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Meet Karen Amaya of Vista Charter Middle School

Today we’d like to introduce you to Karen Amaya.

Thanks for sharing your story with us Karen. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
I never grew up saying, “One day I want to be a school principal.” In fact, when I started teaching back in July of 2002, I was certain that I would teach for the rest of my life and that I would retire from where I was teaching. I loved being a classroom teacher. I loved watching students grow and learn. I was always invigorated by that “light bulb moment” when it was physically evident that a kid’s brain had made a connection and information taught had become new learning for them. As a 5th grade teacher, I also got to bask in my students’ success every year when they culminated and went off to Middle School.

Being a teacher in a charter school meant that we had a voice. We weren’t tied down to follow district policies and mandates so we got to have a say and make decisions based on the needs of the students and families in our school community. This was particularly important to me since I worked in the same community where I grew so I was very aware of what it would take for our students to excel. I could relate to my students and our families as well. It also meant that we could be innovative and implement new programs and technologies that supported student learning. One day we found out that our school was at risk of closing and another organization would intervene to help. All of a sudden decisions were being made for us without input and I knew that it was time for me to move on. That voice was taken away from us. I knew that I wanted to continue to impact students’ lives but I also wanted to continue to make the decisions that would do so.

In 2013, I began my leadership journey when I enrolled in CSUDH’s Charter and Autonomous School Leadership Academy. My time in the program was a transformative journey that really changed my perspective on leadership in education. My program directors and mentors reinforced the idea leadership goes beyond a title and the importance of having a voice but also building capacity so that all voices are heard. I finished my program knowing that I wanted to make an impact at a larger scale; knowing that I wanted my work to go beyond one classroom of 30 students.

Even before I completed my program, I was offered a number of out-of-the-classroom positions in many different areas of Los Angeles. I realized at that moment that I wanted to impact communities like the ones I had grown up in. I wanted to work with students who might have similar struggles today as the ones that I did growing up. I wanted to work with families where I could help bridge the language barrier. I needed to be in a place where students could look at me and think to themselves, “I can be just like her one day… or even better.”

Three years later, I found myself in my first year as principal at Vista Charter Middle School. And I still love teaching, both students and adults. I still love being in classrooms. I love watching students grow and learn. At the middle school level, I love watching them make those connections but I also love watching them find themselves and develop their own identities. With adult learners, I enjoy the pushback on issues they might not agree with, as well as having thought partners to collaborate with in different ways to move our school forward. And as a middle school principal, I get to bask in students’ success as they culminate and head to High School.

Has it been a smooth road?
I find this question a bit amusing since I don’t think it’s ever a smooth road for any charter school leader. I’ve faced a number of struggles not only as an educator but also as a Latina woman, a wife and a mother. And I know I always will.

When I began my leadership program I had a 4-year-old and a 1-year-old. This was the time when I fell more in love than ever with my husband as he offered unconditional support and took on a number of responsibilities so that I could be an effective teacher, student and leader. But it was very hard to spend so much time away from my family especially with a young toddler and baby in the household. This continues to be a struggle today. As a principal, the demands of the job can be intense and overwhelming. I’ve missed two of my daughter’s award ceremonies this school year alone. I can’t drop my kids off at school or pick them up. I can’t talk to their teachers on a daily basis. I rely heavily on the support of my husband, my mom, my dad and my sister. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t struggle with the guilt at times.

Finding a school that is a perfect fit, was also a struggle. Upon leaving teaching, I went to an organization that was very top-down. Stakeholders had little to no say in any of the decisions. I felt like a messenger and not the leader that I wanted to be. I knew that my tenure in that organization would be very short-lived. And it was.

Although teaching is a predominantly female profession, school leadership is not. When I first came to Vista, I was the only woman in a leadership team of all males. As assistant principal at the time, I was also the lowest on the leadership hierarchy. Although I was very confident in my knowledge and experience, it wasn’t always easy to ensure my voice was heard. It was even harder to move forward with a decision I may not have been aligned with or in a manner that I would not have executed myself. For example, many decisions were made without seeking teacher input although they would be the ones who would be most impacted. Once we would present to teachers, they had a myriad of questions that we hadn’t necessarily thought about because our roles are vastly different from theirs. Due to a number of leadership changes, that original leadership team is no longer here which makes it so much easier for me to seek stakeholder input and to get a team together to collaboratively develop plans for moving forward.

In the three years that I’ve been at Vista, the school has gone through a number of leadership changes culminating in my stepping into the principalship at the end of last school year. All these changes have posed the struggle of building trust amongst teachers and staff. This is a huge undertaking for any first-year principal and required a deliberate intent of getting to know everyone at a personal level, understanding each individual’s potential in order to provide coaching for development, and celebrating progress and success in an authentic manner. Along with building a positive school culture, my vision of Distributive Leadership posed the challenge of empowering others and building capacity for change and improvement. This was no easy task since many of our teachers and staff members had not been given this level of responsibility in the past. In just one year, I am happy to say that we have truly developed a team of leaders who understand the needs of our students and community. We engage in deep, insightful conversations on a regular basis where we analyze data and we don’t shy away from doing the research and implementing the practices that will ensure student success.

What I’m most proud of, is that this team goes beyond the school principal and assistant principal. We’ve put in systems in place to allow for input, leadership and teacher ownership and this has resulted in high levels of trust and collaboration amongst our team.

So let’s switch gears a bit and go into the Vista Charter Middle School story. Tell us more about the business.
Vista Charter Middle School is an independent public school. What sets us apart from traditional public schools is that charters are only authorized for five years and only renewed if we are successful, so failure is not an option. Essentially, we are a public school with more accountability and transparency than a traditional public school.

What sets Vista apart from other charter schools is that we’ve set out to transform the school experience. Aside from the basics–Language Arts, Math, Science, etc,–we go above and beyond to meet the needs of the whole child. We get to implement innovative practices based on extensive research on student engagement to inform our next steps.

Last year, we began the implementation of strategies for cooperative learning and it’s exciting to see how far we’ve come. When you walk into our classrooms, you won’t see the typical classroom where the teacher lectures from the front of the room and kids are bored out of their minds. You’ll see students who are actively engaged in their learning. You won’t see one or two kids raising their hands because they are the only ones who know the answers. Rather, you’ll see students working in small groups and engaging in discourse with others about their learning. At Vista, students take ownership of their learning. They reflect on where they are at and can communicate what they need to improve.

Additionally, we practice restorative justice and address social-emotional needs through a signature practice called Way of Council. In Way of Council, students and staff sit in circles and participate in a community building experience where students speak and listen from the heart, share about themselves and become more aware of the humanity in themselves and in others. For most of our students, this is the first time they have been supported in having a voice and learning how to use it to impact the those around them.

This school year, we also began implementation of our new STEM curriculum and became part of the Project Lead the Way schools network. We offer dance and music and a robust foreign language program that you won’t see in many middle schools. Our students also have access to 1:1 technology so that they are using technology on a daily basis for work and for play, just like in the real world. We deeply believe that when students are given a context for their learning and the tools to excel and apply them to the real world, the outcome is deep engagement, a life-long love of learning and academic excellence. We feel very strongly that our students don’t have to go to a private school or live in a more affluent zip code to be deserving of the highest quality programs and technologies. They can find it right here at Vista!

Where do you see your industry going over the next 5-10 years?  Any big shifts, changes, trends, etc?
Public education is an ever-evolving field in a highly politicized climate, which can at times, slow down the process of innovation. This is why I am very excited about what’s next for the Vista Charter school community where we can be at the forefront of innovative practices. As previously mentioned, this year, we became part of the Project Lead the Way schools network. This STEM curriculum engages students with hands-on projects and problems that are reflective of real-world challenges. Moving forward we’re adding more courses such as Robotics, App Creators and Green Architecture which will provide more opportunities for deeper learning for our students.

Additionally, in the upcoming year, we are moving toward a Global education approach where students will learn how to have an impact not just in their local community, but all over the world. We plan on partnering with businesses and community organizations to lead us in our efforts while supporting student learning in a real-world context. In the next 5-10 years, we want our students leaving Vista schools ready for what the world looks like today and prepared to be competent in this global economy.

To support our STEM curriculum and the move toward Global education, our technology team has developed a 5-year strategic plan to transform our educational pedagogy through technology, rather than just digitizing everything we already do. At the organizational level, we will be adding an elementary school next fall and a high school soon after that. This will allow us to begin to impact students at a foundational educational level and follow them up until they are ready to go to college. Education is an ever-evolving field. At Vista, we strive to remain at the cutting edge of technologies and instructional practices to provide a transformative learning experience for our students, staff and school community.

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Image Credit:
Dunn H. Del Mundo

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