Ep. 39: Cool Schools with Open Sky Education

March 13, 2018

In today’s episode of EdChoice Chats, Director of National Research Mike McShane features another “Cool School,” Open Sky Education. He talks with Executive Chair and CEO Andrew Neumann about the network’s model, which runs both charter and private schools, as well as providing childcare and after school character education programs to thousands of kids across the country.

Mike McShane: Hello, and welcome to another episode of EdChoice Chats. My name is Mike McShane, and I’m director of national research at EdChoice. Today’s podcast is part of a new series we’re embarking upon called Cool Schools, wherein we will profile passionate educators around the country and the schools that they lead. This podcast series has two goals. The first is simply celebration. Starting a new school or running a great existing school is hard work. Too often, it’s a thankless job. So, we want to celebrate people who are trying something new and different and kick the tires on their ventures to uncover lessons that they’ve learned and can share with other educators around the country.

The second goal is to try and stretch folk’s mind about what is possible in education. As educational choice supporters, we at EdChoice spend a healthy amount of our time trying to promote educational options that don’t exist yet. We push for states to pass laws that create the conditions for great new schools to open and scale, but many people struggle to wrap their minds around exactly what that might look like. In this podcast, we’re gonna highlight some of those potentialities. With quality school choice programs, innovative models like the ones we talk about here could be coming to a city near you.

You know, at the outset, I would like to say that we’re not gonna try and use this podcast to adjudicate whether or not these are “good or bad” schools. We’re not gonna examine their rating in math scores and ask them why their fourth graders aren’t up to snuff. We are gonna ask about mistakes that they’ve made, lessons they’ve learned, advice that they would give, and related questions that should be helpful for anyone listening, even if you’re skeptical of their educational model or pedagogical strategy.

I’m always on the lookout for more cool schools to profile, so if you know of one of those in your neck of the woods, please let me know about it. So, Andrew Neumann is executive chair and chief executive officer of Open Sky Education, and Open Sky Education is actually really interesting because it supports and manages a variety of different learning environments including full time private and charter schools. You may have heard of these. The private schools operate as the Hope Christian Schools, the charters operate as Eagle Prep. But not only that, they also do Christian wraparound services as like before and after school programs, as well as character formation programs for both public and private Christian schools. So, it’s a really fascinating organization, really glad we’re able to talk to him.

So, without further ado, here’s my conversation with Andrew Neumann.

So, Andrew, thank you so much for joining me. I think it’s probably best to just kind of start at the beginning. So, Open Sky Education is this fascinating model that has lots of different initiatives underneath it, but maybe could you talk about where did it start? What is the origin story of Open Sky Education?

Andrew Neumann: Sure. Thanks, Mike, and thanks for the opportunity to chat about this today. It’s quite a story to tell, actually. So, back in 2002 is when we opened the doors to our first school. We were serving, I believe it was 47 children in the elementary school, and it really was born out of the Wisconsin voucher program. So, back in the late 1990s, it was ruled legislatively and legally okay for faith-based schools to be able to utilize vouchers to educate children. So, at the time, faith-based education in Milwaukee was on the decline, and one of the major reasons was because many families just were unable to afford the tuition to a private and faith-based school.

So, when the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled this constitutional, it created a brand new opportunity for people of faith to serve children that historically had not been able to afford their schools. So, a group of very entrepreneurial Christians got together and said, “What would it look like to create a school that really focused on very strong academics, very focused on character formation, as well as providing a vibrant Christian education for kids on the north side of Milwaukee?” And it was born, like I said, the first school back in 2002, the small little school just under 50 kids.

Mike McShane: And that school, that is now known as the Hope Christian Schools?

Andrew Neumann: Right. That school is the first school. It’s called today Hope Christian School Prima, and it today serves over 600 children.

Mike McShane: Oh, wow. So, now, so you started with the Hope Christian Schools and then was the next branch out into charter schools?

Andrew Neumann: Exactly. So, gradually, as Hope was growing, we were looking for opportunities. So, we realized early on that our real goal was to try to figure out how we provide those three pillars, academics, character and faith formation to as many children as possible across our country. And so we were watching policy shifts, and we saw that the charter policy across our country was expanding much more rapidly than the school choice and vouchers. So we recognized that within a charter school, two of those three pillars we could certainly do, the academics and the character formation. But of course they couldn’t be Christian schools if they were public schools.

So, we thought, “What would it look like if we created a charter school and then created optional programming for a separate organization that for any families that desired faith-based programming, it could be an option before school or after school, but not integrated into the primary curriculum?” So, that’s what led us into beginning our first charter school. That was launched in Arizona, and we now have eight charter schools in addition to our eight Christian schools within the organization.

Mike McShane: And then, so you also partnered to do these wraparound services, and then also you have some character formation programs. Could you talk a little bit about those?

Andrew Neumann: Yeah. Correct. So, for us, like I said, one of the three primary pillars is character formation, and character to us is more than just trying to curb a child’s behaviors within a particular context by using rewards and consequences, but we’re really trying to form children for life. We’re trying to form children, preparing them to be great citizens of their communities and our country, leaders and great employees in the workplace. We’re trying to make them prepared for days when they may be spouses or parents, etc. So, it’s not just about changing behavior for the short term; it’s about really the formation of a child for life.

So, that is to say how do we become far more intentional around internally-formed character, the type of character that is gonna go with the child for life, which led us to eventually creating what we call the Character Formation Project, which serves all of our own schools as well as our wraparound programs, the childcare programs. But the Character Formation Project is now beginning to serve other schools outside of our own schools, a number of other Christian schools as well as public schools and charter schools have asked us to come and partner with them to train their teachers and provide some content for them around the same subject.

Mike McShane: So, across all of these different initiatives, how many children do you all serve?

Andrew Neumann: That’s a good question. Our schools themselves serve around 5,000 children. There would be just under 1,000 children that participate in our childcare centers. And the character project, I don’t have a firm number on that. It would be in the thousands, I just don’t know the exact number, Mike.

Mike McShane: Sure. Now, your organization is unique in the sense of stretching across these different areas, private schooling, charter schooling, character formation. I’m sort of curious as to how you navigate all, they seem to be relatively different worlds that they operate in, you’re in different states. How do you keep everything straight?

Andrew Neumann: I think ultimately to us, the focus is the child, right? So, there’s different strategies, I suppose, to how do we serve children, but the focus is still the same. It’s really the formation of the child and delivering those three pillars of academics, character, and for families that desire it, faith formation. So, as long as we stay focused on that’s the core strength that we have, we can then be really creative around what are the different channels or strategies to which we’re gonna deliver products or services for families to serve children.

Mike McShane: So, now how did you get involved in all of this?

Andrew Neumann: That’s probably a longer story than we have time for, Mike. In a nutshell, when I was in graduate school up in Colorado, I began studying what was happening across America in education and began to see, too, really I guess startling gaps that to me were very concerning. The first was the significant gap between the way we’re performing as a nation and other countries globally when it comes to achievement in education and the studies that I was reading were showing that we’re spending more dollars per student than anybody else in the world, and yet the product that we’re delivering is ranking between 25th and 30th with other developed countries.

And so, recognizing the importance of education in the global economy, this felt like a very dangerous pattern for our country to continue. But then secondly within those statistics, when you look within our country, you can also see a second really important gap, and that is the gap between children coming from lower-income families versus higher-income families. And personally, as a person of faith, I don’t believe that God has handed out intelligence based on the income that a parent makes, so I see no reason why we should be able to see significant differences in terms of achievement based on the income of a family when you look at the child’s test scores. So, that for me was also very concerning because it means that we have many children in our country that for some reason are falling through the cracks of their current educational system, and I became very passionate about trying to find ways that I could contribute in some small way of helping find solutions to this.

So, when I found myself in Milwaukee, I was a professor in the math department of a small liberal arts college, which is how I found out about Hope Christian School at the time. One of the other professors that was there with me in the education department had started this organization and became very excited about the possibility of creating a new education system or ways of delivering education in a publicly-funded means, so that income wasn’t a screen for who could have access to the programs, and one thing led to another. I began volunteering into the organization. After I volunteered for a while, they asked if I would join the board. And as I was on the board, I guess the final bait on the hook so to speak was asked to create sort of a long-term plan for where the organization could go. And following that the board asked if I’d consider leaving the college . . .

Mike McShane: Actually implementing it, yeah.

Andrew Neumann: Exactly.

Mike McShane: Actually making it happen.

Andrew Neumann: Exactly. So, by then my passion was so great for what we were doing, it was a very easy decision to come over and help lead the organization.

Mike McShane: So, I’m interested in kind of parsing some of this around charter schooling versus private schooling and the ways, you mentioned that the charter world has grown faster than the private school, the private school choice world. Given that you have sort of feet in both of those areas, do you have any sort of hypotheses as to why that’s been happening?

Andrew Neumann: I think that, it feels to me that policy is not my area-

Mike McShane: Sure.

Andrew Neumann: I’m not the expert there. We run schools, but as a third party observer, it feels to me like the policies generally have been designed for two different purposes. It feels to me like from the start, charter school policy has really been about incubating new schools and new seats, versus the voucher or private school choice policy generally. And this is not completely true, but as a generalization, feels like more about incremental growth of filling up vacancies in existing schools.

So, if you sort of look at those two different sets of policy, those policies end up being very different. So, for example, when we look at the charter school space, the charter school funding is generally adequate to fully fund the operational cost of the school, versus most voucher policies are not adequate to fully fund the operational cost of the school. That makes a significant difference in terms of the scalability of an organization like ours to generate new schools and new seats.

Secondly, because of that, it creates a significant difference when it comes to innovation. If the primary recipient of the funding is a new organization specifically designed for the marketplace that they’re going into, there’s a much higher likelihood of significant innovation, versus if the funding is going into an existing organization that has multiple decades of a track record and doing what they’re doing, and they’re now adding maybe incremental seats to their existing model. It doesn’t spur the type of entrepreneurs and innovation.

So, I think that, to me, at a broad level, the fact that the policies feel to me that though they’ve been focused on really different end goals, you end up with then of course, the marketplace reacting to that very, very differently.

Mike McShane: Sure, so talking about funding, that’s a policy problem. Are there other sort of policy issues that make your life difficult?

Andrew Neumann: There’s a ton of them. One of the major ones is income caps. So, for us to be successful in a market, we of course, the revenue, the primary revenue that we receive is from children enrolling in our schools. And so, we have to be able to have enough children eligible for a program within a marketplace for us to be able to be successful, and when you income cap a program, you are eliminating a significant part of the marketplace’s opportunity to participate in your program, which then makes it much more difficult to go into many different places to run your school.

So, the income capping is certainly one, because it limits the marketplace. I’m not aware of any charter policy that has an income cap in place, and there are very few if any voucher policies that are fully funded that don’t have an income cap in place. That makes it a tremendous difference.

Mike McShane: That’s fascinating. You know, ’cause one of the arguments that the sort of pro income cap people say is that if we don’t do that, private schools, private school choice, private schools participating in private school choice programs will not serve low-income students. And as someone who started a private school to serve low-income students, I would imagine you disagree with that assessment?

Andrew Neumann: Well, I think we can have the discussion in theory, I suppose, and then everybody has a theoretical stance on that, but we know the benefit of looking through the rearview mirror and it doesn’t have to be a theoretical argument. Just look at the charter sector and see, is the charter sector with a no income cap policy and a fully-funded policy serving more or less low income children than the voucher sector with an income caps policy and generally less revenue?

So, we can sit here and pretend, and have a theoretical argument saying, “What will happen if,” but we don’t need to. We can now look back and say, “What’s the result of these two policies?” And it’s obvious that in a policy that has no income caps that is solely funded is serving a much higher number of low income children across our country than the alternative.

Mike McShane: That’s a fascinating point. I hadn’t thought of it that way. That’s a good one. So, I’m curious. I have had the benefit of actually going to at least one, I was racking my brain. I know, I think last year I went to the Eagle Prep charter in St. Louis, which is a wonderful school, and got the whole tour and it was great, and I’m like 99% positive when I was back in graduate school, I was at one of the Hope Christian schools in Milwaukee and was similarly impressed by that. But I’m curious, how do you measure success? How do you know if what you are doing is working?

Andrew Neumann: Well, the number, we have a school dashboard that we look at on a monthly basis, and I won’t go through all the measurements there, but it’s a really comprehensive dashboard. We use a lot of data to measure progress within our schools throughout the year. But some of the highest of the measurements, of course, going back to those three pillars, academics and character, and then faith formation, as well as if you talk about organizational success, we do recognize that the business has to also work. So, one of the things they say is without margin, there is no mission. Financially, we have to be able to keep the boats afloat as well.

So, we look at academics for sure. We use the NWEA MAP assessment. We are especially focused on growth. We recognize that the majority of the children that we have the privilege to serve are coming into our schools testing multiple grades below level. It’s not as if they’re two months away from being proficient or even a year away from being proficient. Many times, the children that we have the privilege of serving come in multiple grades below level. So, proficiency is not the best way for us to look at academics. We do, though, look a lot at growth. Are they growing by a year? Are they growing by 1.2 years, 1.3 years of growth? That’s one of the major areas of focus for us academically. Are we essentially, helping them to catch up and bridge that gap, eventually accelerate past proficient?

When it comes to character formation and/or faith formation, there we’re more looking at our theory of change and we’re measuring inputs. So, are we staying consistent with our model, that the research shows that our model is going to work? And so are we executing that model with fidelity? So, we have a number of internal measures that measure that, and then of course, we’re looking at all the different business enrollment and staff retention and student retention and financial performance and things like that, as well.

Mike McShane: So, sort of looking back at your time in the organization and all of the things that you’ve done, I’d be interested to know, what were some of the hurdles? Maybe it’s as you entered into each of these areas, so into the private school world and private school choice world, into the charter school world, into the wraparound services world, into the sort of character education world, what were some of the hurdles that you had to overcome?

Andrew Neumann: Oh, boy. There are a number of hurdles, I guess along the way. One of the, I think one of the most important opportunities for us, hurdles we had to overcome is finding and really bringing really top talent to the organization. This is a very people intensive business, and it simply cannot be successful without a great teacher in every classroom and a great leader in every building. And that is really critically important. And I think today as we look at what’s happening, macro picture in education, we are seeing more and more teacher shortages and the quality of the teacher workforce is not where it needs to be, sort of macro, I think to really move our country to where it needs to go long term.

So, I think one of the hurdles is definitely talent. That’s really important. The second one, this is interesting, is facilities. It’s been interesting to try to understand how do you locate buildings with adequate space into densely populated areas. It’s not like there’s lots of green space or undeveloped land to purchase when you’re working in urban centers. So, how do you create the space necessary for the educational environment to happen? So, that’s been a significant hurdle. And even how do you work with lenders and the lending institution to understand what it looks like to make an investment into a new market? The voucher or charter market has been fairly new, and also into an urban center, where generally our costs of developing a piece of property end up being more than what that property trade is for. So, that really limits your potential lending options.

So, those are a couple of pretty significant hurdles.

Mike McShane: So, what … talent is an incredibly important piece of this, so where do you find your teachers? Where do you find your leaders? Is it from faith-based universities that are sort of ideologically aligned? Is it from kind of traditional teacher preparation or leader preparation programs?

Andrew Neumann: So, we have, there’s not been one silver bullet to answer that question for us. We have a number of university and college partners, for sure, some of which are faith-based teachers colleges that have been very helpful to us. Also organizations for us, like in Milwaukee, the Center for Urban Teaching has been a great partner, as well as TFA in some of our regions has been a great partner for helping us to find talent.

I would say that probably one of our keys to success is in house, developing a very robust and intense teacher development program. So, we recognize that we’re hiring for, we’re trying to find people that love children, who have strong character, who care deeply about our mission and believe in the possibilities of all children, and if we can find those things, we have very, very intense summer institutes for training teachers. We have early release dates every single week where we’re spending a couple hours per week developing our teachers. We have data days where we’re breaking down data that’s built right into our calendar to develop our teachers.

So, I would say it’s a combination of strong partners to help us develop the pipeline coming in of really mission-aligned people, but then coupled with a really intentional, intense internal training program to continue to develop teachers once they join the organization.

Mike McShane: So, I’d like to close with two questions: one question in which I’m gonna kind of ask you to look in the rearview mirror and one where I’m gonna ask you to look forward. So, the rearview mirror-facing question is: “If you could go back in time to when you got started in this endeavor and give yourself one piece of advice, what would that piece of advice be?”

Andrew Neumann: It’s a marathon and not a sprint. We have to work at our work with urgency. It is so important. We have to recognize that a child who’s in third grade today will not be that age again. They only get that year once. So, there is a huge sense of obligation and urgency for our work. But that said, we are not gonna achieve the long-term goals that we have in a day.

This is something where we have to both personally and ultimately institutionally be looking at this as a multi-decade, maybe a multi-generational work that we’re engaged in, and we have to both personally and organizationally structure ourselves in a way that we can be engaged in this work for the marathon as opposed to trying to make a flash, the flash is not gonna be the long term change that we want to see. So, I would want myself to know it’s a marathon and not a sprint.

Mike McShane: I think that’s an incredibly important point. I think it has really been a blind spot of education reform writ large. I think you’re exactly right, that there is obviously the, as Dr. King said, the fierce urgency of now, but if you’re so focused on trying to get the biggest impact in the shortest amount of time and you don’t worry about sustainability of either yourself or the program that you’re trying to do, it can really get in your way. So, that’s a great point.

So then my last question is a forward looking one. So, what does the next year hold, the next five years hold, the next 10 years hold for Open Sky Education?

Andrew Neumann: Well, it’s right in our windshield across the organization, whether it’s the school division or the childcare division, or whether it’s our character project. We are in a stage right now, we’ve grown significantly. It’s been such a blessing in the last three to four years, and we’re now needing to go back and rebuild a number of systems to prepare for the next stage of growth. So, for the next year or two, we are gonna be very, very focused on solidifying systems, growing consistency of results, and preparing to do what we do in a repeatable way so that we can have predictable success in a scalable way into the future. So, that’s kind of in the short term, it’s a significant transition for the organization, but a really exciting one for us.

And then what we hope to happen after that is to continue to significantly grow to serve more children, both in our existing communities, as well as in new communities through all three of the different divisions, through the schools division and the childcare division, as well as the character project. So, we are definitely open to expanding within the market to Arizona, Missouri and Wisconsin. We see some significant opportunity in all three of those markets still, but we also look forward to engaging into new markets. We have been reached out to by many individuals from places across the country and look forward to being ready to serve them with high-quality educational programming as well.

Mike McShane: Well, I can’t wait to see what y’all do. Andrew Neumann, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us today.

Andrew Neumann: Thank you, Mike.

Mike McShane: So, that was my talk with Andrew Neumann. How cool is he? So much great insight. It was wonderful to chat with someone who’s worked across these different areas, not just private schooling, but also charter schooling, and also trying to do kind of one-off character development, working in public schools, working in private schools, doing wraparound services, a little bit of everything.

I was particularly struck, as you might be imagine, him talking about that really kind of interesting diversion that we went on about income caps and the kind of pernicious effects that they have. Definitely something I will be thinking about long after I stop listening to this podcast. Not this podcast in general, that podcast in particular.

As always, if you’re enjoying this podcast content and you want more sent right to your phone or whatever your listening device is, please, please, please subscribe to this podcast. It lets us know that folks are listening and makes us want to keep making them. If you have other cool schools, please email me, tweet me. I’m at @mq_mcshane, or you can tweet straight to the EdChoice handle, which is just @edchoice. I would love to know, is someone in your community doing something awesome? Do your kids go to a really cool school that should be featured here? Do you teach in one? Are you leading one? Are you starting one? I’d love to be able to chat with you about it.

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