- The Aspen Difference
It’s a crisp October morning and Moonshot edVentures Fellows are gathered around a courtyard at Aspen Academy in Greenwood Village, Colorado (a PreK-8th Grade independent school). Despite the cool air, there’s an energy and enthusiasm as fellows, students and staff await the morning’s events.
These fellows, many of whom are creating a vision for the future of education, are visiting an environment where vision has been brought to life in countless ways: from the vibrant green walls that espouse values to “Be Kind. Do Good. Work Hard. Make the World Better.” to air of respect and accountability for faculty and students that is palpable. Yes, there are uniforms and polished students that you’d expect from a private school. There’s also a feeling that you’re someplace you belong: in a community of kindness.
Kristina Scala, the head of school for Aspen, begins: “Welcome Friends. We are honored to have you here today. The mission of Aspen Academy is to edify and inspire students and educators to grow, learn and lead. Our vision is that we are a national leader in innovative and transformative education. You’re about to discover how we’re accomplishing that through a series of experiences with our students, faculty and staff, and families.”
The origin of Moonshot edVentures: In the fall of 2015, when Christine DeLeon was eager to find a way to contribute to the Denver community and created Moonshot edVentures. Through her wide and varied experiences in leadership development and entrepreneurship, DeLeon was eager to rethink education. One of the foundations of Moonshot is their Fellowship Program.
The second cohort of Fellows for Moonshot, includes 15 remarkable leaders selected to design and launch the learning environments of tomorrow in Metro Denver. Aspen Academy is one of two schools the Fellows visit collectively, in the state, as a model for what’s possible (the other being New Legacy Charter School, which supports teen parents and has an onsite early childhood center). Today, they’re learning the story of passion, perseverance, and unwavering vision that brought three founders, including Scala (who had all attended public schools), to build one of the fastest growing independent schools in the state.
Eighth-grade student ambassadors give Moonshot edVentures Fellows tours of Aspen Academy, showcasing the school from their vantage point.
Following a short tour of the school with student ambassadors as their guides, the fellows attend Aspen Morning Program (AMP’d, pronounced “amped”), a 30-minute variety program that is entirely student-produced highlighting student learnings and accomplishments. They learn about the history of the school from Scala, and ask questions of a panel of faculty. Their questions for the panel range from governance to curricula to department structure to financial aid and inclusion. No question is taboo.
A panel of faculty and staff, including academic chairs, answers questions posed by the Fellows.
The Fellows learn about each domain of curriculum undergoing a “zero-based scrub” every five years, led by the domain chair. This includes the story of how, when Scala was starting the school, she took notice that students in Singapore performed above all other countries in math. So, she called the Ministry of Education and asked to use their curriculum. After a litany of reasons for why the approach wouldn’t work with American students, Scala wasn’t taking "no" for an answer. Ultimately, when the school was founded in 2005, it opened with Singapore Math – one of the first schools west of the Mississippi to employ that premiere curriculum in math. Fellows also learn about Aspen Entrepreneurial Institute (AEI) and Aspen Youth Leadership Institute (AYLI): two “homegrown” programs staff members at the school designed with the intention to better prepare students for the challenges that meet them in 9th grade -- and beyond. Together, the curricula equip students with character and leadership development, alongside financial literacy and economic literacy from Kindergarten onward.
“None of us believe compliance is the goal. We’re not interested in kids being compliant. We’re not interested in adults being compliant. We’re interested in people doing what’s right in a situation,” Scala shares in a Q&A with the fellows. As one of the lowest priced independent schools in the state, Scala shares that tuition at Aspen is on par with the aggregated cost per students cited by local public districts. “The United States spends more per pupil than any other country in the world, yet American students still aren’t prepared to succeed in the world.”
What are the challenges for Aspen? Geographically, it’s in a homogeneous county amid some of the most affluent zip codes on the Front Range. As for inclusion, “There are things we know about the value of inclusion that are driving us to seek more diversity in enrollment, and there’s a lot we don’t know,” says Scala. “We have started taking an internationally normed assessment, the Intercultural Development Inventory (based on work by Mitchell Hammer, Ph.D.) to support our work in this area. We also strive to support students in showing appreciation, empathy, and acknowledge the universal heartfelt desire to be treated like humans.” Moonshot edVentures is supporting Aspen Academy’s efforts by sharing some of their practices around diversity, equity, and inclusion and the two are in conversation about other ways to partner.
Reminagining Education: Moonshot Founder, Christine DeLeon alongside Fellows and Aspen Academy Founder, Kristina Scala.
Being scrappy was -- and is -- a necessity to bring your vision to life. The fellows experience a “pinch me” moment, where they ask how a school that looks like this could be replicated in a public school environment. “It has not always looked like this,” shares Nicole Kruse, panelist and Aspen Entrepreneurial Institute Coach. Scala adds the story of how the school purchased their current building for $6.8 Million and sought donations (even if the donations didn’t match the ultimate vision for the learning environment) and spent less than $5K to furnish the building after undergoing a massive renovation including volunteer community members.
Observations. In a gathering to conclude the morning, fellows shared what the experience at Aspen Academy had meant to them, using words including “bewildered” and “inspired” to describe the impact:
“I’ve been in conversations about the narrative that you go to school, go to college and get a job. I’m inspired to change that to: you go to school, go to college and you CREATE jobs.” – Candice S.
“I’m sitting here amazed. When you walk in, the whole feeling is electrifying. It’s a feeling that gives you hope.” – Cheryl J.
“It’s a lot to process. You have so much trust. Students rise to that. You can talk to ANY student. It was so organic. You can feel Kristian’s energy everywhere with an urgency…an ‘I push you because I love you’ sense in teachers and in students.” – Antonio P.
“I’ve read about servant leadership. To see a framework come to life in a practical way, within the grounding of mission and vision is amazing to see. And, I was skeptical when I read on the website that we were coming to experience a school that was a ‘maverick at creating innovative space.’ The journey was assuring. You didn’t magically get here. There’s an accessible trajectory.” – Yuzo N.
“It’s incredible to see students here and think, ‘I wonder how my nephew would thrive in this environment.’ I appreciated the reminder that this takes hustle, work and community to live and breathe the mission WITH me.” – Christina C.
Scala ends the day by sharing, one mantra for how the school approaches their work and stewardship for equipping students, “If you’re going to spend 10 years with us, they’ll be 10 years of consequence.”
Inspiration That Cannot Be Unseen: The Fellows related that they were inspired by what is possible versus seeing the same things they’re used to and once they saw Aspen, they couldn’t “unlearn” that experience. It became part of the fabric for the visions for their learning environments. Moonshot edVentures created a rubric to evaluate school models including: outcomes including and beyond academics; student ownership and agency; personalized and deeper learning; co-creation with students, teachers and families; a place where people want to work; and diversity, equity and inclusion. Aspen hit the highest levels (3 and 4) on each dimension. It is powerful for the Fellows to see this model because they rarely see a school that rates so high across the board.
Fellows gather in Bear’s Student Cafe, one of the areas that hosts a student-run business on the campus. Scala shares the history and story of the school with the cohort.
Conclusions & Transforming Education. In sharing the experience with Aspen Academy’s Board of Directors, DeLeon noted that the model at the school is one that can be leveraged in public education: “For educators, seeing is believing. Public educators often see more restrictions than exist and this place inspires them to do something different, like Aspen Academy.” In addition to mentoring several of the Fellows, in March, Scala joined the cohort for a business planning workshop. “Seeing 8th grade students build their own businesses was something the Fellows’ found inspiring, especially after they participated in the business planning workshop with Ms. Scala that is based on the 8th grade curriculum,” shared DeLeon.
Aspen Academy continues to partner with Moonshot edVentures and will host a group of Fellows on October 3, 2019.
About Moonshot edVentures Fellowship Program: Moonshot has supported 31 leaders over two cohorts to design and lead charter schools, micro-schools, district turnaround schools, and after school programs. Moonshot Fellows have impacted an estimated 15,000 students, and this number grows every year. Fellows go on from our program to receive support from organizations such as 4.0 Schools, Camelback Ventures, High Tech High, and have secured grants from local and national funders. Of these Fellows, 90% identify as women and/or people of color. Learn about all Moonshot Fellows and their projects at https://www.moonshotedventures.org/fellows
About Aspen Academy: Aspen Academy is the premier independent school for academic, leadership and entrepreneurial development. Located in Greenwood Village, Colorado, our 400 Pre-K through 8th grade students exemplify our core values: be kind, do good, work hard, and make the world better. With a focus on academic rigor, character and leadership development, and community strength and service, our small classes are led by exceptional faculty who offer a personalized approach to instruction. Since our inception in 2005, we have remained steadfastly focused on developing lifelong learners who graduate from our school empowered to be confident, curious and innovative.