Ep. 50: Cool Schools with Venture Schools

May 29, 2018

In our latest episode of our Cool Schools podcast, Mike McShane talks with Drew Schantz, the founder and executive director of the soon-to-be Venture School. This charter high school in Detroit will use project-based learning principles to teach high schoolers to think like entrepreneurs. Mike and Drew talk about the research and development process for the school, how they’re testing their ideas, the challenges of starting up a high school and more.

Mike McShane: Today on the podcast, we have Drew Schantz, who is the founder and executive director of Venture School. As a little bit different tack, today on the podcast, we are actually talking about a cool school that does not yet exist.

Venture School is a charter school slated to open in Detroit in the Fall of 2019. When it opens, it will be a small by design school devoted to instilling entrepreneurial skills and dispositions in students, as well as academic competencies. What’s interesting, and we talk about a bit in the conversation, is that Drew is actually prototyping a lot of the ideas for his school right now, both in pop-up classrooms in a program that he calls Venture Labs, and in an afterschool program called Venture Link.

So we talk about learning from those experiments in smaller scale opportunities. We talk about what it means to start a school, entrepreneurship, a little bit of everything. So please, enjoy my conversation with Drew Schantz of Venture School.

So you are starting a new school, Venture School. Detroit, Michigan. Maybe the place to start is why Detroit? Why is that the location that you chose?

Drew Schantz: Yeah, I think … Well, that’s a question that a lot of people ask. It’s certainly a challenging city, but I think it’s a challenging city to work in, but I think that if Venture School’s going to start anywhere, it kind of has to start in Detroit. And I think it falls down to two specific reasons. One being the entrepreneurial history of the city. It’s just kind of been a place for entrepreneurs to grow and thrive ever since it was founded in 1701. And there’s really a rich entrepreneurial culture that exists in the city today that is really contributing to the resurgence of the city.

But the fact of the matter is that that energy is not necessarily felt in all corners of the city, and so part of our mission is to kind of build a bridge between the activity and entrepreneurial energy that’s happening in downtown and in midtown and bring that to the neighborhoods through our entrepreneurially focused high school.

And then the other reason is just because of the significant need for high-quality school options here. For those of your audience that are familiar, Detroit has really fallen on some hard times, both economically and educationally, and it’s still kind of trying to figure things out I think. So that’s why I said it’s kind of complicated and messy to work in the space.

But there really are no, as far as our research and work is concerned, high-quality high schools available to students, and certainly no high schools that are really encouraging and empowering students to unleash their entrepreneurial potential, kind of pursue their passions, and make a positive contribution back to their community.

So we think that Venture School is a really great option for the city of Detroit, for the students of the city of Detroit. And we’ve heard that time and time again from the parents that we’ve talked to, from the students that we work with in our pop up classrooms, and just general members of the community. They’re really excited for Venture School to open its doors.

Mike McShane: So one of the things I’m interested in looking at the kind of landscape of charter schooling, of school choice programs across the country is that it seems to me that it is difficult to operate high schools, or start new high schools. It’s very popular to start new charter elementary schools, even some of the most successful chains started as middle schools.

You all are coming in at the high school level, so I’d be interested, why high school as opposed to elementary or middle school? And maybe, if possible, why is it so difficult or have so few people been able to start and replicate high schools?

Drew Schantz: Yeah, that’s also a good question, and one that we get a lot. I think … Well, the reason that we’re starting at high school is just kind of falling back to my fundamental belief that high school students have more promise, power, and potential than we give them credit for. And I think the high school environment is just such a unique and opportune time to start to explore what the rest of student’s lives are going to look like. And I think there’s no better opportunity in particular to exercise their entrepreneurial muscles than in high school, because you’re at that certain age where you’re getting more independence, you’re kind of growing into adulthood, and you can start to take on some of these responsibilities that are associated with entrepreneurship and venture creation.

But it is certainly hard to start at the high school level. And we’ve seen that pattern as well of a lot of successful schools starting at the elementary school level. But what we … And we actually have talked about places to grow backwards. So establishing a high school and maybe going into middle school after that, and then maybe elementary school. We haven’t solidified anything yet.

But I think it’s unfortunate that people overlook high schools as being too difficult to open, because they are more costly. High school students are more costly to educate from a financial standpoint. And I think there is this unfortunate mentality among some people, I won’t say all people, that if you’re creating a high school that really wants to change the game and revolutionize the educational experience for kids, I think some people have said that, not in these exact words, but it might be kind of a lost cause at that point.

If you’re working with students who have been experiencing failing schools and in a failing system for the first 8, 10 years of their educational career, and they’re coming into the high school environment, there’s a lot of challenges associated with that, and a lot of gaps to fill.

For example, we’re looking at a population of students who will be coming into our school on a reading and math level that ranges from about third grade to eighth grade. So there’s some significant deficits there that we have to solve for, and we have a very short amount of time to do that, to prepare them for the rigors of college, a career, or wherever they want to go after high school.

So I think it’s a tricky time. It’s time-sensitive in the fact that … And there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with preparing adults to become adults. So I think that’s why people are kind of turned off by the high school start up process in particular. But on the flip side of that, I know there are some really great initiatives out there.

The XQ Super School Project comes to mind as a group that is really focused on the high school experience and changing that up. So we’ve been relying on them a lot for though partnership and how to tackle the high school creation process. But I really wish more people would think about starting really innovative, specialized high schools, because high schoolers are also really fun to work with. And I really enjoy working with the high school students that we have built relationships with already, and will continue to do so throughout the city.

Mike McShane: Yeah. I’m a former 9th and 10th grade teacher, so so much of what you had to say resonated with me. High school kids are great. They bring their own sets of challenges and their own energy, but they are so much fun. And you really have the opportunity to do such cool stuff with them. So you are planning to open your doors to students. Is it this Fall? Is it next Fall? When are you hoping to launch?

Drew Schantz: We originally planned to open in 2018, but decided to take a step back and be a little bit more thoughtful about our approach, get on more solid financial footing. So we pushed our opening date ‘til 2019, but in the meantime, we’ve actually created a lot more work for ourselves in terms of ramping up our research and development efforts so to speak.

We have two programs that kind of operate in that arm of the Venture School ecosystem called Venture Labs, which are our pop up classrooms that I mentioned that a couple minutes ago. And then Venture Link, which will be kind of a school within a school, extended pilot of what we’re trying to achieve, and that’ll take place in the 2018, 19 school year.

So we’ll have a lot of learning that’s happening before our doors actually open, and that’s really important to us, so we can start to answer some of those really critical questions about how to operate a really revolutionary new school like this well before we’re actually serving students. We don’t want to be flying by the seat of our pants when the doors actually open. We want to have a lot of those things figured out. And that’s why we’re really taking a methodical and careful approach to how we create this school and make it as high quality as possible.

Mike McShane: Well, that’s great. I’d love to kind of drill down into these, because I think there is a narrative out there in some quarters that folks who start charter schools, it’s just … They decide in July and they’re open in August. And they fly by not operations et cetera. So I’m wondering if we can maybe start at the beginning of when you first had the kind of germ of the idea for this school, and the steps you’ve taken since then and kind of walk us through that timeline, and even what you’re doing now? I’d love to hear more about the pop up classrooms that you’re doing, and the sort of extended day, and the R and D and kicking the tires on your ideas.

But maybe even if we go further back than that? Like when did the idea first emerge? When did you start working with your authorizer et cetera, et cetera, to get from there to now, to a year from now?

Drew Schantz: Yeah, so we’re … I guess we can go back to when I was a kid.

Mike McShane: We’re going way back. I love it.

Drew Schantz: Yeah, yeah, we’re going to go way back, because that’s really when my passion for kind of creating the school started. I would have notebooks that I would fill up with sample class schedules and floor plans. And I would get catalogs from Office Depot and figure out what kind of supplies I would need for the front office and for the classrooms.

I was very much a school design nerd ever since the very beginning. And I also always had just a really sincere passion for creating learning environments for unique learning to happen. So throughout my middle school and my high school and college career, I did that with younger students, kind of gave them … Facilitated workshops, did a lot of work around leadership development, and some entrepreneurial education as well.

And it just came to the point in my life where I’d spent some time working in the nonprofit sector out in DC, and this passion for schooling and schools and entrepreneurial education in particular kind of resurfaced, and I figured there’s no time like the present to make this happen.

And I decided to take the idea for what had grown into Venture School through the education entrepreneurship program at the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of education. So went through that and Venture School was essentially my thesis. I walked out after that program wanting to make sure that the idea just didn’t live on paper, that it could actually come to life. So started talking to some friends that I had in the Detroit area.

Mike McShane: And I’m sorry, I don’t mean to interrupt, but about when is this happening?

Drew Schantz: Oh, I graduated from Penn in ’16.

Mike McShane: Okay, cool.

Drew Schantz: That’s kind of when I started to do Venture School full time. So started to talk to friends in Detroit who were here on the ground. Most of them educators and kind of floated the idea by them. And started getting connected to people who were really deeply rooted in the community. And moved from DC back to Michigan, and moved to Detroit, started doing work on the ground, kind of going to community meetings, meeting with parents, meeting with people in the entrepreneurship space and the education space. Developed a really great relationship with some folks over at the S.A.Y. Detroit Play Center which is a community center in the neighborhood that we are going to work in, or would like to work in when we eventually find a facility.

And have been running the pop up classrooms there since last spring. So it’s been about a year since those pop ups have been going. And then, I guess the other really big development was bringing on our founding head of school last summer.

His name’s Marvin English. He’s a super-talented and seasoned educator and administrator who actually found our website by the power of the world wide web, just kind of stumbled upon us. We started to have a conversation about what it would be like to join the team, and he moved himself back to Detroit, where he’s originally from, and we’ve been going strong ever since.

Mike McShane: So you have been doing these pop up classrooms, this Venture Links program. So I’d love to know, so what are you doing there? What does that look like? What lessons are you learning?

Drew Schantz: Yeah. So Venture Labs, as I said, have been going on for about a year now, and that has been a way for us to test our curriculum, our instructional strategy, interface with the community, get their feedback about what we are trying to create. And ultimately, from the students as well. It’s been a really valuable learning opportunity for us in terms of how we craft this high-grade academic and entrepreneurial educational model.

We were very much of the belief that we think students can be full time students and full time entrepreneurial thinkers. I kind of have a pet peeve, but I don’t want to knock these programs because they’re certainly valuable, but I don’t want our students to have to just think in an entrepreneurial silo for part of the day. I want that to be interwoven throughout all of the core academic work that they’re doing.

So it’s not just, “Oh, I have entrepreneurship class here. I’m going to be an entrepreneur for an hour and then I’m going to forget about it.” We really want that to be kind of ingrained in core academics. So we’ve been writing some curriculum, we’ve been testing it out. We’ve been gathering feedback, and working with students and learning a lot from them in the process in terms of how they learn best, what kind of things they want to see in the new high school, and kind of putting them and trying to give them a sense of ownership over the creation of the school, so it’s not just what myself and Marvin and our board of directors think is a good fit for the school, but we’re actually getting valuable feedback from our most important stakeholders who will eventually, hopefully call Venture School home.

And those Venture Labs will continue in perpetuity. We don’t see those ending, even when the school opens its doors, because I think that can really play into our overall mission of trying to disseminate best practices and share this entrepreneurial learning experience with the greater city of Detroit.

We’re starting our school on the pretty small scale of just 60 students per graduating class. So our school at full enrollment will be only 240 students, which is quite small by high school standards. So what we would like to do instead of scaling really rapidly is to share those best practices and be kind of a source of knowledge for other schools to adopt some of what we’re doing. But eventually, we will open more campuses in Detroit, and perhaps throughout the Midwest. But for now, really focusing on the city of Detroit. And hopefully using Venture Labs as a vehicle to give more students access to this kind of entrepreneurial learning. `

Mike McShane: So in your vision, when your doors open, let’s say I’m a ninth grade student that walks in the door, what’s my experience going to be like? What are my classes going to look like? What’s the curriculum look like? How’s your school different than perhaps the other high school that I would have walked into that day?

Drew Schantz: Yeah. So that’s a good question. I think that the first thing that you’ll notice is that physical design is really important for us, and we want to make sure that we’re creating an entrepreneurial learning environment for the entrepreneurial learner. So very much more of a Google campus versus a traditional classroom. We want a flexible and adaptive space to lend itself to different kinds of learning for students so that we can have subdivided spaces for allowing students to have the agency to learn where they learn best. And that fits very much into our personalized learning program.

So we’re currently thinking about … Well, we’re pretty sure that we’re going to implement the Summit Learning Platform at our school, just because of its ability to provide that personalized experience and that’ll make it easier for our faculty in particular, I think, to group students based on independence and ability level to close some of these very significant gaps that we’ve identified. So what we’ve been learning a lot about Summit, and have actually participated in a three week residency out at Chicago Collegiate Charter School a couple months ago to really get an in-depth look at how Summit looks on a partner school level.

So we learned a lot there, and look forward to kind of testing Summit out through our pilot programming when that ramps up in the Fall. So that’s kind of where our core academic piece lies, but what we’re going to do is through that project-based learning, through the Summit platform, is really infuse in this entrepreneurial learning and entrepreneurial culture that is so important to Venture School. Every two months, we will have a different focus of entrepreneurial activity in and around Detroit, and we’ll be partnering with startups with established companies, with nonprofits, to kind of help form the projects the students are going to be tackling, and they will … All of their core academic classes will play a part in putting together that puzzle.

So for example, in September and October of 2019, we’re focused on the environment, energy, and sustainability, and we’ll be working with some nonprofits, some companies around Detroit, utility companies, that kind of thing, to create really meaningful and relevant and engaging projects for students to participate in, that weave in aspects of entrepreneurial mindset development and also the core academics. So that’s kind of how we’re also rooting ourselves very firmly in the Detroit community, is bringing people in, exposing students to what is out there in Detroit, and making sure that the city of Detroit is kind of an extension of our learning environment.

Kind of the culminating experience of Venture School, and why it’s especially unique among other high schools, and other schools in general, is that every student will be given the opportunity to launch a venture of their own from the ground up. It might not be every student. We’ll probably have some small groups of students start those projects, but kind of the … That’s kind of like the capstone. That’s the project that they’ll be working towards through all four years of their experience, and each year we kind of want to …

Each year is themed around a specific kind of component of entrepreneurial development on a very large scale. So 9th grade is discovery, 10th grade is growth, 11th grade is challenge, kind of challenging ideas and what students have created. And then 12th grade is launch, so that’s when they’ll actually be showcasing their ventures and sharing them with the public, and could potentially be generating revenue from those, and that revenue could be helping to pay for their college, it could be going right into their pockets, it could … We really don’t know yet.

But I think what we’ve created here is something super unique and something super valuable to students that will be teaching them not necessarily how to create a venture. We’re actually not as concerned about that. But we are more concerned about developing the entrepreneurial mindset and helping them to think as an entrepreneur and add value wherever they go after they graduate from Venture School.

Mike McShane: So now that raises a really interesting question for me of how you all measure success? It seems you have obviously the academic goals, but you also have these entrepreneurial goals. So how will you know if what you are doing is working?

Drew Schantz: Right. So we have some rubrics and assessment tools that we have developed ourselves to kind of measure students in 10 … We have 10 key dimensions where we think that when students walk out of Venture School, they will be successful if they can kind of demonstrate these 10 different things, and they fall into three categories. One being self-management, second, relationship management, and then the third is knowledge management. So if they can … If our students can demonstrate these skills in the academic context, and in the entrepreneurial context, we will know that we’ve been successful in kind of developing them as entrepreneurial thinkers who are prepared for kind of whatever the world throws at them.

Mike McShane: So maybe I’ll close with one question. You are now several years into this venture. There may be other people who are listening who would want to start a school, or maybe are a year or two behind you in this process. I would love to know, is there one lesson that you have learned that you could share with those people that are in that process right now?

Drew Schantz: Well I think the reason that we’ve been the most … Well, as successful as we have been, we still have a ways to go. But I think our really relentless focus on involving students in the community in the school building process has really been the best decision that we’ve ever made. We know that we don’t have all the answers, so we’re really relying on people who know our students best, and who know the city best to help inform our model. So the fact that we’ve involved them from the very beginning has really been a huge benefit to us.

And kind along with that, I think the whole notion of testing things on a small scale first is super important, rather than thinking that you have all the answers right at the very beginning, and kind of walking into a school with this pre-packaged model. Because chances are, 99% of the time, things are … A school is going to look, in its infancy, very different from when the doors open to when the doors close at the end of the year.

So being able to test that out in a very small scale early on is super important because it answers a lot of questions that you might have, test assumptions, and also, going back to that community piece, allows folks to provide input and feedback to what your school model is. And ultimately, that’s going to be what’s … You’re going to do what’s best for students by taking that slow, methodical, and test-driven approach.

Mike McShane: Well, Drew Schantz, Venture School, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us today.

Drew Schantz: Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.

Mike McShane: That was a really fun conversation. It was different than what we usually do, because Drew’s school does not exist yet. But I know some of the people who listen to this podcast maybe have an idea germinating in their head about starting a school, want to know what some of the steps that need to be taken are. So I think it was great to talk to Drew at this really important point where he’s doing some R and D, where he’s kicking the tires, trying to figure out the best way to go about it. I think it’s also important, there’s an unfortunate misinformation campaign out there that charter schools in particular are these organizations that just start up overnight, and they’re flying by the seat of their pants and have no idea what they’re doing.

This, for Drew in particular, has been a multi-year process. He has done his homework. I’m excited to see what he does with it. And with all ventures, there are ups and downs and challenges that he’s going to face. But I don’t think anyone’s going to be able to say that he didn’t take the time, do his due diligence, and figure out what he wants to do.

So the next time someone says, “Oh, all these people who operate charter schools are just flying by night and will be gone before they even start.” Think about Drew and the work that he’s doing at Venture School. As always, if you enjoyed the podcast, subscribe. Subscribe, subscribe. I know if it’s iTunes, if it’s Stitcher, if it’s whatever the icon on my phone is that I don’t even know what the thing is called, it’s the purple button. Hit the purple button.

Also, we would appreciate if you’d give us some ratings. It’s always good to see, hear some feedback if you guys like what you’re hearing, or if you don’t like what you’re hearing, I have thick skin, you can let me know with that one too. But we’d really appreciate if you gave us some nice high ratings on this. If you have any ideas for other cool schools that we could talk to or you’d be interested in hearing about, please feel free to send them my way via Twitter, through any of our sort of ways that you can connect with EdChoice. There are a million and one. Find one. Holler at me. And we can definitely figure this out.

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