We are so honored to have the best members in the world. You may read that as a bold statement, but really, we are. Our members are changing the world with their incredible missions and creating opportunities like never before. Take for example the team at PowerMyLearning, members of our Downtown LA location. They are national education nonprofit that partners with schools in under-resourced communities to enable teachers to team up with families to provide personalized and joyful learning experiences for students. How cool is that? We sat down with PowerMyLearning's Executive Director of the Greater Los Angeles & San Francisco Bay Area, Neil Spears, in this month's Member Spotlight to get the full scoop on their incredible organization.
If you're ready to be inspired, read on.
Q. In one sentence, describe who your company is and what you do.
A. PowerMyLearning is a national education nonprofit that partners with schools in under-resourced communities to enable teachers to team up with families to provide personalized and joyful learning experiences for students.
Q. What is the problem you're solving?
A. Despite vast improvements in education technology, teachers and families in under-resourced communities still face challenges in meeting the learning needs of their students that enable them to reach their full potential.
Helping students from low-income families become successful learners is one of the most pressing issues in America today. A few stats:--For the first time in recent history, more than half of U.S. K-12 students are growing up in under-resourced families.--80% of 8th grade students from low-income families are not proficient in mathematics.--The rich-poor gap in test scores is about 40% larger now than it was 30 years ago.--Only 9% of students in the bottom-income quartile will graduate from college compared to 77% from the top-income quartile.
Technology holds great promise in overcoming opportunity gaps by giving students more personalized learning experiences. But despite vast investments in hardware, connectivity, and software, technology has largely failed to deliver on that promise because it has either tried to replace teachers’ or parents’ role in learning or it has been rolled out without adequate training and support.
PowerMyLearning provides one-on-one coaching for teachers so that they can use every ounce of possibility that tech affords them to make learning come alive for their students, engage them, and give them instruction at the level they need it. We also provide training and technology for families at our partner schools. All of our programs are designed to enhance the relationships among teachers, students, and parents so that kids not only master academic content, but also gain agency over their learning.
Q. What brought your company to Los Angeles, and what do you like about the startup ecosystem here?
A. PowerMyLearning started in LA at the school where I was teaching back in 2008. We love working in education here because LA has some of the smartest, most ambitious, and caring educators in the world. It’s also hungry for change in our complicated, multi-faceted education system. If we can get things right in LA, we can get it right anywhere in the country.
Q. How has being a part of the Cross Campus community helped you or your business grow?
A. Even in our first few weeks in the community, we’ve met people in education and other sectors that can give us advice and connect us to others who might be interested in our work. We’re particularly excited about growing our board of directors here in LA and I know that the Cross Campus community will be a great place for us to be connected with people who are passionate about education and technology, and who are interested in joining a nonprofit board.
Q. What has been your most satisfying moment in business?
A. There have been a lot of wins with PowerMyLearning as we’ve served over 20,000 families in LA over the past nine years, but my most satisfying moments are from my time as an English and social studies teacher at a traditional LAUSD middle school in East LA. My partner teachers and I took our sixth graders to overnight science camp in the mountains. I’ll never forget the joy in my students’ eyes as they gazed at the Milky Way for the first time or the feeling of connectedness that came from everyone (including their teachers) eating, sleeping, exploring, and learning together in the mountains. It was a moment when teaching wasn’t all about test scores and standards—it was about facilitating experiences that allow students to be whole people who are engaged in the world and who care about each other. And while I was satisfied to get my students’ state test results and see that they had performed really well, nothing compares to the satisfaction of engaging their minds, bodies, and souls at science camp.
Q. Tell me about a time you failed at a goal you needed to achieve.
A. When PowerMyLearning was first getting started in LA, our philanthropic revenue came largely from local foundations. As anyone who’s raised philanthropy in LA will tell you, grants from foundations are great because they often support large chunks of programs and operations, but also difficult because their timing and processes have an element of unpredictability. A few years ago, one of our largest foundation funders shifted the review of our proposal back by a couple of months which resulted in the grant being awarded in the subsequent fiscal year. This meant I missed my philanthropic goal. Fortunately, PowerMyLearning has a healthy cash reserve and we were awarded the grant in the first month of the new fiscal year, so our program was not affected. But missing the fundraising goal definitely hurt my professional pride and taught me more about foundation funding cycles. We have a much more diversified revenue mix now.
Q. What are some of the characteristics of people that have been successful at your company?
A. I am lucky to work with some of the most talented and passionate people I’ve ever worked with. And I’m not just saying that as a throw-away line—I really mean it!
The most successful members of our team: Have a personal connection to our work that fuels their sense of purpose. Whether it’s because they went to schools like the ones we serve, can see their own parents in the parents we work with, have a deep drive for educational equity built on experience as a teacher, or something else, the most successful people on my team have lived experiences that motivates them toward our mission. This also drives them to work hard and to be intrinsically motivated to strive for excellence.
Give and take feedback without it feeling personal. “Saying the thing” is an important part of our team culture. Speaking directly and frankly to each other without having to tip-toe around issues (while still being courteous) helps us get to the best solutions and outcomes the fastest.
Have fun. We work hard, but the most successful members of our team also have a fun time. Work doesn’t have to be 100 percent serious 100 percent of the time. The members at our previous co-working office would often remark about how much laughter they heard during our weekly team meetings.
Q. If your company were a Hogwarts house, which one would it be and why?
A.There’s some disagreement about this on our team. We seem to be split between Slytherin and Ravenclaw.
As my colleague Maria points out, “Slytherin qualities include cunning and determination, and I say we need plenty of both when supporting students and families within our current educational system. And in the first book, the sorting hat tells Harry, ‘You could be great, you know, it’s all here in your head, and Slytherin will help you on the way to greatness, no doubt about that.’ That could be us – and we need the right partners to help us.”
But we’re not evil! And we’re a pretty intellectual organization that spends time thinking about our theory of change, our instructional framework, and the operating theories that animate our work. So that would make us more Ravenclaw, which values intelligence, knowledge, and wit.
I guess you’ll have to tell us your opinion when you meet us!
Q. Who do you respect the most, and why?
A. I deeply respect Rabbi Sharon Brous, the senior rabbi at IKAR, the Jewish community that I belong to. I admire Rabbi Brous’ courage to speak truth even in the face of vicious personal attacks. It would be easy to stay quiet about issues of justice for people in our country who live in poverty, who are immigrants, who are LGBTQ, and all who are under threat because of who they are. But she doesn’t stay silent, she speaks loudly and in coalition with others. I try to channel her courage, integrity, and groundedness at work and in life.
Q. Where do you see yourself and your business in 10 years?
A. PowerMyLearning is one year into a five-year strategic plan that aims to have us grow five-fold in LA and the Bay Area. Five years after that, I expect that we will be working with the majority of school districts in the Greater LA area, serving tens of thousands of students, families, and teachers a year.
A decade from now, I’ll still be working for educational equality—I don’t see that changing since it’s rooted in my experience as a teacher and seeing first-hand the inequity baked into our system. That could look like leading a nonprofit like PowerMyLearning, working to change the underlying policies that perpetuate inequity, or working inside a school or school system. In any case, I hope to have a family and a deep spiritual life that makes me happy.