Getting to Know: Hrag Hamalian, Founder of Valor Academy

August 15, 2011

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As a charter school leader, I consider myself part of the district. Our entire intention behind this school is not just to make a small impact for a small community, but to create a model for what could be done at other district schools. - Hrag Hamalian, Founder of Valor Academy

Journalist Donna Foote's book, Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach for America, opens in summer 2007, as Teach for America (TFA) recruit Hrag Hamalian arrives in Los Angeles for his summer institute, just weeks after graduating from Boston College. Foote goes on to follow Hrag and several other TFA teachers placed at Locke High School in south Los Angeles during their first year of teaching. Her book looks at the inner workings of TFA, the challenges that urban schools face and the barriers to change.

Four years later, Hamalian now leads Valor Academy, a charter middle school he founded in the San Fernando Valley to prepare low-income students for college, with the ultimate goal of creating a successful model for other public middle schools. The school opened in 2009 with 120 fifth graders, adding a grade each year. See a video about Valor Academy and find out more about their program.

Locke High School has also experienced a lot of change, with the Los Angeles Unified School District voting to turn the school over to charter operator Green Dot Public Schools in 2007. Read the LA Times editorial on the school's transformation.

Hamalian recently sat down with CCSA to reflect on the state of public education in Los Angeles, Teach for America, education reform and the charter movement.

How did you decide to work in education?
My parents had a pretty typical immigrant perspective of pushing my sister and me onto a path for success - focusing on fields like medicine, law and business. At the same time, there were a number of educators in our family and my parents had a great degree of respect for education and especially public education. My parents put us in public schools, which played out well for me in our part of New Jersey, where there were good schools. I worked at summer camps, taught at the Bronx Zoo for a summer in high school and I tutored low-income kids when I was in college. In some way or another, I'd always had one foot in education and a passion for it, thought I didn't necessarily realize it.

A lot of jobs, when you're right out of college, are really low level that you step into and then you work your way up to a more interesting position. Teaching isn't like that, and it always seemed really exciting to me. TFA seemed like a good avenue because it was focused on the demographic I wanted to work with - low-income students - and it was also a career path because they gave you additional opportunities - a certain level of support and development and you could complete your master's degree while teaching. When I first started, I was still thinking about medical or business school, but once I started teaching and working with the kids in the community, it was pretty clear cut for me that I wanted to stay with it.

At the time you were there, Locke High School was considered one of the lowest performing public schools in all of California, with a drop-out rate as high as 40-50%. What was it like as a first-year teacher?
It was challenging. It was such a shock seeing the disparity between public schools. I was akin to the kids in that I had been an immigrant and an English-learner, but the public school system I was in was completely different in the way the students were taught and the way the school was organized and the supports I had. That was a real shock. It was a very difficult two years.

What I gained coming out of that was that the education system surrounding the kids has everything to do with their success, not the student. Based on the success I had in my classroom, it became clear that if the right system is put in place, the bounds of success for the students are endless.

Some people look at the situation at Locke and come out with a different conclusion - that students have so many challenges outside of school that the school can only do so much.
Many teachers who go into an environment like that become disillusioned with the organization, but never with the kids. Based on the people I worked with, both the individuals that were at Locke for 20 years and those who hadn't been there as long, people just wanted to see change and to be able to create a system in which kids could be successful. Different people did it in different ways. Today, Locke is a very different place than when I was there. Some people have stepped into roles where they can make more changes. Locke was a laboratory for seeing what wasn't being done and what needed to be done.

I think it is possible to make change within the district. As a charter school leader, I consider myself part of the district. Our entire intention behind this school is not just to make a small impact for a small community, but to create a model for what could be done at other district schools. There are many opportunities to transform schools from within and also to create new schools and learn from them. We want to improve the district as a whole - that's the focus over the long-term. We all have to bind together to work for the success of everybody. That's where the greatest struggle is for the charter/district movement - I want to bridge that gap a bit better.

How did you decide that you wanted to start a charter school?
What made me feel that A) I could do this and B) I could be successful was the success we had in creating a small school at Locke which was one of several within the high school. I got so much satisfaction with what we could do with the students and their families. The program's success was really grounded in the ownership the families and students felt. We had a cluster of 300 students and were able to put our own procedures and systems in place, had our own dean to handle discipline and our own field trips. It was powerful to see what the students could achieve.

With Valor, I wanted to start kids on the path to college earlier. We have a college-going culture, preparing students with the skills and character to achieve a college education. We have an extended school day, two hours of math and two hours of literacy every day, as well as all the other subjects and after-school classes.

We make the college experience very tangible. Our students are all placed in homerooms named after local colleges. We have partnerships with Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine, University of Southern California and UCLA. When the students come in, they are Valor students, but they're also assigned to one of these universities. Students from the different colleges tutor here, the students tour the real college campuses, all with the goal that students will really know what it takes to go there.

How did you decide where to open a school?
I originally planned to open a middle school in Watts, but the area is saturated with schools and it's politically tough. I looked for an area with the least good educational options and the most community openness to a school. This school really grew organically out of the community. For a year before we opened, I went to meetings, events, met with community partners - by the time we were opening, it wasn't the school staff promoting the school, it was something the community brought forward. Of everything about our school, I'm most proud of the level of involvement from the community.

You were part of two education reform organizations that work to attract capable people to education and develop them to make a difference - Teach for America and Building Excellent Schools. What impact are programs like these having?
Both organizations are making a real difference. These two programs are slightly different in focus. Teach for America is focused on attracting high-functioning individuals into education to fulfill its mission of having high-quality teachers in low-performing schools, and also embedding in those individuals a desire to contribute to improving public education now and in the future. Building Excellent Schools is focused on helping entrepreneurial individuals create small successful schools.

Education is in the limelight - people have a sense of urgency around public education and see it tied to the success of the nation. There is a lot of innovation with people trying different things. There is no one correct answer. Different communities need different things.

We need to make sure everyone knows that public education is the most important issue of our times. People need to keep coming up with new approaches and we need to attract high-functioning people to education. Most importantly, we need to collaborate.

What advice would you have for someone who is thinking about starting a charter school?
People ask me all the time, "How do I start a school?" and I tell them, "You just do it." What distinguishes an entrepreneur from your average business person? You have to have a no-excuses approach to launching something and you have that passion. It all rests on having the attitude that "I'm going to do this no matter what."

It's not an easy field - it has more land mines and hurdles and booby traps that any field I can think of. For me, it takes getting up every morning and returning to the mission of our school; I truly believe that every child deserves a great public education. I want Valor Academy to be the best middle school in Los Angeles. I think we're having an impact and I hope that impact will spread to create a level of reform that will impact the whole district.

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