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Don’t look too far ahead: I’ve seen this cause frustration. Perhaps the plan around the corner is the one you or your child didn’t expect. Given the uniqueness of each student’s learning experiences and ambitions, it’s important that students not get so focused on what happens 10 years from now, that they lose sight of how to be a successful learner today.
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 Brian Hayden.
Brian Hayden is chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School (also known as PA Cyber). While he has been in his current role for seven years, his career has been entirely in public service. He spent the first two decades of his career in local, county and state government and the last 15 years in education. He first transitioned to education in 2009 as Executive Director at the Community College in Beaver County before coming to PA Cyber. Brian holds two master’s degrees — one in Public Administration and the other in International Affairs — both from the University of Pittsburgh.
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”?
For my entire life, my two big loves were government and education. In government, I worked with a member of Congress, a Board of County Commissioners and then at the state level. I was passionate about my jobs, and I often thought, “This is it.” Then an opportunity arose for me to work at the Community College of Beaver County when I was recruited by the college’s president to work in his office. It sounded interesting and I took a leap of faith. Once I immersed myself into the world of education and met many types of students, I realized I had found my new passion. I continued my academic leadership journey, and later the CEO position opened up at PA Cyber, where I’ve worked for almost seven years. We have kids from all 500 public schools and all 67 counties across Pennsylvania. There isn’t a type of student that we don’t have in terms of how they live, where they live or what their families do.
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?
While working at the community college, I had the opportunity to teach an evening class in American government. There was a young man who came to class every day and answered every question, but he wasn’t turning in his assignments. About three-quarters of the way through the semester, I called him into my office and said, “Look, you are so smart. You are engaged in our discussions. You haven’t turned in any papers, and I’m concerned that you’re not going to pass this class.” He then shared that he didn’t have a computer at home, nor did he have a good living situation. I told him I didn’t care how he turned in his materials — they could even be scribbled on a napkin. One day, he came to my office and handed me a crumpled piece of paper with all his work on it. He was clearly frustrated and disheartened — he told me he was so tired of people thinking he was stupid. He grew in that course. At graduation, he draped himself around me in this big hug and thanked me. That moment showed me the power of teaching and the importance of engagement.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
When my parents dropped me off at college, my mom said to me, “This isn’t a prison sentence. If this doesn’t work, you can come home and try something else.” It was such a strong message at the time — my parents empowered me to not worry about failing. They instilled in me this idea that, of the decisions we make, nothing is permanent — we can go somewhere else. Try something else. We are individuals and we need to do what works best for us.
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?
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We are always seeking to strengthen opportunities for students. In fact, our tagline is “The learning never stops.” One of our current focus areas is expanding our hundreds of in-person opportunities. While we teach online, we’ve been trying to create a better balance of in-person and virtual social and extracurricular activities. For example, we sent out science kits for a project so students could make bat houses at home. And we also brought in a bat expert. We’ve found that students and their families also love virtual bingo. These options provide opportunities for the broadest number of families and increase engagement among students. It’s not replacing — it’s supplementing.
Another current project is our curriculum review. We’re preparing to do a comprehensive assessment of our courses to ensure we have the strongest curriculum for our students.
Lastly, we’re looking at ways to provide dual enrollment opportunities so our high school students can take college-level courses and learn at that higher level. This will better prepare them for post-secondary plans, whatever path they choose after graduation from PA Cyber.
For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit about why you are an authority on how to help children succeed in school?
Having worked for many years in the education field and across all ages of learners, I can tell you that the student experience is incredibly nuanced. Each student is unique, their situations vary and the landscape amidst which they are learning is ever-evolving.
At PA Cyber, everything we do connects to providing a customized learning environment for our students. We provide innovative, individualized education and tailor the experience to what will work best for students. With this approach in mind, PA Cyber is continuously focused on delivering an experience that sets up each student for success.
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?
We have found that, in today’s complex world, and because each student is unique, every school district doesn’t necessarily meet every student’s needs. Often, brick-and-mortar schools have a difficult time finding ways to help students learn in a way that’s best for them.
There are many reasons why some students face challenges in a “traditional” school, ranging from students’ distinctive learning styles to health issues, to bullying and other negative in-school experiences, to family situations, geographic location, and more.
For these reasons, PA Cyber is dedicated to the success of students who have not had their needs met in other settings, or who want the flexibility provided through an online public school.
Can you suggest a few reforms that you think schools should make to help students to thrive and excel?
One of the most important areas to be addressed is funding reform — the idea of property taxes funding students’ education. Many states are currently assessing funding models and how to best ensure that students receive access to high-quality education, regardless of their situation.
For example, in Pennsylvania, where PA Cyber is located, there is legislation on the table to change the funding formula for cyber charter schools. With this bill, families’ ability to have meaningful choice in their students’ education is in jeopardy, and it would seriously impact our students and their families.
For students to thrive and excel, their educational experience must work for them. It takes all of us — schools, parents, teachers and communities — to create and maintain opportunities for students to be successful. Ultimately, this all comes back to being more inclusive and tailoring education and the learning environment to meet each student’s needs.