Andrew Campanella On Helping Children Thrive and Excel In School

Yitzi Weiner @ Authority Magazine
Authority Magazine
If you have young children, read to them every night. Research demonstrates that when parents regularly read to their young children, kids build strong cognitive abilities, have robust vocabularies, and are more likely to develop their own love of reading. Just the process of regularly reading to your child is also reassuring to your daughter or son, because it is a consistent exercise that builds a positive and learning-oriented parent-child connection.

School is really not easy these days. Many students have been out of school for a long time because of the pandemic, and the continued disruptions and anxieties are still breaking the flow of normal learning. What can parents do to help their children thrive and excel in school, particularly during these challenging and anxiety-provoking times?

To address this, we started a new series called ‘5 Things Parents Can Do To Help Their Children Thrive and Excel In School.” In this interview series, we are talking to teachers, principals, education experts, and successful parents to learn from their insights and experience.

As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure to interview Andrew Campanella.

Andrew Campanella has served as president of National School Choice Week (NSCW) since 2012. Under Andrew’s leadership, NSCW partners each year with 26,000 schools and homeschool organizations to raise awareness of the public, charter, magnet, private, online, and home education options available for children.

In addition, Andrew and the talented NSCW team have planned some of the nation’s most iconic education-focused events in history and developed the largest portfolio of cost-free and jargon-free school search resources for parents available online.

Andrew is also the author of The School Choice Roadmap: 7 Steps to Finding the Right School for Your Child, a Foreward Indies 2020 Gold Medal Winner.

Before joining the NSCW team, Andrew worked in senior level positions at two national non-profit organizations focused on K-12 education. In these roles, Andrew helped to enroll students in school choice programs and to recruit new teachers for public schools.

Andrew grew up in southern New Jersey and attended traditional public schools from grades K-12. He graduated from American University in Washington, D.C. and currently lives in Miami, Florida.

Andrew’s has appeared on CNN, FOXNews, Fox Business, and C-SPAN, in addition to hundreds of local television and radio stations.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us a bit about your “backstory”?

I’m an incredibly boring guy who just happens to work in a fascinating field — all thanks to a group of Washington, D.C. high school students I met 20 years ago as part of a volunteer project. Meeting hardworking but struggling students opened my eyes to the vast inequities that persist in K-12 education across the country. To put it simply: too many children are held back in pursuing their dreams because they attend schools that do not meet their needs.

Since then, I have helped recruit thousands of teachers and interacted with tens of thousands of families. I am convinced that the best and fastest way to unlock the potential that exists within every student is to help parents navigate the public, charter, magnet, private, online, and home education options available to them, while raising broad awareness of the need for even more choices. That is the mission of National School Choice Week.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Twelve years ago, I almost passed on the opportunity to work with National School Choice Week because the idea of tackling a relatively new project seemed very uncertain. I asked a friend and mentor for her advice. Over lunch in Phoenix, Arizona, Lisa reminded me that leadership isn’t about comfort and certainty, but about working hard — alongside good people — to build something new, different, and impactful. That night, I decided to work with National School Choice Week, and it was the best decision of my professional life.

More than a decade later, I have enjoyed the opportunity to collaborate with amazing colleagues, who themselves have built path-breaking new programs that have directly helped millions of families and supported tens of thousands of schools. I would not trade this experience for anything.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“There is no substitute for preparation” is advice I appreciate more with each passing year. If you plan, prepare, and organize, you have a much greater chance at succeeding in the execution of any endeavor than if you “wing it.” This applies to things big and small — from implementing an organization’s annual strategic goals, to giving a speech, to getting ready for a television interview, to getting ready for a conference call with a colleague.

Our growth at National School Choice Week has only been possible because our entire team has embraced the importance of preparedness. We have planned our growth methodically while never being afraid to acknowledge that there are things each of us has yet to learn. We jokingly call ours a culture of “exhaustive thoroughness.”

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Well, thank you! I attribute our success to our team, our supporters, and our participants. It is an honor to work with inspiring and talented people. Truthfully, it’s a bit uncomfortable to identify my three “best” character traits. We are all still works in progress. With that said, these are the principles, taught to me by my mother and father, that I try to live each day.

First, just be honest. We live in a society where deception and prevarication is accepted. Being honest means negotiating fairly, telling truths even though they may be uncomfortable, and taking personal responsibility for mistakes you make. Good leaders honestly acknowledge their failings directly, openly, and without reservation, and work to cultivate an organizational climate where team members are never incentivized to “pass the buck.”

Second, treat people with respect. The best motivator is not fear but the potential for shared success. When team members work collaboratively together, are inspired to hold themselves to high standards, aggressively pursue goals, and know they will receive respect and acknowledgement for their contributions to achieving big goals, great things happen. Treat team members and colleagues kindly and respect their time, boundaries, ideas, emotions, and concerns. And be nice on social media, too, because your online personality needs to match your in-person attitude.

Third, keep learning. Never trust anyone who pretends to be an expert on anything. The three most empowering words a leader can say are often, “I don’t know.” Being willing to learn, discover, and explore helps you and your team grow. Never accept bluster or false senses of expertise or security, from yourself or others. It’s false hope. Instead, make it your mission to keep acquiring knowledge. Doing this also builds curiosity, which experts say is a building block to happiness.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

National School Choice Week is always pursuing new projects! I am particularly excited about the fact that we have developed, and will soon expand, a full suite of cost-free school search resources for Spanish-speaking families. We anticipate that these resources will help hundreds of thousands of moms and dads. We also plan to expand our English and Spanish-language resources related to public school open enrollment, which is one of the least-discussed forms of school choice.

In addition, our partnerships and events team is developing an incredible portfolio of new, exciting, and impactful awareness events for 2023 that we cannot wait to share with the world. From big school fairs to student celebrations, our goal is to help families navigate their public, charter, magnet, private, online, and home education choices while shining a positive spotlight on amazing students, parents, teachers, and education leaders.

For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit why you are an authority about how to help children succeed in school?

The real authorities on children are their parents. Not me. Not any “expert.” Moms and dads know more about their children’s interests, needs, talents, motivations, and challenges than anyone else on this planet. Parents are the experts.

In fact, the reason I wrote my book was because for a decade, I watched experts give parents bad or overly simplistic advice on how to choose schools for their children. For example, telling families to focus solely on a school’s ratings, grades, and rankings is reductive, and it’s not predictive. And when experts tell parents to choose one education option over another, such as selecting a private school over a public school, without even meeting the student who will attend that school…that’s malpractice.

Instead, parents need to harness the power of their own intuition, and what they know about their kids, to get involved, make decisions, and stay involved in their children’s education. My advice never tells parents what decisions they should ultimately make, but lays out a process they can follow to come to their own conclusions.

In short, when parents identify their goals for their children, get specific about what they need and want from schools, give themselves enough time to look at all of the different schools available for their children, visit schools and ask questions, and keep the focus on their children’s needs, their kids are more likely to succeed in school.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. Can you help articulate the main challenges that students face today that make it difficult to succeed in school?

The answer is different for every student who faces struggles, and the uniqueness of individual kids’ challenges is not something we should ignore. When a child faces difficulties in school, it should not matter if these difficulties are unique to that child or faced by many other students. That child’s parents want help and they want options.

For example, one student might struggle with reading. Another student might struggle with class sizes that are too small or too large. And yet other students might need better support to accommodate her or his exceptional needs. And far too many kids face bullying.

If your child is not succeeding in school, chances are that it’s not your child’s fault and it’s not necessarily the school’s fault. It just might not be a good fit. In a nutshell, that’s what I think causes the most challenges: some students would be better served in different education environments than the ones they currently attend.

Can you suggest a few reforms that you think schools should make to help students to thrive and excel?

The most beneficial and impactful education reforms are those advanced by states. States should do everything possible to give parents as many options for their children’s education. For example, states should allow parents to choose traditional public schools outside of their zones or districts. They should encourage the authorization of high-quality public charter schools, and incentivise school districts to collaborate on opening theme-based public magnet schools. Expanding the availability of seats in tuition-free, online public schools is also essential. Finally, states can provide families with tuition assistance to afford private education, while ensuring that their homeschooling laws are flexible and accommodating for families.

At the individual school level, I am a personal fan of reforms that focus on the effective teaching of reading and writing; empowering principals with greater control over their school budgets and personnel decisions; giving teachers increased leadership roles and decision-making authority in their schools and compensating them for that work; and ensuring that all students have access to transportation to and from school and access to high-speed internet.

Here is our primary question. Can you please share your “5 Things Parents Can Do To Help Their Children Thrive and Excel In School?” Please share a story or example for each.

If you have young children, read to them every night. Research demonstrates that when parents regularly read to their young children, kids build strong cognitive abilities, have robust vocabularies, and are more likely to develop their own love of reading. Just the process of regularly reading to your child is also reassuring to your daughter or son, because it is a consistent exercise that builds a positive and learning-oriented parent-child connection.

Encourage your child to pursue interests. As I said earlier, I am a strong believer that curiosity is a building block to happiness. When students feel invested in things that spark their curiosity, they become sponges for new information. Parents should encourage that curiosity and show excitement when their daughter or son finds a topic fascinating. As long as it’s healthy and age-appropriate, almost anything can qualify!

If you have options, actively choose your child’s school. By going through the process of looking at the education options available for your daughter or son, your child has a greater chance of success — even if you end up sticking with your child’s current school. The process alone helps you discover more about what your child is learning, what your child needs, and how you can stay involved.

Maintain frequent communication with your child’s teachers. The most effective parent-teacher communication starts not when there are problems, but at the beginning of a school year. Actively reach out to your child’s teacher and let that teacher know that you want to be informed and engaged, and that you want to know if there’s even a possibility that your daughter or son might fall behind.

Talk to your children about their experiences in school. Maintaining an open and constructive dialogue with your children about their experiences in school, and also their learning interests, will help you to identify what problems your child might be encountering. Demonstrating a genuine interest in their acquisition of knowledge teaches your children that education is valued in your household.

As you know, teachers play such a huge role in shaping young lives. What would you suggest needs to be done to attract top talent to the education field?

This could be an entirely separate interview.

First, the process of becoming a teacher in the U.S. is archaic. In too many states, it remains incredibly difficult for a mid-career professional to change careers and become a teacher, because teacher certification laws often prioritize process-related requirements over the prospective teacher’s content knowledge. As a result of these outdated practices, the teaching profession remains largely white and does not reflect our country’s great diversity. The process needs a top-to-bottom modernization, and principals should have the authority to build their own hiring and training systems to meet the needs of their schools and communities.

We also need to be honest and recognize that in many cases, schools do not suffer from a broad-based lack of funding, but instead do not allocate enough of their existing funds to teaching and learning. Increasing starting salaries for promising new teachers would absolutely attract more talent to teaching, but that remains difficult under current compensation and contract models.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)

This is such a difficult question, because there are so many incredible leaders I’d want to meet. One name that immediately comes to mind is the former executive chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Company, Robert Iger. I recently finished his book, “The Ride of a Lifetime.” It’s impressive and inspiring how he successfully led one of the world’s best-loved organizations, bringing joy to so many families while dealing with a variety of tough challenges.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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Yitzi Weiner is a journalist, author, and the founder Authority Magazine. He is also the CEO of Authority Magazine's Thought Leader Incubator, which guides leaders to become prolific content creators. Yitzi is also the author of five books. In 2017, he created the popular, “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me” series that highlights the empowering lessons learned from the experiences of high-profile entrepreneurs and public figures. This series has inspired a mini-movement among writers, with scores of writers worldwide profiling inspiring people to share their positive, empowering, and actionable stories. A trained Rabbi, Yitzi is also a dynamic educator, teacher and orator. He currently lives in Maryland with his wife and children.

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