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Aurora Institute

Getting to Know Aurora’s New CEO, Virgel Hammonds

Education Domain Blog

Aurora's CEO Virgel Hammonds sits on stage moderating a panel of student presenters. He sits in a chair across from four students, each seated in their own chair.

Author(s): Chiara Wegener

Aurora’s Communications Director Chiara Wegener sat down with the organization’s new CEO, Virgel Hammonds, to hear about his past work experiences, where he sees challenges and opportunities in the education innovation space right now, and where he sees the organization headed in its next stage of work.

CW: It’s great sitting down with you today Virgel! You joined Aurora at the end of January, but can you tell us a little bit about your professional experience before joining the organization as CEO?

VH: In my heart, I’m an educator. I’ve held nearly every role in K-12 systems, from serving as a tutor, to a paraprofessional, to working in migrant departments serving families who are new to the country. I’ve worked as a teacher in middle and high school settings in a variety of subjects, and I’ve served as a principal and superintendent. In each of these roles, my focus has always been around how to best serve learners and educators. As a principal and superintendent, I had the opportunity to work with families and communities in redesigning infrastructure, resources, and processes in the education system to put learners and community aspirations at the center. Our communities had tremendous success in collaborating around building new types of systems that put learners at the center. We pushed the envelope in terms of what policies and practices were needed to make our co-designed structures more systemic, in order to make these visionary systems possible for our learning communities and others. This led me to KnowledgeWorks, where my work focused on how policy and practice could work in concert to support more families, educators, and communities in thinking differently about how to put learners in the center of the system and instructional process.

CW: What in particular drew you to Aurora? You were on the Board before joining as CEO, but what has drawn you to lead the organization at this point in time?

VH: I first got to know Aurora as iNACOL, when I was a superintendent in Maine. I was thrilled that, through Aurora, I was able to be connected to other educators, policy makers, and organizations with the same mindset. I’ve always been drawn to the way the organization has set a vision of doing more and better by learners, through thinking radically differently about teaching and learning. Additionally, the notion that Aurora brings to all of its work of thinking globally and acting locally is truly inspiring. Aurora has always been a coalition builder. In partnership with others, Aurora has been a beacon for equity-centered transformations in education.

CW: Aurora has a deep legacy in the education innovation space – first as NACOL, then iNACOL, and now Aurora. What hopes do you have for the next stage of Aurora’s work?

VH: I see a real opportunity to blend Aurora’s past, present, and future. iNACOL was founded around advancing blended learning – at the time it was a very bold and ambitious goal – providing learning experiences to learners across geographies. It wasn’t until a global pandemic that more people realized how much work we have to do in creating technology bridges. Now, as a society, we’re wrestling more publicly with these paradigms. Aurora is pushing a message around being human-centered – including the aspirations of entire communities and young people in the design of education systems. Now, how might we leverage new technology and community partnerships to create a multiplier effect? We already know that our young people and educators are willing to roll up their sleeves and dive into these possibilities in partnerships with organizations like Aurora.

CW: From your perspective, what are some of the trends or places you see attention being put on education innovation right now that you think Aurora has the potential to engage or lead on?

VH: Policy and practice enablers and multipliers – where learners are able to apply learning in and out of the classroom. In what ways can we make learning relevant and applicable in a variety of environments, in partnership with community? What do competencies look like when deployed in a variety of professional and untraditional environments? How might we validate, assess, and credential learning, and what does that look like when done by educators in partnership with community members, in service of enriching learning opportunities and inspiring connections for young people? New technology through AI is driving new possibilities – opening up the world in new and unique ways. Where might we pursue exciting and empowering opportunities for learners that we hadn’t even considered before?

We’ve come a long way in regards to policies that provide flexibility for school systems to be much more personalized and connected to young people and families. Today, every state has policies in place to do this, but we’re still working within assessment and accountability structures tied to traditional norms. There is real appetite from state and federal legislators to think differently about these structures, and wrestle with how we ensure all learners have the opportunity to dive deeply into work that is structured around commonly identified competencies, and flexibility in how we validate, assess, and credential learning. I also see reciprocal accountability structures – where there is mutual responsibility within a system – as a place that Aurora can continue to offer leadership around – where accountability structures are designed in partnership with local, state, and federal partners.

CW: What would you like partners in the education innovation space to know about Aurora at this moment in time?

VH: Aurora has always been a trusted partner in the education innovation space; we’ve helped the field better understand what’s possible in terms of redesigning education through transformative research, practice, and policy recommendations. I think there’s a real appetite for Aurora to continue to be a go-to organization for education transformation, but also serve as the convener and connector of like minded organizations that want to think boldly about what’s possible for public education in service of young people. I feel an urgency in thinking through and strengthening partnerships and processes with and for young people and communities, in collaboration with them.

CW: When you’re not working, how can we find you spending your free time?

VH: A common mantra you’ll hear from me is family first. When I’m not working I’m being present with my family – whether that’s through school-based activities, family dinners, sports, game and movie nights, or just being present in their world. For the last 13 years, Maine has been my home, so I appreciate being immersed in all of the beauty that the state has to offer. As a father, educator, and leader, I feel that the work of education transformation is, at its core, about providing and supporting the needs of young people, and the families and communities who love them. So this notion of family first is very important to me in all aspects of my life.

CW: As we move into Aurora’s future, how might we partner, coalesce, and collaborate to advance a new dawn for every learner?

VH: Because of Aurora’s strong history of collaboration and coalition building, I’d love to continue to create opportunities for our friends to help identify new calls to action in service of equity focused opportunities in teaching, learning, and assessment. What are the new innovations, the new processes, the new structures, that you believe other learning communities, educators, communities and families should be considering, in service of others? What are those challenges we should be tackling head on? How can Aurora help make that vision a reality?