Cool Schools: Indianapolis School Combines Personalized Academic Plans with Cultural Immersion
The executive director of Thrival Academy chats with Mike McShane in the latest Cool Schools podcast
In this episode, India Hui discusses taking students to Thailand for three months, engaging in mindfulness training, visiting an elephant sanctuary, and more. Thrival Academy is a one-year high school for 11th grade students. The school is considered a an innovation network institution part of Indianapolis Public Schools.
Click to listen, or read the full transcript below.
Our Podcast Transcribed
Mike McShane: Hello, everybody. This is Mike McShane, director of national research here at EdChoice coming to you from the EdChoice mothership in beautiful Indianapolis, Indiana. Today on the Cool Schools podcast we have India Hui of Indianapolis’ Thrival Academy. Now, Thrival Academy is an innovation network school in the Indianapolis Public Schools that is a study abroad one-year public high school. It is a super interesting school model. They kind of combine this personalized learning with cultural immersion. Their stated goal is to incubate young, globally-minded community leaders. It’s a really, really interesting conversation that we have with India because I don’t know many places that are trying to do what she is doing.
A little bit of background on her. It’s probably not surprising her interest in global issues. She grew up in an army family and lived all over the world. She got her bachelor’s in science and education from Indiana University. She joined IUPUI’s Urban Principalship Program and also earned a Master’s of Science in educational leadership. She then attended Harvard School Turnaround Leaders Institute. She is the founding school leader of Thrival. And I think we had a really, really interesting conversation about trying to do something really different and the challenges that it presents, but also the opportunities. So without further ado, here’s my conversation with India Hui of Indianapolis is Thrival Academy. India Hui, welcome to the Cool Schools podcast.
India Hui: Thank you for having me.
Mike McShane: Great. So, Thrival Academy.
India Hui: Yes.
Mike McShane: I would like to start with perhaps an easy question or maybe it’s a hard question. What is Thrival Academy?
India Hui: I’ve been asked that so many times and you would think it gets easier, but it is a hard question.
Mike McShane: I know I’ve been on your website. It’s a hard question.
India Hui: It is. So, it just depends on what angle I take it from and how I answer it is how I’m feeling that day.
So, we are a one-year study-abroad high school in Indianapolis. So, we are a public high school. That means that our students don’t have to pay a dime to attend or participate. And our mission is really twofold. So, the idea is not one… People think it’s my brain baby, it’s not. The founders are out of Oakland and I want to say Boston. And they’re the founders of Thrival World Academies, I should say. And their mission is really about making study abroad opportunities and global learning opportunities available to all students no matter their background, no matter their socioeconomic status, no matter their race. And so that’s where it started. And then I had the opportunity to take this program and turn it into a school here, and although I’ve lived abroad, because I’m an army kid and I love to travel, my mission was not so much around global education and study abroad as much as it is around closing opportunity gaps.
And study abroad is a gap in opportunity, and access to our country and world is a gap for our students, especially in Indianapolis. And I’m an Indianapolis kid. So, the Thrival became, for me, it became just a tool to begin to close those opportunity gaps. So, we serve 11th grade students currently, and we spend a third of our year abroad. That’s what people really like to know about. We spend that three months abroad. So, we got back from Thailand actually at the beginning of last month and we do a lot of cool stuff in Thailand. We also do a lot of cool stuff here in Indianapolis. So, that’s Thrival.
Mike McShane: So, there are so many questions that I have for you there. So, talk to me about how many students you serve.
India Hui: So, we are a small school. Right now we have 30 students, and I say right now because one of my missions to change or fix Thrival is that we serve… We’re a linear school, which means that the entire school goes abroad when we do, but not all of our students can do that. So, we started with 52 students, and for various reasons not all of our students were able to leave the country with us. So, then we were down to 39.
Mike McShane: So, now where do your students attend school for ninth and 10th grade? And then where do they attend school in 12th grade?
India Hui: So, most of our students actually came from Arsenal Tech. We are located on Arsenal Tech’s campus. So, the majority of our students came from Arsenal Tech and will go back to Arsenal Tech. We have students who came from Shortridge and go back there and the same for other high schools in the district. And we had a couple students come from other high schools in the city because we are just a public school, so it’s open enrollment and we’re getting ready to send them back. Unfortunately, I just did a survey and not one of our students wants to leave.
Mike McShane: Sure.
India Hui: But right now we are an 11th grade school, so they’ll be going back there, whatever their respective high school is.
Mike McShane: So, now on your website it talks about how Thrival combines personalized learning with cultural immersion. So, how do y’all do that?
India Hui: Now honestly, the personalized learning that was more of a Thrival World Academy, what they did with their program there and I think that had a lot to do with the fact that they had two teachers covering a wide range of courses for juniors and sophomores, because in the Oakland program, they have sophomores and juniors. So, they used Summit Learning other online tools to be able to reach all of their students’ needs.
We also use Summit Learning, so a lot of the personalized learning comes from that Summit Learning platform where the students have their focus areas and they have their content assessments and they are able to work at their own pace. Summit Learning is a small part of our curriculum, but also our students are able to, if they need to or if they want to, get caught back up. We have students who come in credit deficiency or credit deficient I should say. So, those students can take online classes through PLATO, which is the district’s online learning platform. So, while they’re doing their coursework here, they also can be doing that credit recovery to get caught up, which is great.
So, I had a student come in last year who was technically a sophomore based on her credit, but because she was able to use Plato during the school year last year and over the summer, she’s graduating this year with her original graduating class. So, I liked that… It’s not even personalized learning for me, it’s like a personalized academic plan is the way that I like to use it. Sometimes personalized learning is abused, in my experience. And I’ve taught in a lot of schools where we call it personalized learning and it was really just the computer babysitting our students and that’s not what we do here.
And I do believe that teachers have a very powerful and useful position in the classroom and I don’t think that any computer could replace that, any software could replace that. So it is a blend of using the software to catch our students up or using a software to reach our students in a different way. But that’s the personalized learning piece.
And then we have the cultural immersion, it’s really cool. Our teachers actually met with the Thailand program coordinator at the very beginning of the year. She’s originally from Kentucky. She’s lived in Thailand for quite some time, but she was visiting home so she came to one of our PD days and we outlined what the curriculum would be for each of our classes. OK, what are we going to be, what do you think you’ll be teaching in January in environmental science in U.S. history and all of these courses?
And then kind of made buckets and I’m looking at it right now. The post it is still up, the big post it and they had architecture of temples for geometry and then pollution. There was some pre-calculus and environmental science and geography, history of the world and U.S. history because that could be involved in the pollution unit. And for globalization, talked about how environmental science and geography, and history of the world, and U.S. history could work for that unit. And we came up with five different buckets and the teachers had their academic standards and content that they’re teaching and the program leaders in Thailand had experiences that align with those academic standards.
So, I don’t know if you were able to see the newsletters on the website, but it would look like, “Oh, during our urbanization unit, our students are staying in this urban living situation with families and then they’re meeting with different GMOs or at school they’re learning about what is the impact of the train that’s being brought into the city? Or what is the impact of people moving in?” Kind of like gentrification actually.
So, we had a few of those units. Another one would be their mining and development unit where the students lived in Na Nong Bong village in Thailand. And this is the ability to, has been heavily impacted by gold mining. And the students lived in homes with grandmas whose blood has been poisoned by the mining. And they interview them and they created these documentaries and it was a merge of their argumentation class and their advanced composition, environmental science, geography, history of the world. All of these things came together. And the result was these amazing documentaries about what’s happening in that village. So, I wouldn’t say it’s not really… That wouldn’t be a merge of personalized learning in the sense that we know personalized learning, but it’s 100 percent experiential learning and it is personalized to ours so that we figure out what is it that you care about? What is the type of final product that you want to create? What are you interested in? And we moved forward in that direction.
Mike McShane: So, how did y’all choose Thailand?
India Hui: So, Thailand, we partner with a student travel organization and coming into this partnership, I believe that Thailand was just the perfect place to begin. So, they have a staff there. Like I said, their program coordinator is just amazing. And she had great relationships with communities in Thailand and she understood the different issues that were going on in Thailand and how to tie those into the academic curriculum. And it is very cost effective and it is extremely safe. We’re not committed to Thailand and always will be, we’re not the Thailand school. It won’t always be Thailand, but it definitely has worked in our favor for the past few years.
Mike McShane: Well, I was going to ask you about the cost. So, how do you all make the cost work of sending kids to Thailand for three months?
India Hui: Oh yeah, that’s a great question and it’s a question that we have to revisit because it is extraordinarily expensive and I always tell my board, if it was easy then every school, literally every school, would do it. If this were not extremely difficult, why wouldn’t every school across the country and across the world do it? So, it takes a lot of philanthropy is what we depend on and I joke and say the novelty of it has worn off so people just aren’t throwing money at this idea anymore because we’re in our third year, which means that we have to revisit, what is our messaging? And revisit, where do we want this school to go? Because we’re covering passports. We’re covering visas, flights, and the living expenses throughout the time that we’re there, which the on-the-ground living expenses in Thailand are way less than they would be anywhere else, or most places I should say. But it is still expensive.
Mike McShane: So, now I’m thinking of from the student perspective, let’s say that I was a Thrival student, which I got to be honest, I’d kind of like to be. This sounds awesome. I think this would have been great as an 11th grader. So, talk to me about what the school year looks like. So, when are you doing what? And then maybe talk to me about going to Thailand. What are the things that I would do? You mentioned some staying with families and it sounds like you travel around to a couple of different places. So, just from the student perspective, what does that 11th grade year look like?
India Hui: OK, so the 11th grade year, they’re in a small school environment, which is shocking to a lot of them. They come from a huge high school, so some of the first things that we do, you’re going to have advisory every day. And we do a lot of identity work to begin with because most of our students are African-American and we have a large Latinx population too. Especially with our black students and they’re going through Asia. My first time visiting Asia it was different because a lot of the people are shocked by your presence and you have to be prepared for that. So, we have to do a lot of identity work with our students so that those prejudices or just really the shock factor of being black in Asia does not have a negative impact on them. So, that’s a huge part of their junior year is working through identity and social emotional learning.
I hate using these like catch phrases, but it really is about the growth. Your growth as a social human being, your growth as an emotional human being. They learn to work through trauma. So, during our first semester they do a lot of… I have a yoga studio owner come in and do mindfulness training with our students because a lot of them come in with a lot of trauma.
So, these are the things that we have to unpack during our first semester before we ever even consider going abroad. We have to work on a lot of study habits. Again, most of our juniors come in having not passed. ISTEP and you have to pass the math and the English. That is our state assessment, or was up until I get the next graduating class of 2022 I believe that you have to pass that to graduate. And like 3 percent of our students coming in having passed that their sophomore year.
So, before we think about getting on an airplane, we have to think teaching them how to be students and engage in their learning in a way where they’re not victims because there’s just a lot of baggage that comes in with them. But while we’re doing that, we also had to do the preparing for Thailand things like getting their packing lists together and applying for their passports, which means a lot of our students have to get official name changes and things like that to get their… There’s a lot that goes into the paperwork side to prepare them for Thailand.
So, in order to prepare for the abroad situation, we do an overnight. So, two nights at a camp here in Indiana as part of Indiana University called Bradford Woods where our students, that is their first time pushing boundaries and facing fears. They zip line, they climb the alpine tower. I mean, they just do all kinds of things that challenge them and we get to see a different side of them. And that’s earlier in the school year. So, it’s been a honeymoon phase until they’re put in uncomfortable situations when there’s mosquitoes around or they have to face some fear or they have to sleep in the same room for the first time. So, it is very powerful and it’s very emotional for our students. So that’s part of our first semester.
They have their classes as normal, they have their classes and we end the semester with their winter exhibitions where they dress up in their interview or Sunday best is what I call it. And they present these formal exhibitions and they each have an assigned time slot and we invite community members in. We have panelists and our students really just articulate what they’ve learned and how they’ve grown during that first semester.
Mike McShane: So, then you all head to Thailand. When does that happen and what happens there?
India Hui: So, when we go to Thailand, we… It’s been two different experiences based on the year. So, I’ll talk about this year. So, we arrive and it’s great because the staff meets us at the airport in Bangkok. It’s many flights. Last year we had four flights and this year I was able to cut it down to three because we drove, we took the bus to Chicago and then had… A lot of our students, their very first flight ever was a 15-hour flight.
Mike McShane: Oh.
India Hui: Yeah. So, then the staff meets us in Bangkok and they give us lots of electrolytes and snacks and then we take our final flight to the smaller town where we’ll be situated, and while we’re there, our students live in dorm-type situations and we have… It’s pretty cool. We have a school building that’s down the street, so they have to… It’s like they become part of the community where they’re walking to class every day and they do have relationships with like the bakery owners and everyone knows us. And of course they know us because we’re American and we’re a huge group and it’s like an honor for the people in the community do have this group of Americans eating breakfast at their restaurant every day. So, we get into those type of routines.
Then our students… So, they have class like normal, but every couple of weeks the students have a home-stay experience that aligns with what they’re doing in class. Like I said during that that mining unit, our students were learning about natural resources, learning about water pollution, and all of these different things. Learning about argumentation skills. And then they went to a Na Nong Bong village for a week live in the community with the people, interviewed people, had exchanges with officials and NGOs, and then they came back to the classroom that Friday.
So, usually it’s Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday they were at home stay and then Friday they’re back in the class and they’re finalizing whatever their final product is. Whether it is physical product or is a digital product, or sometimes it would be a huge debate that our students would have a formal debate because they’re taking debate class as well. On the weekends, the staff was awesome and our teachers are not chaperones. A misunderstanding a lot of times they have is my teachers are there to teach, so they’re just as responsible for their students in Thailand as they are while we’re here, which is a big responsibility already.
So, the travel organization we partner with, they have a staff and they plan all of the enrichment activities. Our students visited an elephant sanctuary and that was part of their conservation unit. They visited a waterpark, they would be taken bowling, they were taken on boat trips. At one point we were on the Mekong River floating between Thailand on one side and Laos on the other side. And these are just experiences that even the average tourist never has, I’d say that. My wife came to visit me in Thailand and she didn’t do any of the things I really wanted to do.
They have a very authentic experience. So, in the evenings we have dinner at local restaurants in the community because our dorm rooms didn’t have kitchens or anything. Then we usually had the same hosts. So, whoever hosted us for breakfast, hosts us for breakfast the entire three months and the same for dinner. And then maybe on the weekends we would go to a night market where the students would be able to shop and have freedom in choosing what they want to have for dinner. So, it was an extraordinarily, well-rounded it experience. It also takes a student who is able to have that amount of freedom. I mean, they’re way more supervised with us while they’re in Thailand than they are at home. I don’t know any teenager who has like 11 adults just at their door constantly or in their face at dinner with them. But at the same time they are thousands of miles away from their parents and they’re there with their friends and every teenager is going to try to find… I did it, you did it. You try to find ways around rules.
Mike McShane: Of course. Of course.
India Hui: This is part of the teenage experience. So, you have to make sure that that you or your child is ready for that and knowing how far does your child push boundaries or attempt to push boundaries.
Mike McShane: So, that’s what I’m sort of curious about. How do you choose your students? Is it sort of open enrollment and there’s a lottery or do you have to have some selection process? Because I would imagine this isn’t for everyone. There’s some students who would get home sick or for any number of reasons maybe this wouldn’t be best for them.
India Hui: Yeah. It’s not at all for everyone. And that’s something I have to explain all the time. If we decide this isn’t right for you, there are some hard decisions that we had to make where the parents and I had to talk about, OK, these are decisions that your child has made up until this point. And if we were staying here, I would love to have your child. There’s not a kid who I would not want to have at our school, but we’re talking about going 9,000 miles away. And so sometimes the parents would say like, nope, I’m not comfortable with my child leaving. So at that point they would transition to a different school. But we are open enrollment and I accept every single person, every single student who comes to me. And I don’t want to be the person to say no.
There have been so many roadblocks, obstacles already that prevent our students or people period from having these experiences. So, I am open to any student who comes as long as they have 22 credits and I think that is it. They just have to have 22 credits to be considered a junior where if they come to Thrival, they won’t be set back and unable to graduate on time. But that is the only requirement that we have. But throughout that first semester, we have monthly meetings with the parent, like family meetings where we eat and we talk about different things. And so the parents begin to realize like, yeah, my son is not ready for this. I think some parents decided that their child was ready and I truly believe that they were just they weren’t ready to let go of their child.
Mike McShane: Sure.
India Hui: Oh, yeah. It is not at all for everybody. I don’t think it’s from… What 16 year old, 17 year old just lives on the other side of the world in a country where the language is so foreign, the experience is so foreign and they’re there for three months. It is not an average experience.
Mike McShane: No, not even a little bit. No, not one bit. So, I wonder if you could go back in time to when you started this and started getting involved with this and give yourself some advice, lessons that you’ve learned throughout this. If you could go back and tell yourself something, I’m thinking of the perhaps other school leaders or policymakers who are listening to this and saying, “This sounds awesome, we should totally do this.” If you could go back to that time and give yourself advice, what would it be?
India Hui: I think I needed humble myself because I believed that in four months I could take any kid from any situation and do the work and prepare them for this experience and that is just not realistic. It’s not. This experience is not for everybody. And I can’t be offended if certain people decide I’m not ready for something like this or I can’t… To think that I’m so big that I can change a person and the history of that student or every situation that has impacted that student up until that point where I can feel assured that everything is going to go perfectly when we go abroad. It’s really just about humbling myself. And I think it is more important, I would say I should have advocated for what I believe was necessary from the beginning. I think as school founders or as innovation leaders, there’s certain things that we just shouldn’t be OK with negotiating.
Mike McShane: Sure, sure.
India Hui: No, this is what the student needs is these experiences the student needs. This is what will assure this is a quality experience for all parties involved. There’s certain things that should just be nonnegotiable. And when we’re in this space because it’s so highly political, we end up bending in ways to make sure that everyone is happy. But it really just comes down to assuring that the students and their parents and the community is best served, in my opinion.
So, I think I would have stood more firmly in certain decisions that I believe would be best for students. But I think anybody, whether you’re taking students abroad or you’re taking them around the corner or they never leave your school building, I think every school leader should stand firm in what they believe in is best for their students and their parents. And if they have a history of success or they have the history of making the best decisions for their stakeholders and we should be trusted to do that.
Mike McShane: Well, I’ll tell you, I could spend the rest of today talking with you about this school. It sounds incredible and such a wonderful opportunity for students who absolutely deserve it. Is there anything that I missed? Any last message you would like to send to the listeners of the Cool Schools podcast?
India Hui: Absolutely. We have a lot of people who are extremely enthusiastic about what we do at Thrival and I am trying to find people who are enthusiastic enough to be part of what we do here. We are always looking to grow our board. As you can imagine, it takes a lot of support. We need people who are involved in the Indianapolis or Greater Indianapolis community. We need people who have finance experience and expertise. We need people who have oversight and governance experience. So, if there is anybody out there who’s interested in being on the board of an extremely cool school that also is making great gains and impacting lives in a way that you couldn’t imagine, please reach out to me.
Mike McShane: Well, you hear that, listeners. There is a call to action here. India Huey, thanks so much for joining the Cool Schools podcast.
India Hui: Thank you for having me. Have a good one.
Mike McShane: I mean, how interesting was that? That’s not something that you here every day and while India was talking, I was reminded of that Apple ad campaign from a few years ago, the Think Different one, and I want to read to you if you remember there was this ad and Steve Jobs, I believe, was actually reading it and it made me think of it. Maybe it made you think of the same thing.
But here’s what they said in that old Apple ad, “Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes, the ones who see things differently, they’re not fond of rules and they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can do is ignore them because they change things. They push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”
And I have to say that’s what I thought of in having that conversation because the only type of people that are going to be able to change the world are those who are crazy enough to say, “You know what I want to do? I want to take a bunch of 11th graders and spend three months in Thailand with them.” I think that’s the type of thinking that pushes the education system forward, but also pushes our communities, our culture, our nation, our country, our world forward.
As always, if you enjoyed this podcast, please make sure to subscribe. Subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, all the different podcasting platforms that are out there. If you liked the EdChoice content writ large, head to our website, www.edchoice.org. I think pretty soon after opening that page, a little dialog box opens up and you can subscribe to our email list. You can get curated content for what you’re interested in. You like research, you like politics, you like amazing stories like the one that you just heard. All of those can be sent regularly to your inbox.
And I’m always looking for new cool schools. This very podcast today happen because someone emailed me and said, “Hey, you’ve got to check out this cool school. If you have a podcast, you need to talk to India.” And I’m so glad that I did. Until next time, it was great spending this time with you talking about a cool school.