In this week’s post, IEN talks with Christopher Bezsylko, the founding head of Imagination Lab School (ILS) a TK (transitional kindergarten) though 8th grade private school about to begin its second year in Palo Alto, California. Imagination Lab School asks students to “Know yourself as a learner; Find & exercise your voice; Seek multiple perspectives; and Take meaningful action.”
Bezsylko spoke to us this past spring during the US-China Education Forum, organized by the Columbia-Teachers College Chinese Students’ Association. In previous posts, we talked with Wen Chen about newly opened Moonshot Academy and with Joann McPike about the origins and work of Think Global School.
How did Imagination Lab School get started?
Christopher Bezsylko: Some who know our background like to say that we’re a phoenix story, because we started out of the ashes of another school closure. We were part of the Alt School Network, and our school was going well, but Alt School decided to focus more on its technology platform and they shut down several of their schools, including the one that I was leading in Silicon Valley. After that happened, many of our families felt that we had more work to do, and we wanted to figure out how to keep it going. At that point it was my third year in Silicon Valley, and I’d been thinking about the culture of innovation and the culture of collaboration that’s infused so many industries here. I’d been exploring what work is going to look like and what the community is going to look like in the next ten years, and, in terms of my own professional journey, I wasn’t ready to go back to a regular school. This idea of creating a new space for learning is energizing, and there is definitely a demand for it. I had a great team of educators that were with me, and I wanted to keep a cohort of us together and keep doing this good work.
So we met with a lot of different people. We had investors who knew about my history, and they offered money, but there were also a lot of strings to go with that money. Some wanted the school to be for-profit, and they wanted to control the board. I’ve never said “No” to two million dollars before in my life, but I had to do it. That was not what I was interested in doing. We had also developed a lot of connections, particularly among the families that had been part of the school. Even some of the families that had already decided to send their children to other schools still believed in us, and they supported us financially. Then we partnered with ETU Education (a growing network of schools with campuses in China and network partners in other parts of the world). That partnership helped to give us some support and bandwidth behind the scenes, like IT support and technology support, as well as support for professional development. That partnership grew out of the fact that I’d met the founder of ETU, Yinuo Li a few years earlier when she was a parent in our previous school. So that was a great coincidence. She had moved back to Beijing and started a school there. We just stayed in touch. She was a good friend of one of the parents who became our board chair. Yinuo heard about what we were trying to do, and she wanted to help us maintain control of our vision. She came to us and said “Hey, you know, we can chip in a little bit of money and help you grow.” We both wanted to have a global school, and so the idea of exploring how we could do that from two very different parts of the world was really exciting. So with the support of our parents, we established an independent, not-for-profit private school in California.
What are three features of the school that are helping bring your vision to life?
CB: First and foremost, our promise is empowering each learner be their best self. It’s about knowing who I am, finding and exercising my voice, understanding multiple perspectives, and taking meaningful action. The second feature of our school is what we call community connections. A school isn’t just a set of walls and the people inside. We embrace learning that happens outside of school, and we seek out opportunities to regularly interact with the broader community. I like to say it’s not just being in the community but being of the community. It’s about making explicit, deliberate connections with the community. The last feature is impact. It’s about empowering every member of our community to take meaningful action, action that has a positive impact on others.
It’s also about connecting with other people and organizations around the really amazing work in education that is happening across the globe. Our partnership with ETU is an example of that. We’re doing a lot of work focused on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and sharing it with them; and they’ve developed a communication platform between home and school, and we’re piloting that here as well. We’ve also developed a student exchange program where students from each school spend a month visiting the other school. In 2018-19 we had students and teachers from ETU spend a month with us, and we look forward to growing that exchange program this year. In addition, this summer several of our team members visited schools in Beijing and led workshops there focused on problem-based learning and socio-emotional development, and I led workshops on the future of school and learning.
You just got started last year, but is there something you already know you need to change or adjust as you move into your second year?
CB: We are constantly learning with and from our students and families, so there are plenty of changes ahead. I would say the biggest things that we’re really pushing on right now is what does the fourth part of our promise to “Take action” mean? We are looking beyond having a student complete a project to having a student who really goes out in the world and applies the knowledge, skills, and habits we are cultivating in a way that has impact in their personal lives, in their family, and in their communities. We’re realizing our kids are deeply engaged and deeply motivated, but we weren’t really hitting that fourth part of taking action as deeply as we believe we can. So really challenging them to think about “what’s the thing we’re going to do?” Whether it’s a personal commitment, and we publish it on our social media, or whether you’re going to go home and take an inventory of waste items in your trash can, and write a letter to your parents about the change you want to make at home. What’s a small impact that you can have? I think the first time around we started off with “What are the global changes that we can make?” But those are too big, even for me. So now it’s much more about what’s the local impact I can have?
Do you have other examples like the home inventory where you said this is more of what we had in mind?
CB: We have a rolling drop off. Kids just come in when they can, and they do a series of choice activities. We have one young man who is almost always the first student at school. He’s been coming in since the climate change unit with Starbucks cups and straws every day. So the head of our STEAM program sat down with him, and she pulled up the commitment that he made which was about reducing pollution in the oceans. He looked at it, and they talked about it, and said “Hey, how many days?” They looked at the calendar, and he realized it had been thirteen days. “How many cups have you brought? How many straws have you got? What’s your commitment?” Of course, this is a third grader who probably forgot his commitment because that’s what third graders do. Then she asked him a few questions, and he ended up bringing the letter home and said: “Hey, mom and dad, I need you to help me meet my commitment. I need your support and reminders so I don’t keep buying these things.” For us it’s one of the tools and resources that the child needs to keep his commitment. And this was a simple example, but it’s powerful in that we are trying to incorporate that learning at home as well. And so the parents are going to get this letter from the child, not from me as the head of school, not from a teacher. This is directly connected to something their child did at school.
Do you know how the parents responded?
CB: The response has been very positive. Our families value the strong relationships we form with them and their children, they value the authentic learning and the community connections, and they share many stories of learning that their children brought home. For example, during our end of the year investigation into Sustainable Development Goal 12: Responsible Production and Consumption, students across the grades explored the questions, “Where does our food come from?” and “How do our food choices impact our community?” As part of their learning, students in grades 2-5 created garden proposals which detailed how they could grow their own food at home. Students conducted interviews, did research, analyzed prices, created budgets, drew plans, and created prototypes of their garden spaces. As we were getting ready for our learning exhibition we started receiving videos from students which showcased the actual gardens they built at home. Some families were exchanging seeds and others were planning to share their harvest. There was a deep impact here where all members of our community were active and engaged learners.
Just for the basic facts: how many kids do you have now?
CB: This year we have sixteen students from TK, a transitional kindergarten, through fifth grade. We’ll add a grade level every year. We have two mixed age groups right now and we will evolve to five mixed age groups from TK-8.
You have worked in a number of different educational institutions, and you’ve been doing this work for a while. As you think of other people who are trying to create their own learning experiences or schools, what are some things you think might be helpful for them to hear about?
CB: For me, the biggest one is finding that “Why?” Knowing your “Why?” is the thing that drives you. In the first year, I spent a lot of my time focused on marketing, development, and operations because we are a small school without a lot of staff. I wear lots of hats and that means that I don’t get to spend as much time as I want every day sitting down with the teachers, learning with and from them. But when I make those sacrifices I remind myself why am I doing it. Because there are definitely hard days and dark days. But it really is about knowing why we are doing this work and why our work is important.
A short film from InformationMatrix TV provides another glimpse of Imagination Lab School