Ep. 29: 2018 National School Choice Week with Andrew Campanella

January 23, 2018

Today on EdChoice Chats, we’re listening in on a conversation between EdChoice’s President and CEO Robert Enlow and his friend Andrew Campanella, the president of National School Choice Week. They talk about how National School Choice Week got started, how it has grown and what it means for the school choice movement.

Robert Enlow: Good afternoon. This is Robert Enlow, and today, I am joined by Andrew Campanella, the president of National School Choice Week. For those of you who don’t know, if you’ve been living under a rock, School Choice Week has burst on the scene to create a real impact with the way we think about educational options in America. It started eight years ago now, and it’s held every January, this year from January 21st through the 27th. We’re delighted to be joined by Andrew Campanella today to share with us more information and news about this wonderful week.

Andrew, I think the first question is, tell us a little bit about what inspired National School Choice week and how it got started.

Andrew Campanella: Well, thank so much, Robert. What inspired National School Choice Week was the idea that when it comes to education, we have all of these discussions all across the country about specific policies and programs. There are a lot of experts out there, but in reality, the people who are truly the experts are parents, parents who know their children best and need to know all of the options that are available for their kids’ education.

National School Choice Week was created eight years ago to give parents as much information as possible about all the options available for their kids’ education: traditional public schools, public charter schools, magnet schools, online academies, private school, homeschooling, you name it. We encourage folks to have events and spotlight what’s available in their communities.

Robert Enlow: Eight years ago, Andrew, a small group of people was sitting around coming up with this idea. Do you think they thought it would get this big?

Andrew Campanella: Well, I will say that I always thought that School Choice Week had such incredible potential, and the reason I thought that was because there is such enthusiasm among school leaders and parents and folks working in education across the country to tell positive stories. There are so many positive stories out there when it comes to education regardless of the sector, but if you had told me eight years ago that we would go from 150 events in that first year, 2011, to 32,240 events this year, I think I would’ve told you you were crazy, but at the same time, I’m crazy excited about it, so it’s all a good thing.

Robert Enlow: Is that what makes School Choice Week unique, the energy, the positive stories? Really, what is it that makes National School Choice Week so unique?

Andrew Campanella: I think what makes School Choice Week unique is a combination of several ingredients, if you will. Number one, it’s completely positive, and we look for the bright side in everything. We want to tell the positive stories of all different types of schools, all the different variety of schools that are out there for families and the successes that you find when you match students up with the schools that meet their individual needs. That’s number one. Number two, we’re inclusive. We include every person, organization, school, homeschooling family, you name it, who wants to participate and celebrate their own unique component of educational choice.

We don’t dwell on any negativity. We focus on the positive aspect of education and school choice. And number three, we let people shine in a spotlight, really, that’s of their own creation. We want schools and individuals and homeschooling families to be the stars of this week. The goal of our team is to work year round to help other people tell their stories, so it’s a very localized focused. I think those are the three things that make National School Choice Week so unique, but I really can’t explain it other than that, except for the fact that people find it fun, they find it exciting, hopefully inspirational, and we want to do everything we can to support that.

Robert Enlow: I think that’s exactly what makes School Choice Week so unique is it is both, it’s inclusive, it’s positive, it’s open to everyone driving their own agenda around the positive stories. You used the word inspiring, Andrew. Tell me some of the inspiring stories or events that you’ve been part of or that you’ve seen.

Andrew Campanella: Oh, that’s such a good question. What inspired me this last year, and as you know, Robert, I mean, this last year was a tumultuous one in the world of politics. There are a lot of folks out there in the country who are concerned about where things might be headed. There are other people who are excited. Regardless of how you slice it, it seems like we’re a more divided country than we have been in a long time.

What I think really helped me last year was visiting different states, and I got to go 25 different states and meet with parents and school leaders and administrators and education organizations that I know that folks from EdChoice were at a lot of those meetings. What inspired me is hearing their stories of how, for example, one school might be meeting with a parent, and it might be a traditional district school, and the parent would say to the administrator that this school is just not working for my child, and the district leader would say, “You know what? There’s a great local charter school that you could consider,” or, “You might want to learn about this opportunity scholarship program,” or at the same time, hear a private school leader say that they regularly refer people to a local traditional district school.

Seeing the level of collaboration that goes on in individual states really inspired me because it flies in the face of the national narrative, that education needs to be controversial or that there are problems or that there are so many people at each other’s throats. The reality is that people are really working together in many cases, and that’s something we need to celebrate.

In terms of School Choice Week events, every time I hear a story of a student who has succeeded despite the odds, whether they were born into a very poor family and never really went to a school where they felt valued, or whether they struggled mightily in a previous education setting and were now placed in a different school of their parent’s choice and they were thriving and doing well and they felt challenged and motivated, all of those stories inspire me. I continue to push our team to help tell more of those stories because I think that’s the true method of school choice. It’s about getting as many kids in this country as possible, and I know you know this because you and your team do this work every single day of the year, getting as many kids in this country, matching them up with schools that meet their needs, and just watching incredible things happen.

Robert Enlow: It’s about, you’re absolutely right, Andrew, it’s about helping families and kids get in where they fit in. It’s helping them match the needs of their kids with the educational environment, and really, it’s inspiring to hear you talk those private school leaders and public school leaders putting the kids first regardless of the sector. Ultimately, I think that’s the true goal of what we call public education. We’re educating all kids. It really doesn’t matter where.

Next question, let me tell you about this. School Choice Week has always been about events. It’s got these great stories, but it’s also about events. Talk to me about some of these amazing events you’ve seen. I mean, they go from three, four thousand rallies to someone in their home. Talk to me and talk to our audience about some of these amazing events you’ve seen and heard about.

Andrew Campanella: Really, the bread and butter of School Choice Week are the individual events that are planned by schools organizations, homeschooling families, and local chambers of commerce. Those are the bulk of the 32,000 events that you see across the country. Those are open houses, information sessions, parent nights, school fairs, school tours, events that are planned by community-based entities, schools, organizations, chambers, et cetera, that raise awareness in those communities about the education options that are available to families there so that schools can promote what makes them unique, homeschooling families can promote to other families how homeschooling works, local chambers can talk about how having a variety of choices can benefit a community.

That’s the bulk of the event, but then you also have bigger rallies and celebrations where people from all different types of schools and education settings come together, and students talk about what it is meant for them to be able to go to a school that was actively chosen for them by their parents. Teachers talk about what it’s like to teach in these different settings. School leaders talk about what it’s like to create schools that serve groups of students who may not have been well-served in the past. Those rallies anywhere from hundreds to thousands of people, and we try to keep it fun. There’s a National School Choice Week dance that tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people learn every year. We also always want to keep it focused on the kids. So important.

Robert Enlow: I encourage everyone to learn this dance because people who can’t dance like me actually have a blast. It’s fun to do, and we really appreciate that National School Choice week has always kept it on the positive, the high energy, and the fun side about such a serious and important topic that families care about. Andrew, you mentioned that last year, it was a tumultuous year.

Andrew Campanella: Yes.

Robert Enlow: Yet you have 35,000 events, you have all this grassroots swelling for families who want more options. Take a look in your crystal ball five years away from the next five years of School Choice Week. What do you think you see and those people who’ve been supporting this effort for a long time should be looking forward to seeing get done in the next five years. Where do you see School Choice Week in the next five years?

Andrew Campanella: Good question. What I think will happen and I hope will happen is that we see broader participation from all the different sectors of choice, and that means more traditional public school districts doing things like we saw in Nashville and holding information sessions and school fairs during School Choice Week. Same thing happened in northwest Arkansas where four districts got together to participate in that giant school fair for students. Instead of looking at school choice through the lens of politics or specific policies, folks using more and more School Choice Week to look at school choice through a more personal lens, how can individual families benefit from it.

I also think that with new technology and the growing interconnectedness where everybody is able to communicate or listen to a podcast or talk on Google Messenger or Hangouts or go on to Facebook and Twitter, and everybody’s so connected now, we’re going to see more online events, we’re going to see more online awareness, we’re going to see more people adding their voices to the dialogue.

I’m incredibly optimistic, not just about the growth of School Choice Week and raising awareness among parents, but also about how all of this focus on personalized learning, personalized education, and weaving in the technology component to it is going to help kids learn because I think that this generation of students in our country has the potential to be the smartest and innovative generation of people in human history because they can acquire more knowledge more quickly than anyone at any other time in the past. I think that if we just keep at it and keep it focused on educational opportunity, keep the focus on matching kids up with the right schools, we’re going to see an explosive growth, in a good way, in knowledge, and that will help our country in so many different ways.

Robert Enlow: Oh, that’s fantastic, and I couldn’t agree more. School Choice Week is coming, and then it goes-

Andrew Campanella: That’s right.

Robert Enlow: … and it’s exciting, and then people go back to their homes. What happens when School Choice Week is over? What do you see around the country, and what do you hope people do after they’ve done their events and been involved in such a positive environment?

Andrew Campanella: Well, I hope that the level of positive continues, and I hope that when people work together for some of these bigger events and they collaborate together, they’re getting together to essentially plan a party. We hope they stay together. We hope they continue to work together. We hope they collaborate. I’m a believer in competition in education just like I’m a believer in competition in all aspects of American life, but I think that with competition when it comes to education, you also need collaboration and you need kindness. I think that we can have a little bit more of both of those, collaboration and kindness. Our competition will be stronger, and it’ll be better. That’s what I want people to do after the week. Remember the positive nature. Remember how everybody got along, and try to keep getting along throughout the year, remembering always that kids are the reason that we do this work.

Robert Enlow: Ladies and gentlemen, there is nothing I could add to that. I want to thank Andrew Campanella for being here with us today for School Choice Week. It’s exciting time. I hope everyone gets involved. Thank you very much.

Andrew Campanella: Thank you, Robert.