test scores up. This didn’t feel right.
The fact that these principles organically spur debate and conversation is what makes them so powerful.
I began thinking about starting a school that had a mix of both. Yes, there does need to be attention to data and tracking academic achievement, but at the same time, it needed to be balanced with global competencies, technology, and project-based learning. All of that triggered the idea of creating a charter school with some of my colleagues from the consulting practices I worked for. These folks had similar experience working in these two isolated approaches to education.
All I really knew was I wanted to reach each kid every day and provide the structure they needed to succeed. That became our mantra. With my colleagues, we took the best of what we all knew and created two charters. And, in 2007, our doors opened for the first time.
Q: Are there particular lessons you took from your experiences as a financial planner and life coach that you brought into your work with Aveson?
A: The financial background gave me knowledge about the business side and took away the fear that often comes when someone is exploring starting a school. A lot of educators are very passionate about the education piece, but the fear of the business side can hold them back. The business knowledge gave me confidence.
The life coaching perspective showed me the importance of values. As I met with each person, I would discover “what do you value?” and then we would explore how to line their lives up with their values. Life coaching was that simple of an equation. My colleagues and I translated this idea of core values into the eight guiding principles that have been at the core of our work since we began planning for Aveson.
Over the ten years we’ve been open, we sometimes argue and debate over a word or phrase in the principles. And, we even have complete disagreement on whether or not one or another should exist. However, the fact that these principles organically spur debate and conversation is what makes them so powerful. It almost doesn’t matter what the principles say word for word because they are universal enough to drive conversation and lead us into great work. The dialogue that results brings us closer together and reaffirms who we are and what we’re willing to fight for.
Q: How did you gain buy-in from the community to do the action-based research that has been key to Aveson’s development, knowing failure is likely to occur along the way?
A: You know, no one has ever asked that question. Honestly, there’s no such thing as too much truth, and we experienced a lot of turnover in the beginning.
Before opening, we were fortunate enough to set up a model classroom and do all of our introductory meetings for the first lottery in that space. This allowed everyone to see the space and understand we were going to be doing things very differently. Right up front, we said, “Look at this classroom. It’s not like anything you’ve ever seen before.” We wanted them to know we would fail fast and often. But, our promise was that our vision is big, and this is just the beginning. We were not going to give up on the idea of personalization, and we would continuously search for ways to reach every child, every single day.
Change is going to be constant here. Our teachers have autonomy, and their plan and strategy may change weekly if not daily based on what they are seeing from their learners.
Now, whenever we hold community forums, we provide updates on where we’re shifting our strategy and explain what failed, why it failed, and how we’re looking to improve. And, it has paid off with the parents and community members who have stayed with us through it all.
All of this trust is grown through a mantra I came up with during my own leadership development: “I change the world by teaching and inspiring individuals to change the world.” I simply changed the “I” to “we” when starting Aveson. When speaking to parents, I would put this up on the screen and emphasize the fact that “change” shows up twice in that one sentence. Change is going to be constant here. Our teachers have autonomy, and their plan and strategy may change weekly, if not daily, based on what they are seeing from their learners. It’s always going to be a constructivist model in that way, and we are simultaneously holding teachers accountable to overarching strategies that have been proven to work.
Complete transparency has been the key to community. Even when we weren’t entirely confident in what we we were doing, parents would say, “Wow, my kid has a voice here.” That kept many people onboard, and it’s worth noting, many others left.
Q: How have learners taken to this new way of learning, particularly in the early years?
A: Obviously, the youngest learners didn’t know any different. They simply thought this is what school is—”I have multiple teachers; I’m learning with multi-aged kids; and I move around all day.”
The first 9th grade class was rough. We gave the kids a lot of voice and autonomy right away, and boy did they use it. But, we found that many Aveson learners had not actually chosen to be with us. Their parents had decided this would be best for them without much input from the learner. We had quite a few kids say, “This is not the high school experience I was hoping for.” And, on the flipside, there were kids who saw this as the exact experience they were looking for. We started with 30 in that class and saw about 15 go all the way through to graduation.
Personalization is about reading the student and understanding when they need us close by to provide clear direction and when they need us to get out of the way.
We’re always listening, but early on, we had to check ourselves when a kid requested more lecture. We thought, “That’s not who we are.” That’s not personalized. But, what we eventually asked ourselves: If lecture meets the needs of the student, why are we discounting that? Instead, we brainstormed how we were going to provide and it and how technology could come into play.
So, that’s what personalization means. It doesn’t mean: this is the classroom, and it must never have lecture. Personalization is about reading the student and understanding when they need us close by to provide clear direction and when they need us to get out of the way.
Q: Aveson has a unique alumni network within their community. Where did this idea come from? What has come from staying so connected?
A: The idea came around a few years ago from our Director of AGLA, Shauna Stafford. She was originally a teacher and would watch her kids leave after graduation and think to herself, “Wow, they’re all going off on their own adventures, why don’t we bring them back and start connecting them?”
So, for the past three years during winter break, we’ve been hosting an alumni breakfast and listening to how their experiences at Aveson prepared them for future endeavors. Even for individuals who can’t attend, we gather feedback through surveys. This has become a really great tradition. And, we hear all kinds of things.
We’ve heard, “Aveson is so technology-based. But, I’ll tell you, when I’m actually in class, I like to just take handwritten notes. You need to do more notetaking.” Or, “We still need to know how to read textbooks and have the endurance to read a lot of information in a short period of time.”
If kids can navigate change with the confidence that they can find the answers to things and build a learning network of people and support—that’s it.
Being mindful that our kids are going into more traditional college environments is important. But, it doesn’t mean we should teach like traditional colleges in order to prepare them for it. When you teach kids about their learning, they know whatever environment they walk into, they are equipped to quickly figure out what they need to do to navigate that environment.
Of course, we also hear positive feedback like, “You know, my roommates don’t even think that they dare talk to a professor. Of course I’m gonna go talk to the professor. This is my education.” Or, “We learned how to manage things without being told what to do.” Through these moments of reconnection, we hear great things, and we hear what we need to improve upon.
Q: Any favorite moments or stories from your ten-year journey?
A: Every year, I get to be at fifth, eighth, and twelfth grade culminations. We don’t have keynote speakers because the celebration, just like the learning, is all about the kids. What we hear from kids during these culminations is why Aveson is designed to constantly evolve.
To best express it, I encourage everyone to listen to Jake Fernandez’s speech (shown above). His reflection captures so much of what we are striving for at Aveson. A major theme Jake and others speak to is how they learn to deal with change. If kids can navigate change with the confidence that they can find the answers to things and build a learning network of people and support—that’s it.
That’s what comes out in these speeches. It’s them…It’s their voice. That’s all. And, that is my favorite part of this work: Whenever I hear student voice. Whether I walk through a classroom and hear it. Whether I sit in on student-led conferences and hear it. Whether it’s at celebrations of learning or it’s at graduations—it’s student voice.
Q: What would you say to other leaders looking to transform their systems or start a new model?
A: We’ve worked with many school leaders who have come to visit us to further their environment’s work or to explore starting a school from scratch. Our biggest piece of advice is to start with your guiding principles. They can be held on to as anchors for your work. It doesn’t so much matter what they say, as long as they act as a guide in the background that can lead to fruitful discussion and debate.
We would never say another school should have the exact same principles that we use. That would go against what it means to personalize. All of us have to teach the kids who show up, and they are unique to each community. The idea of personalization is to see each kid as an individual and ask the question: What do we need to do collectively to serve the kids showing up to this school? You can have all of these tools and strategies in your back pocket, but it’s not going to be a program that we can just sell to another place.
Kate Bean is founder and executive director of Aveson Charter Schools. Bean started her education career as a teacher with Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). Following her seven year tenure, she worked with two consulting firms. One focused on implementing new project-based and technology models, while the other focused on supporting No Child Left Behind initiatives in California. It was through her experience with NCLB that Bean met the team of educational professionals with whom she would introduce a new personalized mastery learning and teaching model to public education through Aveson Charter Schools.