Anna, Senior Director @ Springpoint, Mother of 3, NY

Anna Hall is a Senior Director at Springpoint: Partners in School Design. She is a seasoned educator with experience developing and leading a range of institutional, state, and national initiatives.  She lives with her husband and three children in New York.  Anna was interviewed as part of our series on Education Leaders (#edleader) by RE-ENVISIONED's Executive Director, Erin.   

Springpoint partners with school districts and networks to design innovative schools that address the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.  Check out their great work and resources at http://www.springpointschools.org/.

 

Can you tell me a bit about your journey in the field of education?

 Yes.  I spent much of my early years doing lots of interesting but entirely unrelated jobs in politics and business – and then I spent about ten years working for the City of New York, in a small secondary school in the South Bronx.  I was a founding teacher at my school, and then an assistant principal, and then principal at the same school -  and that experience absolutely changed my life. After that, I joined Springpoint, where I’ve spent now almost four years working with school designers across the country who are designing new schools.

I come from a family of educators.  When I was younger I was very reluctant – perhaps stubbornly – to consider teaching or education as a profession.  I think I wanted to do something different – something my own.  But in my mid-twenties, I took a job doing policy research for a child welfare agency in New York City. One day I stumbled across a report that said one of the agency’s chief educational outcomes for the young people in its care was that they achieve their GED. That idea… well, it sort of burned my soul. It was the most disturbing notion, that you have this young person who has had a series of traumas and challenges and struggles, and you would say “Well, you know, we hope you get your GED.  That’s probably the best you (or we) can do.”  I literally went out and joined the New York City Teaching Fellows as soon as I could after that.  And the first job I found was for a new principal who was designing a new school.

Because of how I came into teaching, what I was initially really focused on was making sure that schools were places that offered real equity of access for kids.  I believed, and still believe, that our commitment to all kids – no matter where they’re coming from, or what experiences they’ve had before – is to give them the most rigorous, robust, rich learning experiences possible, so that they’re thoroughly prepared for success in college and in their professional lives. I wanted to be part of shifting our current cultural equation - in which young people, particularly young people of color and young people living in vulnerable communities in our city - often find themselves without great educational experiences and then without great on-ramps to career or college afterwards. It’s just so unfair and unjust.  But over time my purpose for working in schools expanded beyond my initial focus on equity. 

I just learned so much from my students about how important it was to make sure that schools were also places where humans could grow. It’s important for young people to be able to figure out who they are, to develop their own identity, to figure out what their passions are, to really know their strengths and their struggles, and to be able to navigate a world in which they need the skills and know-how to showcase their strengths and advocate for themselves. Those are things that wrap around the academic experience in a lot of ways, but are deeply essential to a really rich experience.

 

The next question is just for you to think about a kid that you care about in your life.  I’ll give you a second to think about that child, and then just tell me about them and their strengths and their unique self.

We ask: Are our kids safe? Are they learning? Are they growing? And, are they not just learning new things in their head that will make them successful members of society, but are they becoming good people? Do they have curiosity? Do they have passion? Do they have empathy? Do they have confidence to act on those impulses and feel like those things are valued? Is that what we’re communicating?

We ask: Are our kids safe? Are they learning? Are they growing? And, are they not just learning new things in their head that will make them successful members of society, but are they becoming good people? Do they have curiosity? Do they have passion? Do they have empathy? Do they have confidence to act on those impulses and feel like those things are valued? Is that what we’re communicating?

I love this question, but I found it hard to choose one kid. I have a long list of young people I love, and there are so many stories. One thing I’ve actually been thinking about a lot lately is this funny thing that’s happened recently with one of my own kids - our middle child Penelope.

Pen has always been sort of our family ambassador. She’s super outgoing, funny, friendly. She’s always attuned to what’s happening with people in the space around her, and wanting to make connections with other people. She’s always been fearless; in no way has she ever been shy or anything. And, she just turned five, so she just started kindergarten.

A couple of weeks ago now, we signed her up for soccer. That seems to be what kids do when they’re five, and my husband used to play, so we thought, “Okay, let’s try that!”  Pen likes to run around, and she’s pretty fast and pretty coordinated, so we thought she’d have a great time, and it would be a fun way to spend Saturday mornings.

Well, no. It didn’t go that way.  We took her to the field for the first game, and as soon as she figured out that this game was competitive, not collaborative, that the goal was to get the ball in and stop the other team from doing that – well, she shut down. It was so out of her frame that she really didn’t know what to do. There were all these adults standing around the field watching what was happening, and she kind of freaked out.  She absolutely refused to play.

We didn’t really know what to do. We bounced her right out into the field, saying, “Oh, you’ll be fine.  Just get out there and try!”  In my head, of course, I was thinking “Hey - this cost me $200 so please give it a try!” And Pen, bless her, she went out there - but she just couldn’t process the experience. And she didn’t want to play.  She literally stood in her position in the field through the whole game and glared at us – she was just so mad. After the game, we thought, “Oh she’ll be fine, eventually - she’ll get used to it!...” But no. We’re now four games in, and she still does not want to play. It’s really a conundrum!

It’s funny, I’m an educator and my husband has worked in and around schools for a long time, and so we feel like we should have opinions about this, and we should have an answer for what to do to help her sort through it. 

But in some ways it kind of encapsulates what often is really hard about school, which is that kids have to do a new thing, in a new context that’s scary, with stakes that they don’t fully understand, and an audience, and the pace is fast and often not their own.

So it’s just been really interesting to grapple with these questions in the context of our family’s weekend life - What do we make Pen do? What do we help her do? How do we help her think about the whole thing? That’s the thing that just came to mind when I was first thinking about that question.

 

I love that, and she sounds wonderful! I actually coached six year-old soccer a long time ago for a family that I was very close to and that is not the first child who has done something similar. It’s actually a perfect segue, those questions you and your husband were asking, this wasn’t one of the ones that I sent you but:

 

What do you hope for Penelope for her childhood? What’s a good childhood?

I think it’s a good question because that’s the thing that drives any planning or any thinking that we do on a day to day basis.  We ask: Are our kids safe? Are they learning? Are they growing? And, are they not just learning new things in their head that will make them successful members of society, but are they becoming good people? Do they have curiosity? Do they have passion? Do they have empathy? Do they have confidence to act on those impulses and feel like those things are valued? Is that what we’re communicating?

So, I think obviously as parents you try to create a context for your kids where those things are at the center in any way you can. I think as an educator, it’s been a helpful reframe for me, because most of my work in schools happened before I had my own kids.  I’d thought about these things before of course, but usually through the lens of my job, which was to teach writing or to be an Assistant Principal or to be a Principal. So it’s actually really been a huge learning opportunity for me as a parent to just take a minute and step back, and all of a sudden say well - wait a minute! The frame is bigger, and in some ways it’s simpler.

 

Take a second and imagine Pen in her 30’s or 40’s - whatever path she’s taken through institutional or educational schooling, out of that and into real adulthood.

I think what I hope for her is that she finds a way to use her eyes and see what’s in the world around her, and to use her power for good.

I think what I hope for her is that she finds a way to use her eyes and see what’s in the world around her, and to use her power for good.

You know, I was thinking about this because I was a pretty shy kid myself, actually. I definitely have had plenty of moments of performance anxiety – and so when I saw Pen have that moment, I just felt such a tug of hoping that whatever happens over the course of her childhood, by the time she’s an adult, and fully herself, I hope that the confident, curious, joyful, empathetic part of her personality and character and soul, I hope that’s what wins.

One thing we have talked to her a lot about is that when you play soccer you’re on a team, so you have these other kids that are out there and they’re running around and you’re all working together to try to do the same thing. If you just stand still and you don’t play, your teammates have to run twice as fast and twice as long, so even though there’s all this kind of stuff going on with you, you’re also kind of leaving them in the lurch. You have to think about how you can help them and engage with them.

I hope that she figures out what to do with these other feelings that get generated by new situations and challenges, and that she can manage them so that she doesn’t limit her opportunities or her ability to contribute.

 

What do you think - and you can just say “exactly what I just said” - makes a life a good or successful life as an adult?

Maybe I should say it should be specifically for Penelope. So it’s not to say that this should be for all people.

I think what I hope for her is that she finds a way to use her eyes and see what’s in the world around her, and to use her power for good, which we tell our kids every morning before they leave.

I hope that she finds a way to use her skill and her knowledge, wisdom and strength and all of the other qualities that she has to make whatever part of the world she finds herself in a better one.

If you distill it down to simple terms a good life for her and for me is - can you add value to the situation that you’re in? Can you see the world clearly and know how to act within that context? Can you pursue the things that bring you joy and pride and speak to who you are as a person? ….And, can you clean up your room? There’s also that.

 

That’s beautiful.

Is there anything you worry about getting in the way for her? Anything that keeps you up at night that might stand in the way of her getting that good life that you want for her?

Yeah, I worry a lot about making sure - and I think about this for our country, not just for my kid - that she has access to a great school, to great teachers, and to people who will teach her better than I can, more than I can, and importantly - beyond what I can.

 

Yeah. Now, I know that because you know that the context is school you’ve already brought it up, but ideally what would be the role of schooling in getting her to this good life that you want for her?

To loop back to what I said in your first question:

“I want schools to be places where humans can grow. The mission of social justice is really important, and also it’s important for young people to be able to figure out who they are, to develop their own identity, to figure out what their passions are, to really know their strengths and to know their struggles and be able to navigate a world in which they might need help with their struggles and to showcase their strengths.”

This is what I came to realize through ten years with my kids in the Bronx and I think that’s still what I hope for school. Now that I see my own kids in the mix, I hope for it even more.

That was wonderful, I think you really got at the heart of it.

 

Do you think that schools will play that role for Penelope? That role that you would ideally like them to?

I hope so. We’ve been really lucky so far. My oldest kid, Naomi, is in second grade, and she and Pen are at the same school, and have had the same teachers – who are really wonderful – for Kindergarten. There was this one thing that happened with Naomi in Kindergarten that I still think is just one of the best things that I’ve heard somebody do in school.

Naomi came home one day and said, “Today I learned how to make a magical mistake.” I said, “Well that’s amazing, what’s that?” And she said “Well, a magical mistake is when you mess up something but it’s OK because you learn something new while you’re messing up - or you discover something. Learning is magical.”I’m not kidding, my five-year-old kid said this, and of course I’m crying - “this is amazing!”

I had a moment of great relief, thinking that she was in the hands of two really incredible educators. She was in an ICT class in her Kindergarten, and there were two teachers in that class. I was like “Thank God that these are the two people that are introducing her to school” because that, if nothing else, is probably the best thing she could possibly learn. So I have a lot of hope.

 

Do you think schools will play the role you think it should for all children? In what ways yes, and in what ways not?

I think there certainly are a lot of people working really hard across the country to make sure that that’s the case, so I think that’s good and hopeful. I do feel really lucky to be working in a corner of our field that is hyper-focused on the design and the shape of school, and to be surrounded by so many educators in so many different cities and so many different places in the country who are having these same conversations and talking about how to design schools - especially for young people, and especially at secondary levels, and with a focus on designing schools that are “round” places: where we can have this core where you think about those rigorous academic activities that a kid needs, absolutely essentially, and you think about these other pieces that help round out a kid’s experience and give young people places to really grow and become themselves. I’m constantly inspired by educators who found new ways to solve for this.

 

Naomi came home one day and said, “Today I learned how to make a magical mistake.” I said, “Well that’s amazing, what’s that?” And she said “Well, a magical mistake is when you mess up something but it’s OK because you learn something new while you’re messing up - or you discover something. Learning is magical.”I’m not kidding, my five-year-old kid said this, and of course I’m crying - “this is amazing!”

Naomi came home one day and said, “Today I learned how to make a magical mistake.” I said, “Well that’s amazing, what’s that?” And she said “Well, a magical mistake is when you mess up something but it’s OK because you learn something new while you’re messing up - or you discover something. Learning is magical.”I’m not kidding, my five-year-old kid said this, and of course I’m crying - “this is amazing!”

 

You can correct me if this isn’t what you’re saying - but it sounds like you’re hopeful that this will happen in the future. So maybe it’s not happening everywhere yet, even though we’re working towards it.

Why do you think it’s not happening where it’s not happening?

I think there are a lot of answers to that. In a lot of places schools are lacking in resources. I think that our field in general struggles to recruit, retain, and support people doing the hard work of teaching and leading. It’s difficult. Without great people, without money, and often without space it can be sort of like living at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – you don’t have the foundational things that you need to make a school functional and really effective in getting to those big aspirations that we talked about. There are plenty of places where it’s just really hard to have one or two or even three of those things.

 

Given your understanding of the role you would like schools to play, what you think school should be doing, and the reasons you think maybe it’s not doing it everywhere - how does the work of Springpoint fit in?

Springpoint was founded as part of the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Opportunity by Design initiative - the central premise of which is that with the advent of the Common Core and the new demands for skills and knowledge presented by this new century, schools need to make an evolutionary leap in order to really prepare students to compete and succeed in that space. This is work that all of us as a team felt really invested in and thought was a really important mission.

Our initial charge was to partner with the grantees of the ObD initiative to develop new designs for new high schools that would be located within their local communities and would serve students. We believe strongly that it was important for those new school’s designs to be organic and responsive to the communities that they served. We worked really hard to develop a process, much of which you see in the new design guide we’ve just released, that grounds design work strongly in understanding empathy and collaboration with local communities and the schools themselves.

One thing that’s really exciting about this work is that many of the districts who are grantees are in earlier stages of new school design work. And so we’re in a unique position to help our partners think about some of these very big questions:

What do we want high school to be? We have the chance to redefine it any way that we want to, so how do we do that? I think that has been really exciting for us, and really interesting to see how the answers to those questions vary, depending on contexts and needs and what folks are focused on.

 

Can you, just for people who don’t know, give a brief explanation of what Springpoint does?

Yes! As part of our work supporting the Opportunity by Design Initiative, our job has been to provide technical assistance to grantees who are designing and launching new schools. This work includes collaborating with our partners to help them develop the path to launch new schools; supporting design teams, who are charged with designing the new schools; and, once schools are open, helping school leaders and their teams continue to refine and reshape their designs. 

We do this work through a number of channels. There’s a lot of direct coaching, and direct collaboration - that’s me, Anna, and our Springpoint team sitting down with leaders and teams from our partner sites and working with them on these questions. We also do a ton of network wide events. So we host study tours and meetings and retreats to try to make sure that leaders and teams who are often somewhat isolated geographically during this work have a chance to talk to each other and develop relationships - collaborate and learn from each other. We also work really hard on documentation, codification, knowledge management, sharing what we can - up until now, within the network. Now that we’ve amassed a rich archive of resources that have come from within the work, we’re starting to try to roll that out externally as well in hopes that it will be helpful to other folks as well who are interested in school design, either in the context of new school design or in the context of school design in existing schools.

So that’s what we’ve been up to so far. We’re at a stage in our life where we’re thinking about how we might grow. So it’s really interesting to think about what applications this work might have in other places and with other partners.

 

In a lot of places schools are lacking in resources. I think that our field in general struggles to recruit, retain, and support people doing the hard work of teaching and leading. It’s difficult. Without great people, without money, and often without space it can be sort of like living at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – you don’t have the foundational things that you need to make a school functional and really effective in getting to those big aspirations that we talked about. There are plenty of places where it’s just really hard to have one or two or even three of those things.

In a lot of places schools are lacking in resources. I think that our field in general struggles to recruit, retain, and support people doing the hard work of teaching and leading. It’s difficult. Without great people, without money, and often without space it can be sort of like living at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – you don’t have the foundational things that you need to make a school functional and really effective in getting to those big aspirations that we talked about. There are plenty of places where it’s just really hard to have one or two or even three of those things.

That’s exciting! What is a success that you feel particularly proud of?

Well, there are 12 schools open now that weren’t open 4 years ago, and that feels really exciting and really good! It’s really powerful to have been part of that effort – to have helped build schools that serve kids well. There have definitely been snags and hurdles. It’s hard, really messy work, and the folks that we’ve partnered with are ambitious in how they want to innovate, and so that means often working in a space that is just new and untested. There’s a lot of risk in that, so there have definitely been parts of this work that have been challenging and it felt like struggle.  Of course, as we learned from Naomi, some of those things have been magical mistakes – and they often resulted in discovery and new communities that are really special places to be with young people in them.

 

What are some of the challenges you’re facing - and you started touching on them at the end there - to make the kind of changes you want to make.

There are many. It’s hard work. I think there are some categories of challenge.

For district systems, there’s a lot of evolution that has to happen pretty quickly, because most districts are built to support existing schools. That’s what they do. They’re not built to generate and create new schools. We’ve been really lucky to partner with great teams who are really invested in thinking about that, but it can be a challenge. I mean, for example, just thinking about recruitment and facilities and budget in a new context is really hard.

The human capital piece is also really challenging. Figuring out which school leaders have the right capacity, interests, skills and inspiration and ideas to dive into the work and drive it forward. It’s tricky because while you may know what to hire for in a regular school situation, in a new context where the school doesn’t exist yet it can be very difficult to figure out who you should be looking for in a leader or a team, what qualities your candidates will need to have.

And frankly, innovation is hard. Educators in general tend to be really focused on not wanting to mess things up, so when you’re trying to do something new in the context of school design - a new schedule, even or a new way of teaching math, or a new use of technology, or a new way of letting kids navigate the day - the first 100 times you do those things there’s just a lot more room for mistakes and error, and it’s just very difficult to figure out how to navigate that as an educator, as a leader, as a district.

So, it’s important to figure out what level of risk is acceptable, what level of experimentation is acceptable, what level of quality is minimal - where’s the bar and how do you build on that?

 

Those were all very well spoken to the challenges, both technical and creative in taking what you want to happen and making it real. Do you have a couple minutes to talk about Springpoint's Designing New School Models guide?

I do!

One aspect I’m interested in, for obvious reasons, is the idea that each school should fundamentally rethink the purpose of school.  I was wondering if you could just talk about why that’s in there and how that looks in real life.

This guide represents our curated “best of” - the things that most commonly repeat in different processes - but no partner that we have worked with has gone through the same process as any other partner. I feel like we have to note that this is sort of a generic template for a guide, and then everybody ends up remixing and rearranging it in their own way.

I think the reason that we thought that it was really important to ground the work in that question that you asked - what is school and why school? - is that we believe that the important facets of the answers to those questions depends on your kids and your context.

To give two examples from our work, in Cleveland there are four new schools that opened as part of this initiative.  They were built to add new seats in areas of the district that were served by big comprehensive high schools where kids were struggling to stay engaged. So, the team definitely wanted to make sure they had more high quality opportunities and choices for kids in their neighborhood, targeting their interests and passions. The idea was to offer different types of “themed” experiences of school for kids who were coming from surrounding neighborhoods. So one of the new schools is a health opportunities school and one school is a problem-based learning school, and one is focused on global studies as a theme.

In Prince George’s County, the two schools that opened were part of the Internationals Network for Public Schools. They were explicitly designed to serve English language learners, the overwhelming majority of whom were newcomers to the country, many of whom had interrupted formal education before or during their transition to the school.

So, the needs of those two populations are very distinct. Just as each of those groups of kids and their families have very different answers to the questions of why school, what is school. Obviously, both are reaching to the same broad goals - we want our kids to go to college, and be prepared to pursue their dreams and have great jobs and take care of their families. Those are the big things, but the how you get there and what the school feels like needed to be very different in both of those contexts to be responsive to the communities. I think that same contrast and need for personalized answers is there in every one of our partnerships. There often are answers that are different, and we wanted the school designs to reflect those constraints and needs and opportunities.


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