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Meet Neil Spears of PowerMyLearning

Today we’d like to introduce you to Neil Spears.

Neil, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I started teaching sixth grade English and social studies in 2007 at El Sereno Middle School in East LA. My sixth graders entered my classroom ready and excited to learn and their parents were invested in helping them succeed. But when I gave the reading diagnostic test the first week of school, I learned that many of my students were far behind in reading.

Something wasn’t adding up. My students weren’t any less capable than other students, yet they were in a system that had not given them what they needed to succeed. Ever since, I’ve made it my mission to change the way our schools work with parents, teachers, and students, so that every kid gets a great education.

In my second year teaching, PowerMyLearning was expanding to Southern California and picked my school as its first partner in LA. My assistant principal asked me to be the school-side liaison with PowerMyLearning and I got a front-row seat to how the organization built the skills of my students’ parents and provided them with the technology they needed to support learning at home. I also received professional development that helped me give my students more personalized instruction in school. I was totally hooked not just on PowerMyLearning’s people-centered approach, but also on the incredibly passionate, justice-oriented staff who worked for the organization.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
I got laid off from teaching in Los Angeles Unified in 2009 during the height of the economic downturn. California has a last-in, first-out policy when it comes to deciding which teachers to layoff, so I knew that as a novice teacher, the writing was on the wall.

By then, I’d gotten totally hooked on teaching. It’s both the hardest thing I’ve ever done and the most rewarding. I’d also become extremely upset about the vastly different opportunities my students were afforded as compared with the kinds of opportunities available to students at schools in higher-income neighborhoods.

I knew that if I was going to make big changes in schools, I needed to put some academic language behind what I’d experienced as a classroom teacher. I needed to understand how the broader system works and which levers are the most promising at creating equity. So I sent in some applications to graduate programs in education policy.

On Friday the thirteenth of May, the school board voted to send me my pink slip. That same afternoon, I got into Harvard’s education policy and management master’s degree program. It was an emotional day! I’ll never think about Friday the thirteenth the same way again.

That same evening, I joined the team from PowerMyLearning as we prepared for a family workshop. Little did I know at the time that PowerMyLearning would receive a federal stimulus grant to expand in LA and that I’d come to work for the organization after finishing grad school.

PowerMyLearning – what should we know? What do you guys do best? What sets you apart from the competition?
PowerMyLearning is a national education nonprofit that helps schools and districts strengthen the triangle of learning relationships between students, teachers, and families so every student succeeds. While the “education system” is typically viewed as a set of relationships between schools, teachers unions, districts and charter operators; we view the education system through students’ eyes: as a set – or triangle – of learning relationships between the students, their teachers, and their families.

Our work focuses on helping schools and districts optimize this triangle by providing targeted coaching for teachers, support for families, and an online learning platform that curates digital learning activities from across the web.

This year in Greater Los Angeles, we are partnering with 19 schools in low-income communities. Since we launched in LA ten years ago, we’ve worked with more than 20,000 students, teachers, and parents.

At each of our partner schools, we work with teachers and families to provide evidence-based training and coaching that helps teachers and families team up and ensure students get the instruction they need to succeed in school and become self-driven, life-long learners. Our team of experienced coaches (all of whom are former teachers) help educators tailor their lessons to individual students’ needs. Digital learning helps educators more easily provide students with different content to meet their individual needs, such as videos, tutorials, and games. It also enables educators to provide small group instruction and more easily access assessment results to gauge student learning.

PowerMyLearning provides family workshops to help families better understand what is happening in the classroom so they can provide better support for their child at home; we also provide refurbished laptops to families at some of our workshops. We also have an online platform called PowerMyLearning Connect where we curate thousands of the best digital learning activities from across the web so it’s easy for teachers, students, and families to find high-quality digital learning activities. PowerMyLearning Connect has registered users in 40% of school communities nationwide.

PowerMyLearning never wants kids to stare at a screen with their headphones on for an entire class period. We also do not want all kids to get the same lesson when we know that they have different learning needs—this is what happens in the typical classroom in LA today. Technology, when used with purpose and when designed to enhance learning relationships, can bridge the gap between the typical one-size-fits-all approach and the kind of personal attention that our kids really need to be successful.

Tech can also harm students’ learning and we help teachers and families avoid digital learning’s pitfalls. When digital activities are used without a strong connection to the learning goals for a particular day, or when they’re just thrown into a lesson to increase engagement, it can actually make learning more difficult for kids. PowerMyLearning also helps teachers blend digital learning activities, hands-on group work, independent non-digital activities, and small-group instruction so that students’ learning and socioemotional needs are well attended to. At the end of the day, students are human beings, not variables in an algorithm.

There are also plenty of examples of tech products that are designed to take the role of a teacher or parent. PowerMyLearning’s approach rejects the notion that any technology could ever do all of what teachers and parents are able to do. We help teachers and parents use tech in a way that enhances learning relationships between adults and kids. This “relationships first” approach sets PowerMyLearning apart in the tech space and a huge part of why teachers and families rave about our work.

PowerMyLearning schools outperformed comparison schools in math proficiency by an average of 7 percentage points each year.

Do you feel like our city is a good place for businesses like yours? If someone was just starting out, would you recommend them starting out here? If not, what can our city do to improve?
Los Angeles is a fascinating place to be in education both because there is real need and because solutions created here have the potential to be replicated across the country.

There is a massive gap in educational opportunity between students who grow up in low-income communities and their higher-income peers. Put plainly, kids in east LA get a systematically worse public education than kids in Brentwood; that affects their future educational and job opportunities in a serious way.

If we allow these opportunity gaps to continue, we are not only failing the bulk of kids in our city, we also risk missing out on helping those students become the future researchers who will cure cancer, the scientists and engineers who will forestall the impact of climate change, and the world leaders who will solve our most serious challenges.

The good news is that there is tremendous appetite in the education community to provide an excellent education to ALL kids, regardless of where they live or how much money their families make. We have incredible proof points in LA of what can happen when systems are set up to serve the needs of students and their families.

One thing LA struggles with is a polarized political landscape. Last year, we watched the most expensive school board race in the history of our nation divide our city into two camps—the “reformers” on one side and “labor groups” on the other.

I am so tired of this artificial division. The vitriol spewed by both sides about the other ultimately hurts kids and teachers. It’s also paralyzing our attempts to make public education in LA more equitable across the board.

We need to do a better job in this city of listening and talking with each other, even when we disagree on education policy. We need everyone to put down their talking points, pause their Twitter fights, and actually come together around kids. And once we do it, I think we’ll find we have more in common than the newspapers and election mailers would have us believe, and kids in our city will be much better off.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
PowerMyLearning

Getting in touch: VoyageLA is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

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