Amy, Director @ ReSchool Colorado, CO
Amy Anderson is the Founding Director of ReSchool, an initiative of the Donnell-Kay Foundation to design and launch a learner-centered, modernized system of education in Colorado. Amy lives in Denver with her husband, teenage daughter, and puppy. Her son is a freshman at CU-Boulder. Amy’s spent the last 25 years looking for smart ways to stretch our education systems in order to incorporate promising new ideas and innovations and to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for learners in Colorado and beyond. She was interviewed for our Education Leader Series by our Co-Founder, Nicole.
The first question I'm going to ask you is to think about a child in your life that you care deeply about, and I know that you have two children, but try and answer about them individually. Just tell me a little bit about them and what makes them unique.
Oh, man--they're so different.
You can talk about them and how they're different.
And then hone in on one?
Ok, so I have one who is my oldest, he’s a boy, and he has never been one to embrace the formal system of schooling. He’s a bright kid but where he has thrived is in things that he’s done outside of school. So a lot of my inspiration for ReSchool has been from watching him make his way through his education—and my own journey too, I'm very similar, even though I got a PhD, you never would have thought that I would do that when I was younger—so I am trying to create a system that is more conducive to somebody like that. That would allow him have access to things that he's passionate about, non-traditional learning opportunities but are just as rich and meaningful. So, that's him.
And then our daughter is really good at school. She gets straight A’s, she's very confident, she has the agency to get what she needs. She knows how to work the system. But, what she doesn't have, which her brother sought out because he was so frustrated with the system, is that curiosity to go deeper on things that she's passionate about outside of school. One exception is music. She spent many years playing piano and singing and does this when she has free time at home. Beyond that, she does what she needs to do to make the system work, and she does well with it. So, she doesn't have to do that [go deeper] within and beyond school as much because it's working for her.
So, I'm going to talk about her I think. I think where the system is falling short for a kid like my daughter is it doesn't give kids the chance to push themselves outside the boundaries of school. Her current high school doesn't give them opportunities to go out into the field to learn. Doesn't encourage them to really do a lot concurrent enrollment. The system still wants to contain the experience for the learner in that school or that environment. And that is a real challenge, because our world is not contained like that. And it used to be more contained, but it's not any more.
That's so interesting that they're both so different. When did those differences--have they always been extremely different?
Always. And I don't know, it could be birth order. There's lots of different things you think could be--he's a boy, she's a girl, and boys and girls tend to do things differently in general, not always. Even when she was very little, she’s been very sure of what she wants and needs and likes to tell you that. She wanted to go to school because her brother went to school. She knew that she needed to be potty trained by 2.5 years old in order to go to this Montessori school, so she pretty much potty trained herself. She's just determined. And she was lucky in the early years to be in schools like Montessori and Odyssey, which you know is the school that I created that is very small and allows you to create your community and pursue your path still in the context of a school in much more purposeful ways. And she was there from Kindergarten all the way through 8th grade, whereas her brother was only there from 3rd grade, so he had a much more traditional experience up until that point.
When you think about your daughter into her 30s or into her adult life, what is it that you would want for her? What would make it a good life?
What’s really important is that she is enjoying what she does for work, for one. I feel like I've been in jobs that were unfulfilling and know lots of people in jobs that they don't like and you learn from that in terms of what you want and need. But, I would hope by then she's figured out what makes her happy, where she thrives, where she gets her energy to want to work harder and do more, and that she feels fulfilled on a day to day basis. She's not dreading getting up every morning to go to work and she is happily living her life. That she's engaged and excited. So that's one thing.
I also hope that she has a community of people that care about her in her life beyond her family: friends, co-workers, a partner perhaps, that she has people that she's living her life with that care about her. And of course, that she’s healthy and taking care of herself. That she still calls her mom--that she talks to me!
Could you tell me more about what fulfillment means to you?
I'm hoping for this to come out in my kids, I'm not sure if it totally is at this stage. But, for me, it’s been that I’m giving back to society in some way. I've been lucky for the most part to be able to shape my work and my educational experiences in ways that are bettering the society as a whole. That makes me more proud than anything: That I created a school that kids have been learning in for almost 20 years. It's a legacy of some sort. I'm not just showing up to work every day to get a paycheck and to be able to feed my family, that I'm actually contributing to something in the world. That's why I spend so much time serving on boards and doing community volunteering--it makes me feel good. And I feel like I have skills to offer and I might as well share them.
When you think about your daughter’s path to a good life--is there anything that keeps you up at night or that you worry about?
Yes. Of course I worry about safety things, like any mom. Hoping that nobody is going to hurt her when she's riding in that Lyft. That she's a girl in the world, and I actually worry more about those kinds of things for her than I do for her brother. With the recent election, I worry about what our world is going to be like for my kids and a lot of the things that we've taught them and that they've learned along the way in terms of how to treat people and respect people. We are in this weird place right now. And being a girl on top of it all feels particularly more vulnerable than I would have thought would be the case a couple of weeks ago.
And I don't want her to get pregnant anytime soon (both laugh). You know those kind of little things.
So when you think about that good life you were describing--this idea of fulfillment, a community of people, healthy, giving back to society--in the ideal world, what do you think the role of school would be in helping her achieve that?
I feel like there's a need to shift from school being the conveyor of all learning to school being a facilitator to enable kids to get the kind of opportunities and learning experiences that they need. And so, the structure of schooling shifts from being a place where you show up every day and you take these courses and then you take these tests to show that you've learned something, to a place that takes a look at a larger body of knowledge and experiences that a person needs or should have and helps them organize experiences and learning opportunities to master those competencies and to gain those experiences. It’s more of a shift from an institutional approach to learning to a learner-centered approach to schooling. That's what I think is ideal---we don’t have that right now, at all.
That's my next question (both laugh), but before I move onto that question, could you tell me more about the link between that role of school and the idea of the good life you had for your daughter? How does that shifted structure help that?
There’s a lot of great things that you can get from school as you know it now: Great teachers that are teaching you about important content knowledge and exposing you to different perspectives. Social experiences that teach you about how to be part of a community of learners, friends, and colleagues. But, we don't go anywhere anymore to get everything from one place. Just think about how we act as consumers, you know? It used to be that you might always go to the mall to buy everything you need. It was all contained there. But most of us don’t that anymore. You can go to the mall to get certain things you need, yet you’ll still be getting something online or you'll be out getting things with friends at small shops or boutiques around town. We live in a much more diversified kind of world. How do we do that with our schooling opportunities too? What are the things that you can get from a contained classroom, school-based structure, that are of value and importance to you as a learner? And then, what are the things you can't get there? And how does that schooling experience facilitate you being able to get other things outside of that?
So, for example with our daughter, she really loves piano and voice. And she can do choir at her high school. But she's struggling to find a good piano teacher because her piano teacher quit. What if we found through the Center for Performing Arts, or Swallow Hill, or some other learning provider, an experience where she could build off her piano experiences and have that as something that counts for credit? Or, what if she wants to go do an apprenticeship at Children's Hospital because it’s something she's interested in--how might that count towards her high school or post-secondary credentials? I know it is possible to get credit for these types of experiences through creative system leaders who allow the system to stretch to meet kids’ needs; however, they typically aren’t encouraged or often presented as options. So, most families who can afford it, pay for these types of supplemental learning opportunities to round out their kids’ educations after school or in the summer time. However, many kids don't have access to such learning beyond school. So there's a huge opportunity gap that’s increasing more and more if everything that we count and value in our education system is only what happens inside school.
So it sounds really the connection too is that a lot of what you mentioned for your daughter--finding passions, community, etc.--happens outside of the walls of schools. And, what we don't formally count then as a child you might not internalize that as being valuable. So it's more of like you want to widen what counts.
And I think other kids who have faced a lot of challenges in their life and have the kind of grit--not to overuse that word---they’ve needed to be able to overcome those challenges, and how they find the agency to navigate their world in ways that are often stronger than a kid that's been handed everything. So, that should count too. How do we show kids that those are really important skills that they’ve now mastered in ways that other kids haven't? To the extent that we can really get down to individuals and understand their context, and then help, with them, shape their path. You start to build off a lot of assets as well as challenges that kids have in ways that open their eyes differently to themselves and who they are.
If that's the ideal role, are schools currently doing this? For some kids? All kids?
I know there are some that are doing this. There are certainly schools that are giving kids the experience to move beyond the walls of the school itself. Like expeditionary learning schools, which I've been a part of over the years, and many others. There are definitely people trying to do that more than others. But at a system level, the system is still very much organized around “school.” Where you go to school, what grade you got at the school, etc. So, at a system level, I don’t think we’re there. It’s because the whole way we fund the system, we govern it, it's all based on this other model--institutionally-based, place-based. Shifting to a more learner-centered system requires a really different way of organizing the system. And it’s hard to move from one to the other at large scale. I think it's actually impossible, which is a lot of why we started with ReSchool at a very small scale.
Yes, to all of that. Did you want to add anything else?
The other piece is around equity. As we've thought about redesigning a system, it was important to us to ensure that there was somebody working in the best of the learner at all times. So the roles that we've cultivated around learner advocates are not working for a particular school or learning provider, they're actually working for the kid and the family. I feel like that’s something missing now in from our current system: If you have an engaged parent who is able to navigate the system really well, they may serve that function. But if you don’t, you’re at a loss. And you’re at the whim of the system.
When you think about the three levels of questions that I asked you--a good life, role of school, school's current role--on each of these levels, do you think that people for the most part agree with you? Do you think that there might be disagreement? Why?
I think there are people that agree about the issues around access and equity, and that our world has shifted and that our institutions and systems need to shift as well. I think there are certainly people who are in that space already. But there are a lot of people who are not because, you know, we’ve always done it this way. We've always organized education this way. "I went to school, my kids should go to school. I sat in a classroom, etc." It just seems like the right way to do things and a lot of people are perfectly comfortable with that structure because it’s what known. They can’t imagine this idea of not going to school all day in a way we've done it, because it’s scary. "This is my kid's life. My kid's education. It worked for me, this is how we should always do it."
And I have good friends who are in that place. And I think a lot of people send their kid to school, they expect and hope it's going to be fine, and that's enough. And for a lot of kids, it is. But for a lot of kids, it’s not. For the kids for whom it is not working, it cuts across socioeconomic lines, race, geography, and ethnicity.
It reminds me of the book, The of End of Average---it’s all about how our systems are organized around this idea of averages. If we do it this way, and it works for the average, then that's the right way to structure it. And, there is no such thing as average is what the author says (he's a Harvard professor). I feel like that's a huge problem in education: It's all based on standardization and averages still, and we live in a much more customized and individualized world.
I know that the ReSchool idea is all-embedded into everything you're saying, but for the millions of people that read our website (both laugh) could you please tell me how your work at ReSchool fits in with your answers thus far?
I've been in education now since 1992, that's when I took my first job in the education field. It was with the people who had just passed the first charter school law in the nation. So, they initially exposed me to this idea that the system doesn't always have to operate the way the system has always operated. That it's important to look beyond the structures we have, and to create space for innovation and meet kids' needs in different ways. That kind of has been my path throughout this whole career.
ReSchool has been the ultimate experience incorporating my personal and professional experiences to date. I have the space to design something that incorporates what I’ve experienced and learned. When I worked at the Department of Education most recently, I realized that the system is designed to get the output that it is was designed to give. That there are a lot of super smart people who work at CDE who can take some time to look beyond today into where we might want to head, and to create a strong vision for that. But to transform a system from what it's doing now to what we want it to do, is just too cumbersome. There isn’t space to shift only to implement the current. So, that's where Tony Lewis and I said, "What if we could start from scratch? What if in trying to continue to improve upon the system we have, what if you could have the luxury and space to design a system for today? And that system could meet learners where they’re at and offer them an array of learning experiences of value and quality. And give them the chance to enter into a life that is fulfilling and something where they can be successful. How would we design that system?"
What’s been so great about ReSchool is that we’ve been able to find people in our state--parents, learners, educators, organizational leaders--who share the passion we do for creating a new system. We can learn together, try things in space that most often occurs outside of traditional schools because you have a little bit more freedom and flexibility when you try things in the summer or after school. And from that, build a design for how a system might look differently.
As it is currently being designed, the way the ReSchool system would work is that you as a learner would opt into this system. It sits alongside the current system. And you are able to bring whatever share of resources are attached to you at that stage in your life, with you into the new system. If you're an early childhood student, there are some resources that you could bring in. If you’re in a K-12 section of the system, those would follow you as well as postsecondary, concurrent enrollment, or higher ed. And then instead of choosing into a school, you choose into something called an Advocate Network. They are your partner in working to understand your current context, needs, and passions, what stage you're at through your educational journey. And then take a look at the array of educational providers, including schools, that exist for you, and bundle those together in a way to meet your needs at this stage of your life and get you prepared for what's next. So that's the vision. And we’ve created a learning framework that we are starting to use in partnership with some groups to hold and capture the learning that occurs in that system, so that as you go through it, you're building up a set of transferable skills and competencies that are of value to you and to others, especially as you make your way out of the system and into the real world.
Finally, could you tell me about an empowering educational experience that you've had? It can be outside or within the K-12 or higher education system.
First, I think if you want kids to be empowered, you have to trust them and give them the power to actually start to shape their own learning. And that is a real challenge with our current system: It's still very teacher-directed, because teachers hold the content knowledge and they want to be able to convey that to their students. .And that’s how we’ve always trained teaches. So, we don’t empower kids for the most part in schools to have to seek out and find their resources, and direct their learning in ways that you need to be able to do in the world. Right? So, that's just my first thought on that.
For me, I was not--I did fine in school growing up. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, I was bored in high school, I was kind of like my son. I got by, went to a good college, had a lot of fun in college. Did fine my first two years of college, but these weren’t formative learning experiences for me. Where I first started to feel empowered as a learner and a person, was when I studied abroad in my junior year of college. I went to Spain and I was on my own in this new country. I didn’t really know anybody, I knew one guy, kind of, that was on my trip. I had to just jump in and live with a family, go to school, I spoke Spanish, but not great, especially in the beginning. It made me vulnerable. had to put myself in a vulnerable place and figure out how to navigate my world in this new country. And, I loved it. I actually ended up meeting my husband through that experience, he wasn't there with me but through another friend.
It was a life-changing experience. I stepped out of this place of being kind of the passive learner, where I'd been told what I needed to do and what I needed to learn so I could spit it back, to being a more active, engaged agent of my learning. That was the start for me.
My whole grad school program was also very ReSchool-like. I was in this grad school policy program, but it was kind of struggling. I was in a policy cohort and my advisor, who was great, Rod Muth was his name, he let me supplement my courses and bundle together my own path. I had to take certain courses, of course, but I could have experiences through my work and through other interests I had, and then write about it, and that counted. He let me count things that I was doing outside of “school time” in ways that I was really excited about. I learned that you can actually do these things that I’m talking about. It actually can work if you have the right supports and the skills to make it happen. I knew what the expectations were, I knew what I had to do to get the work done with quality. I felt ownership over it in ways that I hadn't before when it was just somebody saying, "Write a 15-page paper on this topic to show me you know how to write."
Is there anything else that you wanted to talk about that I didn't get to? Or anything else you wanted to say?
I don't know where this fits in, but it's something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. The education reform movement over the last couple of decades, there are a lot of good things that came out of it. It raised awareness about gaps in terms of academic performance amongst different subgroups of kids, and how it’s important to address those challenges if we’re truly going to have a system for all kids, we need to make sure the system is meeting their needs. There are some important things that came out of that work. And I've been a charter school supporter for many years, so I feel like there's been a shift in terms of new school models that are serving kids in different ways, etc.
But what I've been thinking more about is that we ended up moving to this place where as reformers, it was like, "We have the answer (this type of school model, for example) and can provide what is best for your kid," especially in serving low-income communities, and that’s where I think the work has fallen short. We've stopped listening to, trusting, or engaging parents who have kids who are in these lower-income communities, and don't value them in ways that we need to. Because they are the one who are raising their children. They care about their children, and they're not super happy with the educations that their kids are getting, a lot of them. They want more. And we’ve been trying really hard with ReSchool to engage families in co-designing something. It takes a lot of time, and I know that's probably a big reason why a lot of that work hasn't been done to-date, but I feel like we’ve done a lot of things to communities with very good intentions through the education reform movement. And communities are now saying, "Stop it, I don't need you to do things to me. I know what I want for my kids." I think that’s the real challenge and opportunity right now for reform in our system.
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