Tony, Executive Director @ The Donnell-Kay Foundation, CO
Over the course of fifteen years leading the Donell-Kay Foundation, Tony has pushed for innovation and improvement at the school, district, and state level. Tony is also the visionary behind Reschool Colorado, a multi-year initiative launched in 2013 to create an entirely new education system. Prior to serving in this role, he worked for the Environmental Protection Agency in San Francisco and more recently for the Colorado Outward Bound School, an experience he says shaped his approach to the world. He earned his B.S. in forest management science from Colorado State University and holds a master’s degree in international studies from the University of Denver. Tony serves on a number of boards and advisory boards, including the Governor-appointed Charter School Institute board and Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), the University of Colorado at Denver’s School of Public Affairs, dZi Foundation, Education Cities, and America Succeeds. He helps his staff and others in the education community move beyond traditional paradigms, and advocates tirelessly for a learner-centered approach to education change.
A Colorado native, Tony lives south of Lyons, Colorado with his family, honeybees, and chickens. He’s a climber at heart and leads a couple foreign excursions a year, along with his personal ice, rock and mountain climbing trips. He was interviewed by our co-founder, Nicole, for our Educational Leaders series.
If you could think about a child in your life that you care deeply about, and just tell me a little bit about them and what makes them special.
That's a good question. I'm trying to think about just one. My friend Clara, and what makes her really special is that her way of looking at the world is really unique. She’s an artist that sees the world. It's really nice to be around her because she has both that youthful curiosity, and a way of looking at things that has a certain beauty, innocence and excitement to it.
When you think about Clara into her adult life, maybe in her 30s, what is it that you would want for her? What would make it a good life?
Probably because I've been focused on it recently: health. Being healthy helps make it a really good life. And, the ability to always be learning, to continue exploring the world, to continue having curiosity about things. And for Clara, I think what will make her life really good is the ability to keep creating things through art. She's a talented painter and drawer, even the physical creation of things--clay, sewing. She’s just really good with her hands and her eyes. I think it's the ability to have that throughout her life, not just as a young child, that will make it a meaningful life for her.
Can you tell me more about this love of learning and what that means to you?
I think it goes back to curiosity. People are born naturally curious, and our educational system beats curiosity out of them by and large. So, I think if you remain curious, you're always interested in the questions of "Why?" and "How?" And with that, it means that you’re a life-long learner, not because you’re sitting around taking online MOOC courses or going to the best graduate school, but because you’re exploring different ideas, topics, and paths because you’re just naturally curious about them. That's what I value in both Clara, friends, and colleagues. That they’re curious and they want to understand things.
Well, she needs to make a living--It is really important. And of course, working at something you’re passionate about is a gift and a blessing, but I can’t imagine not doing that. So, I would hope for her that a good life means caring deeply about her work, whatever that is, and immersing herself in that.
Also, being part of a community. This world is about relationships and community. And community is an overused and misunderstood word because people use it for a lot of different purposes, but to have a community of friends, no matter where they may be geographically, is something I really value a lot and would hope for her.
If you think about this good life that you described for Clara, what do you think the role of schools should be in helping her achieving that?
It should be a lot. It should be encouraging that natural curiosity and exploration. It should be helping her find the subjects and content areas that she’s passionate about. And through that, it should lead her to develop the skills set necessary for her to get employed in an area and a vocation that she is passionate about, that she cares deeply about, and that she finds continually interesting and challenging.
How about being part of a community, like you mentioned?
I think schools as locations--as buildings and an organizing unit--do provide a sense of community and are instrumental in helping people understand how to get along with others. To create community and to work through differences. Schools are great melting pots in many ways of ideas, not always melting pots of diversity necessarily--we have a very segregated system. But, you do encounter people who you don’t normally interact with, and there’s no avoiding it when you're in a school. That has good and practical lessons for the rest of your life and getting along.
The interesting thing to me about our society right now, of course you know me I'm totally anti-social media. Part of it is that I’ve always felt like social media, on the whole, only tends to reinforce the beliefs we have and fails to expose us to new beliefs. I feel like a lot of what's wrong in this country right now is this current fascination with social media that feeds you information that only reinforces your beliefs, never challenges them. And so, we live in these little echo chambers that we create ourselves. We don't have to expose ourselves to anything that we don't like, disagree with, or just don't want to hear about.
I think that’s a real problem in our society. That’s why being in a school sometimes is really helpful. If can expose you to stuff that you didn't really want to hear about, or entertain the thought of, have to figure out or discuss. Maybe, oh my gosh, change your opinion or something! Exposure to different perspectives and even different value sets to make you challenge your own values and beliefs. Public school is a really good way of doing that. In our society, it's changed over the years, and again I think we’re headed towards a more segregated society and segregated schools, which worries me. Because you don't get that mix of culture, ideas, perspectives, and beliefs.
So, if that's the role of schools in achieving a good life--encouraging natural curiosity, skill sets to find employment that she's passionate about, build community, exposure to diverse perspectives--do you think that schools are currently doing this? All kids? Some kids?
There’s a whole mashup of opportunities and challenges out there. Some schools, yeah they're doing a great job of all those things. Many schools are not. Some schools are doing it for some students but not all. You’ve got everything out there. The generalizations around that are not super helpful, not very informative. "All schools are blank." I don't think there's much you can put in the blank that is true.
I would say that most schools are not intentional about it. I think schools that are intentional about exposing students to different beliefs, values, perspectives, and encouraging robust and rigorous thought, interaction, and dialogue--those are rare and valuable. I’d like to see more of them. And I’m even hard-pressed to think about what schools would exemplify that right now: Some privates, some colleges, less in the K-12 world. Maybe some of the schools that are thoughtfully integrated.
We'll see. We're having Mohammad Choudhury here from Dallas. He has been the architect there for economically integrated schools in the district. Part of the query to him is: Why? Why are you concerned about economically integrated schools? Is is academically focused? Is it that people should mix? What is it that you're trying to get at?
What do you think is getting in the way?
Past practice. I think everybody is working hard, running as fast as they can, and concerned with the metrics that we have out there, which don’t include some of the important things: exposure to new ideas, rigorous debate, the ability to formulate and argument, and express that or articulate that. I don’t think those skill sets are valued in a way that a professional to focus on them and get them instilled into kids. We’re much more caught up on content standards across the schools. Again, I think that’s why you see it a bit more in private schools and schools that have really good debate clubs. They are really interesting in that respect, and it's a really small group of students, but there’s somebody there that realizes the value in that.
Do you think that people agree with you on your answers?
Some yes, some no. This may cause you to hang up on me, but I don’t think we’re ever get to a definition of school that everyone is going to embrace. I think it means so many different things to different people. It's hard to say that there's any one right answer to it.
For some, it’s child care. I think school is just a convenient place to stick your kid while you’re working. For some, it’s a way to achieve the American Dream as you get educated and can go off theoretically to do what you want. For others, it’s all about employment--getting kids ready for the workforce. For some, it’s about developing a citizenry for the country--an educated and informed citizenry that can work together in a society, produce economic value, understand and articulate the value set that the country is based on through the Constitution of Bill of Rights. The aim of the democracy is important to people and having citizens that can participate in a democracy is important. And for some it's all about kids getting a well-rounded education, getting them to a place to ensure that they can reach their full potential as individuals. For some, that’s what schools is about as well. I think there’s both an individual piece and societal piece. And people have different have different weights and values on those two halves of it.
Do you think schools can do all those things?
I don’t know if they can necessarily do them all, or at least all well. I think you can focus the school on specific aspects of that entire picture and get good enough, but I think it’s hard for them to be good at all of them. In part because I don’t think school could, or should, do it all. We have a very expansive idea of what learning is here [at Donnell-Kay], which goes way beyond the four walls of a school building. And it’s pretty tough for a school to do all of that.
What do you think it takes for a society to flourish?
It takes an economic system that allows people to participate in it. You need a thriving middle class to have a pretty good society--there needs to be a bulk of people who have a disposable income in order to have a thriving society. One that values learning and arts, and some of the more intangible things. To do that, you have to have a good education system, oddly enough, that can help people reach that middle class.
I guess my belief, to have a thriving society, you need a lot of people that can think beyond some of the Maslow’s Hierarchy of safety, food and shelter. And to do that, they need to have safety, food, and shelter. And then they need an education system that allows them to be introspective and think more broadly. I think honestly we’ve lost that in America. That's some of what this election is about. There are many people that are very focused on food, shelter, and safety and feel like they don’t have the ability or luxury to think beyond that.
And so, there's the liberal intellectual class of people for whom this election was a disaster. And what struck me about that is that I think there is an educated class of people that have that luxury, and there's a semi-uneducated class of people that don’t have that luxury in this country. It's kind of an amazing thing, especially when the latter half is so big. They are focused on very basic things. That's a warped societal worry to me. I keep hearing too that the income gap grows bigger every day. There are fewer people who are super wealthy and a lot more people who are living in poverty. That divide over time, is what causes instability over time, and a revolution to be honest. All these issues that we face in the end all come down to economics, I think. You can’t be educated if you don’t have the time available to be educated or the ability to focus on things other than your basic needs. It’s all about economics in the end.
What do you think the role of school should be in helping us get to that flourishing society?
It’s in part about literally getting people to a place where they can participate economically in the system, and they get a job. I think if you have a flourishing society and people are getting educated and can get jobs, then it allows for what may be called a luxury of education to help people think beyond just economics. It allows for a society of flourishing in parts, in pursuing other enterprises. It may not drive the economy, but it drives a society to thrive in its emotion, it’s soul. Those things come through education.
I’ve travelled a lot around this world, and I see lots of kids who don't have the benefit of an education. And all they can do is work to survive, they can never get beyond that. They're never making enough money to get beyond the food, shelter, and safety. So, if you can give people a skill set that allows people to go beyond their super basic needs, it's not only good for them but it's good for society.
We did an interview of a small child in a remote village in Nepal, and the interviewer was asking what he did and what his days were like. He spent his days gather animal dung for the fire and helping haul water for his mom and his sisters. He was a kid about eight. The interviewer asked him, “What do you do for fun?” And the kid looked at him and he said, “There is no such thing as fun.” I think there's a lot of world today that is that way. We tend to think it's a right, but it's a luxury for many. It’s just survival.
Now shifting to your work--can you tell me a bit about your journey in education and how you got to where you are now?
My educational path has been in public schools in Colorado, and a family that was educated and valued education in reading, but I’m the first in my family to get a college degree. So, we were lower middle-class growing up in Colorado, but valued education. I always did well in school because I knew how to give people the answers they wanted. I didn’t learn a lot content-wise. I didn’t retain anything, but I could do really good short-term memory and I knew exactly what people were looking for in terms of answers. I was a straight-A student.
I graduated valedictorian of my class, but I needed remedial math when I went to college at Colorado State. I stayed in state--I couldn't afford or even entertain the idea of going out of state. I didn't even really think I would go to college. I didn't even think about it until a teacher one day asked me what I was going to do after I graduated. I said, "I don't know, I guess find a job." He was like, "Seriously? You're going to be valedictorian and you're not even going to think about college." "Not really." Nobody had ever talked to me about college. I met with my high school counselor once in high school and it was for about ten minutes. I had that very influential teacher that said, "You need to go to college." So, I went to CSU and studied Forestry because I loved being outside.
I think that was the major--one of the biggest life events for me--was going to college. It happened at a very unique time, because I decided I really wanted to go into forestry and Colorado State, theoretically, had a really great program. I got accepted there, got a scholarship the summer before from the Walton League to work for the Forest Service for the summer season in Montana. I went there after I graduated high school and worked there for a couple. And then my dad died when I was up there. I was 18.
That whole senior year, freshman year of college was a very pivotal time for me. I graduated, I drove out of state, started working, my dad died, started college, there was no one to move me into college. It was like, "Whoa, where am I? What happened?" In my first year of school there I started meeting people that climbed, and so I did lots of climbing. Started to travel some and then met some of my best friends, still some of my best friends today, in the second year of college.
I realized just about the time I finished college that I disliked the university and the crappy teaching that I was exposed to. It was really not a stellar education. But, I persevered, finished, paid for school by fighting fires in the summer, graduated, and got a job with the Outward Bound School. And the Outward Bound School was probably my greatest learning opportunity in life. I learned how to facilitate groups, how to interact with people, how to lead. By then, I was leading trips and expeditions for Outward Bound groups. I did that for quite a few years. I worked in Breckenridge doing similar experiences for disabled populations, which was really amazing. Then, I decided that I should graduate school because my knees would give out before my brain. They did, it turns out.
I went back to grad school at the University of Denver. Again, couldn't imagine going out of state because I needed to work to get myself through school. So I was going to school three days a week, blowing off my fourth class to work at Outward Bound for three or four courses. I got through grad school, didn’t know what to do and saw an article in the newspaper about the Presidential Management Internships program. The PMI program was a pretty cool program and interviewed for a bunch of federal agencies. I got job offers from NASA and the Environmental Protection Agency, and Jet Propulsion Labs out in Pasadena, and I took a job with the EPA in San Francisco. I worked there, and then came back to Colorado after about six years, worked for Outward Bound raising money, and then got this job.
That's a really interesting. And you kept going back to school even though you disliked it!
I think I went back to grad school because I thought it would open doors. And I finally realized when I went to grad school that I would study what I was really interested in, so I took International Studies because I had been traveling around the world doing expeditions. I learned a little bit in grad school, not a lot. One, I learned how to skim stuff really fast, which serves me really well in my position today. I show up to a lot of meetings and have to react on the spot, so it's really helpful.
It also taught me to challenge all the assumptions that go into our thinking. That was the most valuable: To question the assumptions that are unstated. This morning, I was talking to Paula about the new Secretary of Education. And for how people it's freaking people out because she's a charter school and voucher advocate. I was telling Paula that I was so adamantly opposed to charter schools and vouchers when I first got this job. And now, I can easily support both. It’s because I took this classic Democrat position that vouchers are bad, and pulling kids out of the public system, even through charters, is bad because it's a Dem position and I'm a Dem. And I had to really challenge those assumptions: Why? Why is that bad? What is really happening here? This whole notion of defunding the public education is a crazy notion. Because what's really important is that a kid is getting an education. It doesn't matter how the education system is funded or not if it's not working. So, can I entertain vouchers now? Absolutely. If I had a kid and they weren’t getting an education, and someone told me they have to be in the public education system and if we defund it, it makes it worse--I don’t believe it makes it worse. It's already bad. And so, if that kid can get out of the system and go get a good education, then I’m all for it.
It sounds like Outward Bound was a really empowering experience. Can you tell me why it was empowering?
For me, it was this ability to bring together both my environmental background and my passion for being out of doors and for leading people. Putting all that together was such an incredible experience. And then to do that, and to be challenged by leading groups--like, I did a bunch of drug and alcohol courses. So, recovering addicts. And understanding how to help people navigate through those journeys was really challenging and really interesting. Similarly, I ran lots of corporate courses, so I was dealing with really interesting people who were really high up in corporations, and that was a great challenge because here I was, 26, and telling these people what to do and how to do it and leading them through various group exercises. It taught me a lot in a very different way than content learning.
Amazing! How does the work that you're doing at Donnell-Kay and ReSchool relate to this conversation that we've been having and the vision you seek for education?
Hopefully, it’s the culmination of all I’ve learned over the last years. Trying to think of--if you create an educational system that really tries at its core to ensure the fulfillment of each and every person to their full potential. What does that look like and how do you create it? To me it's the most interesting question because it gets beyond our simplistic and pretty dull arguments about charters versus neighborhood schools, vouchers versus non-vouchers, certified versus non-certified teachers--all of that stuff just drives me crazy. It just goes on and on. It all just becomes white noise to me.
Because, what I really want to do is: How do you take each individual kid, understand them well enough to discover what they desire, what they're interested in, what they find relevant. And how do you wrap those pieces in an engaging matter that encourages their curiosity and allows them to explore the world, gain knowledge and skills, and become fulfilled? If you can do that, and you can do that at scale--that is the toughest nut to solve I think.
It’s beyond saying, can you create a school that does all those things we talked about well for every student? The answer is no, no school can do that. But is there a path for every person to be able to do that? Yeah. And some of it is in school, some of it's out of school. Some of it is in the job, some of it is through traveling. All of these different experiences could be put together for each individual and help them on their life’s journey. And that to me is what's really intriguing.
But, it’s a hard conversation to have because not many people are ready to actually have it. They are much more interested in saying, "No, no, no. Can we just tweak the system to make it work? Can we just get a voucher system going? Or can we stop vouchers?" All of these, I think, meaningless arguments. I don’t think you can change the system, I think it’s way too big and way too calcified to actually change in significant ways. Buckminster Fuller says, "It’s easier to start something new than to fix the old." And I think he's right, you need to start a new system. You can't fix the old to any meaningful extent.
Is there anything else you wanted to talk about?
Something I haven’t thought much about, and would like to think more about, is how you help people become or stay lifelong learners. There are opportunities, but I don’t think I’m particularly good at finding those opportunities for myself or for my staff to keep pushing them on their intellectual journey. I think we find it in our work to a certain extent, but we also have to find it outside of work as well. It’s easy not to, it's just easy to be at work or not at work. And sometimes the not as work isn’t as intentional as it could be for me. And I think I’m not as great about intentionally focused as a value for my staff. I haven't seen it done super well. I feel like I haven’t even hardly focused on it, honestly. I would like to focus on it more.
This is around being exposed to ideas that conflict with our own. As I think about it something that I'm not as good at that I would like to be better at is actually embracing those situations where I disagree with people and exposing my staff to people and ideas that they might disagree with. We’re all so guilty of being in our own echo chamber and it's super comfortable in that place. For example, I don't go out of my way to talk to unionized teachers or the super-Democrats at this point. I think I need to be more intentional about that. Even the Hot Lunch speakers--we brought in Diane Ravitch, or Andy Weingarden--but, we’ve stopped doing that to a certain extent. We’re bringing in people we agree with.
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