Five Questions with Francisco Ayala
An interview with our new Head of School
The Willow School is excited to welcome Francisco Ayala as the new Head of School! Francisco and the rest of the Willow staff are looking forward to starting the school year with all of our Willow families soon! Want to get to know Francisco before your family returns to Willow in September? Read on for five questions with our new Head of School!
In your life as an educator, can you share a few of your most formative experiences?
One of my first and most impactful experiences in education was being in the classroom with my mom. She spent most of her career as a bilingual special ed teacher, and I spent much of my childhood in her classroom, watching her teach. When I had a sick day as a kid, I wasn’t really at home; I was in the corner of her classroom. That was where I really started to develop my love of working with kids and teaching, and also where I discovered my passion for reading and teaching children to read. Reading really opens the door for everything else. It’s so essential to all aspects of learning.
Another really important experience for me was being a student teacher in a rural part of Vermont. There, I taught with a phenomenal master teacher who became an important mentor to me, while simultaneously taking courses with and being mentored by the director of the elementary certification program at Dartmouth. Those two teachers helped forge my beliefs about education and how to teach children. They both applied an inquiry-based approach to education and focused on how to get kids excited about learning by creating a joyous, loving, and engaging classroom space. They emphasized being very intentional about meeting the individual needs of students and differentiating how you teach based on the different learning styles, needs, and interests of each student.
Conversely, a challenging experience that really shaped my perspective on education was working as a public school teacher in New Haven, Connecticut. There I was not given discretion to teach in the way that that I knew was going to be the most beneficial to my students. I was not able to implement the innovative strategies that I’d learned. In that school environment, all of my lessons were so prescriptive that they were literally scripted. I wasn’t even allowed to work one-on-one with students after school, and much of what I was asked to teach in the classroom was focused on test prep versus really engaging with the material. I learned very quickly that the traditional public school setting was not benefiting the students I was working with, and I was not going to be given the opportunity to teach the way that I knew would be most impactful.
Since then, I’ve spent my career finding really powerful, engaging environments where kids really learn to love learning. I want to work in a school where, of course, teaching content is really important, but where focusing on the whole child is equally important; a place where children can develop confidence and learn who they are and how they can make a positive impact on their local and global communities. I think Willow does exactly that.
Why did you want to make the leap from the classroom to school administration?
I think you’ll often hear from school leaders that it was a reluctant move from the classroom to administration. I loved teaching, but there was a need for someone to step into that role when I was at the NEW Academy in California. I saw it as an opportunity to not just impact the kids in my classroom, but to impact every child in the school.
My first year as an administrator was a magical one. I loved being able to work with the teachers to help them connect with students and create a classroom setting that eliminates distractions and allows deep, impactful learning to happen. I really embraced the opportunity to help build and maintain a larger school culture where teachers, students, and families felt truly connected to one another, like we are all part of a family.
How did you discover The Willow School? What first attracted you to the school?
I first found out about Willow through a colleague of mine. She had two kids enrolled at Willow at the time. Her daughter had a very unique journey and was going through a lot emotionally and was not feeling supported at her previous school. Their family was looking for a safe, nurturing environment and found that at Willow. My colleague’s daughter was totally transformed by being a student here in such positive ways, so much so that my friend placed her younger brother here as well. Both of her kids had such phenomenal experiences, both because they were a part of a loving community and because of the deep, engaging education they were experiencing in the classroom.
Hearing about her family’s experience inspired me to want to be a part of a school that was impacting kids in such a deeply powerful way.
What about Willow’s mission is most appealing to you?
One of the aspects of Willow’s mission that is most important to me is the desire to create a really exceptional learning experience and prepare students for success in high school and beyond in ways that are reflective of different learning styles. Willow is a great example of how we should be teaching students to ensure that they’re deeply engaging with content as they learn it in the classroom. Willow creates a phenomenal academic experience through an experiential, inquiry-based approach to learning, while also fostering a safe, welcoming community.
I love that Willow focuses on the whole child with its virtues program, encouraging students to really think about who they are and how they can have a positive impact on their community and globally. We often forget that’s why we started schools to begin with: to help children grow into educated, engaged citizens who want to make a positive impact on our world. Willow continues to have that as a focus, even though it’s fallen by the wayside at other schools.
I also love that Willow keeps play as an important part of learning for its students. Research shows that play is critical to kids’ development academically and socially.
What are your goals for the school?
My first goal is to build collaboration between all of the school’s key stakeholders, the board, parents, students, faculty to foster collective engagement and consensus. I want to work with the teachers to clearly articulate and define our mission to ensure we’re delivering a really special academic experience for each student. I want to really establish Willow as a well-known, innovative, academically rigorous yet nurturing environment. I want us to be known as a school that strikes that important balance between a strong academic program and ensuring that kids are happy, safe, and content.
Before joining Willow, Francisco held leadership positions at Fusion Academy for eight years, most recently as Vice President of the East Coast, and prior to that, Head of School of three Fusion schools. He was Regional Supervisor at Options For Youth, Inc. and Assistant Principal/Coordinator at NEW Academy in Canoga Park, CA. Ayala taught in a preschool/kindergarten Spanish Immersion classroom in Vermont, became a first grade reading teacher and then third grade classroom teacher in New Haven, CT, and also spent time in NEW Academy in Canoga Park, CA, as a second grade teacher.
Francisco holds a bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College, a Master of Arts in Teaching from Bennington College, and a Master of Science in Administration from Pepperdine University. He is currently pursuing his Doctorate in Education at the Northeastern University College of Professional Studies.