Los Altan of the Year: Kathryn Hanson – ALearn founder leads less-fortunate students to better future

1.2.2015 LAOTY KathrynHanson-5413Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier

Kathryn Hanson launched a nonprofit from her Los Altos home that has grown to serve thousands. The Town Crier has named Hanson its 2014 Los Altan of the Year.

Several years back, Kathryn Hanson reviewed local high school statistics and noticed very few low-income students enrolling in Advanced Placement classes and a wide achievement gap versus the rest of the student body.

“This is unacceptable,” Kathryn told educators. “What are we doing about this?”

The answer was a collective shrug of the shoulders.

So Kathryn decided to do something about it. The result is ALearn, a successful nonprofit organization that has helped more than 6,500 students advance from struggling to college-ready. Last year alone, ALearn served 1,500 students across 11 school districts in the Bay Area.

Drawing on 30 years of experience in education and high-tech marketing, Kathryn developed ALearn out of her Los Altos home into an organization with a $1.2 million budget, 500 donors and a distinguished board of directors. In many ways, ALearn’s operations reflect Kathryn herself – laser-focused, organized, ambitious, forward thinking, persistent and always positive.

For her dedication to serving the underserved, the Town Crier has named Kathryn its 2014 Los Altan of the Year. The honor goes to those whose efforts have impact beyond the community and reflect well on the city.

COVER Images1Middle school and math

Kathryn’s research revealed the specific causes of the achievement gap. She found that students from low-income families, mostly Latino, began falling behind during middle school.

“Middle school age is critical,” Kathryn said. “It’s an opportunity to switch a kid’s motivation, drive and success.”

She focused primarily on one subject – math – as the most vital to getting the students on a college track. The time to work with such students, she concluded, was over the summer – a time when memories of lessons otherwise quickly fade.

In 2007, Kathryn poured herself full time into building ALearn. She credits Los Altos resident Julie Cates, a co-founder, with being “very instrumental in designing the programs.” ALearn received its first grant – for $30,000 – from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

Like Kathryn, Cates also left the tech industry “looking for ways to improve public education.” A mutual friend introduced the two – they immediately found common ground and went to work.

“Kathryn took on the CEO and chief fundraising role,” Cates said. “I took on the program design and implementation. I worked on the first set of bylaws, the first financial accounting, program materials.”

They also sought – and received – pro bono help from professionals in the areas of accounting, marketing materials and event planning.

In 2008, they launched a middle-school summer math program for 80 students on the Foothill College campus.

“In addition, through private donations, we were able to hold a summer program for first-generation incoming Mountain View Los Altos high school students,” Cates said.

ALearn tackles the achievement-gap problem through three essential programs. Middle-school students are guided through intensive pre-algebra study in ALearn’s Math Acceleration Program. The Catalyst to High School program prepares students for high school math and college prep classes. ALearn launched Zoomz in 2009, a social network for students who are the first in their families to attend college.

Analysis backs the fact that ALearn is working.

“We have done a longitudinal analysis of students who participate in the summer ALearn experience and then matriculate to MVLA schools,” said Barry Groves, superintendent of the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District. “Students perform at a much higher rate, especially in mathematics, than students who don’t have this summer boot-camp experience.”

Beyond math

ALearn’s goals go beyond just getting students caught up in math. Along the way, students develop an enthusiasm for learning and a desire to pursue higher education. ALearn counselors provide the guidance, along with important information, such as how to secure t

he scholarships and grants needed to achieve their college dreams.

“Our target market is getting the first family member to go to college,” Kathryn said. “It’s really about getting them on a college track. … Math is the key gatekeeper in qualifying for college.”

Groves said Kathryn is “excellent” at motivating staff and designing the most research-effective programs for students.

“She is all about metrics and results,” he added.

Success stories are plentiful. ALearn alum and Los Altos High School graduate Glenda Vargas now attends Chapman University and returned to ALearn as a summer teaching assistant.

Vargas said she went from “hating” English to “writing competitively.” And comments like this one from student Esmeralda Galindo are typical: “Catalyst helped me move on from being a C and D student to become an A and B student.”

Kathryn sees the need for more Latino teachers, given that more than 50 percent of the current student population in the state is Hispanic. She cited the statistic that only 18 percent of state teachers are Hispanic. Latino teachers could inspire more of these students to succeed.

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Early lessons

The importance of a college education and helping others was never lost on Kathryn. Growing up as a member of the Schefter family in agricultural Yakima, Wash., she benefited from a mother, Dorothy, who had put herself through college and was determined that all six of her children would go on to higher education. Kathryn was the fourth oldest of the six.

“I was the one in the family who was the organizer,” she said.

Her father, Robert, a doctor who treated migrant farm workers in exchange for compensation other than money, also inspired her. Kathryn remembers seeing carts of fruit at the backdoor as payment.

“There was a level of dignity in being able to give back what you can,” she said.

With her love of learning, Kathryn thrived in an educational setting. She graduated from Stanford University with a bachelor’s degree in English, from the University of Chicago with a master’s degree and doctorate in English and from Harvard Business School with an MBA.

It was at Stanford in 1969 that Kathryn met her husband, Kirk. She was a freshman, he was a senior and editor of the Stanford Daily newspaper.

“I came to her dorm to speak and try to recruit freshmen to join the Stanford Daily,” he said. “I felt an immediate attraction to her. A few months later she signed up for a weekend Catholic retreat I was coordinating, and I manipulated the carpools so that she would be in my car going to the retreat.”

It wasn’t until months later that things got serious. They met again in the late registration line for Stanford’s spring quarter.

“We talked for an hour in line, went out to dinner together that night and the next night and the next ... and three weeks later we were engaged.”

They married at Stanford in 1970.

“I was drawn to Kathryn for her values, her confidence, her comfort talking about so many subjects and her enthusiasm for so many things in life,” Kirk said. “And of course, by her beauty.”

Business and education

The Hansons’ education and business paths took them to Chicago for four years, then Boston for another four, where Kirk got an offer he couldn’t refuse: an opportunity to teach at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford. The fourth-generation Californian jumped at the chance to return home.

The Hansons moved to Los Altos in 1979. Kirk taught at Stanford 23 years before moving in 2001 to executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

Prior to founding ALearn, Kathryn was president of the Hanson Group, a strategy and marketing consulting firm for high-tech and Internet companies. She also founded eMentoring, an eLearning company, and co-founded Satmetrix Systems Inc., a customer satisfaction Internet software company.

After graduating from Harvard, she worked for a Boston Consulting Group before blossoming into a marketing guru. She joined Hewlett-Packard Co. in 1981, followed by Convergent Technologies Inc. (now Synopsis). In 1988 and 1990, she taught at Stanford Business School.

“My first love has always been education,” Kathryn said.

She volunteered for a host of education-oriented organizations, such as Head Start, and served on several boards, including the Resource Area for Teaching (RAFT). RAFT serves more than 7,500 teachers across the Bay Area.

Grit and introspection

While volunteering, “I saw that not everyone has the same opportunities. … You’ve been given gifts, and part of life is giving those gifts back,” Kathryn said.

Her three grown children, Kelsey, Chris and Kolby, attended public schools in Los Altos.

Kelsey, a Stanford grad with a master’s degree in divinity, lives in Scottsdale, Ariz. Chris, the oldest, enrolled in the U.S. Army and served in Afghanistan. He is currently enrolled in an MBA program at Santa Clara University. Kolby, the youngest, is a doctoral student in political science and international relations at Columbia University in New York City.

“My mom is about the hardest worker I’ve ever met,” Kolby said. “She has an amazing ability to organize and work through challenges. … She is also remarkably thoughtful about people and the world – I think we tend to think about grit and introspection as being mutually exclusive, but she manages to be both in the extreme.”

Kirk noted that as a breast cancer survivor, Kathryn is “more focused on what has lasting value and is less tolerant of petty attitudes and behavior.” Her bout with the disease also helped her make the decision to change careers and start ALearn, Kirk added.

High energy and persistence

Friends, family and peers describe Kathryn as a tireless, dynamic woman who gets things done and motivates others with her inspiration and encouragement. Her greatest quality, however, may be persistence.

“She just doesn’t give up,” said John Porter, superintendent of the Franklin-McKinley School District in San Jose and a member of the ALearn board.

Porter’s 10,000-student district, comprising mostly low-income students, has benefited greatly from ALearn’s programs.

“I was inspired by her taking one subject, like math, and changing their lives,” he said. “It’s much more than teaching math – it’s changing expectations.”

“She’s just amazing,” added Laura Casas, longtime Foothill-De Anza Community College District board member and former ALearn board member. “She would just blow everyone away with her enthusiasm and energy – she doesn’t take no for an answer.”

Fellow ALearn board member – and next-door neighbor – Nan Geschke concurs.

Geschke described Hanson as a “very warm, fun, delightful person who was able to attract a wide swath of people to her board almost single-handedly.”

“Kathryn is the classic ‘do-it-now’ person,” Kirk said. “She decides what needs to be done, makes a list and starts working immediately on the list. Sometimes she exhausts me.”

Her high energy fuels that persistence. Kathryn is athletic – she was a competitive skier in her youth and as a young adult ran in three Boston Marathons.

She exercises regularly and is currently a member of two book clubs and two hiking groups.

“My mom was most interested in (her) children getting a good education and staying physically fit,” said daughter Kelsey Woodruff.

Kelsey also learned from her mom the importance of valuing relationships.

“She has several groups of close friends, many of whom she has known for decades,” Kelsey said. “Her closest friends, though, are her three sisters, two of whom were public school teachers.”

COVER QuoteHeart and soul

Kathryn’s persistence is also part of the ALearn experience.

“We are not only improving the math competency for the students in our programs, but just as importantly we are impacting their mindset – they leave the program believing they can tackle the tough problems and solve them,” said Diane Frankle, ALearn board chairwoman.

Frankle said most ALearn students did not even consider attending college before entering the program.

“They meet college students (teaching assistants) they can relate to, visit a college campus and learn about financial aid,” she said. “The students belong to a cohort of like-minded kids who all help and watch out for each other.”

Among her conversations, Kathryn heard plenty of talk about the achievement gap but few, if any, solutions. Through preparation, hard work and sheer willpower, she’s created arguably the first and only nonprofit organization that directly addresses the problem.

As Casas put it, “She went for the jugular.”

“She has the ALearn mission in her bones, and she lives and breathes ALearn every day,” Frankle said. “It is a real testament to Kathryn’s vision that ALearn has become a positive force for so many students.”

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