Thomas Bean finds his spark

By Jordan Poll
U-M Law

It was day one for Thomas Bean and his newest advisee-a seventh grader with dreams of attending a boarding school.

"It will start me on the road to success," she explained when he inquired after her long-term term goal. Her mother, who became pregnant at 15, begged her daughter not to follow her example. Bean's young student listened. With his help, they began researching scholarships to boarding schools. Nineteen months later, he received the 6 a.m. email he had been waiting for.

"Mr. Bean, you are talking to a soon-to-be student at the Hawthorne School. You said you would jump up and down if one of us got in. Now, I want to see that!"

It marked one more in a long line of graduations Bean looked forward to attending.

Despite practicing law full-time as partner of the Boston office of Verrill Dana LLP, Bean dedicates at least one day a week to his work at Spark Academy, a public middle school in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where he is the self-proclaimed "head cheerleader"-a title that encapsulates his role as co-founder, academic adviser, and high school counselor.

"The satisfaction that I receive from my legal practice, serving clients and addressing sophisticated legal issues, is different from the satisfaction I receive working with students at Spark. Both provide me with gratification, but at Spark I am making a difference in the lives of young people," he said. "I would love for there to be other Spark Academies around the country."

Bean spent his twenties exploring his interests in education and law. He earned his teaching certificate at Washington University in St. Louis, began teaching full-time, and-a few years later-earned a master's degree in education from Harvard University. After stumbling upon and ultimately leading the Cambridge District Court small claims mediation program, Bean applied to law school and was admitted to Michigan Law as a summer starter. He graduated at the age of 30, and began working for what became an international law firm. It was there that he decided not to limit his focus to only one of his interests.

"I was bored with my one-dimensional life as a third-year associate. I wanted to do more than just practice law," said Bean. "I wanted to get back to the classroom." He has since taught at a local college, business school, and law school while continuing his legal practice.

In light of research he read in 2010 demonstrating that children who are physically fit and active perform better in the classroom, Bean developed a concept for a school that would intertwine rigorous academic classes with invigorating athletics.

"It was a different kind of middle school," said Bean, who brought the idea to the director of education policy at a colleague's nonprofit foundation. "She told me that there were two other people, both local educators, running around town trying to start the same school. We were introduced soon after and became partners." After two years, and in spite of a polite "no thank you" from the City of Boston, the trio finally received the opportunity for which they had been hoping.

The Lawrence Public School system had been failing for many years when the state took it over in 2012. The receiver invited Bean and his colleagues to use one of the middle school buildings to make their idea a reality.

"It was the best thing that ever happened to us," said Bean. "The building we received is right next to the high school athletic fields."

Founded in 2012, Spark Academy is dedicated to closing the achievement gap by supporting students' academic growth, health, and wellness.

"Students are happier here because of the combination of physical activity, positive community, and strong support system," said Bean. "We are working hard to close the achievement gap-to help our students do just as well as students attending wealthy suburban schools. We aren't there yet, but we are making progress we are proud of."

In 2016, Spark was the only public school in Massachusetts to be promoted by the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education from Level 4 (the lowest level) to Level 1 (the highest level).

Spark Academy serves nearly 475 students in grades 6 through 8. It is 92 percent Hispanic, mostly all first-generation students.

"Every day I go to school is an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of one or more of my students," said Bean. "It is my job to show students where the door to opportunity is, it is our job to open it, and it is their job to walk through it."

Last year, Bean helped 17 students gain admission to the exam high school in Lawrence, and three students to prep schools on full scholarships. He also has assisted more than a dozen students in gaining admission to free summer academic enrichment programs.

"I always tell my kids that there is only one thing that I want from them-an invitation to their high school graduations," said Bean. "They know I am there to support them even after they leave Spark Academy."

Published: Mon, Nov 27, 2017