Ep. 168: Cool Schools with Grace Prep

March 24, 2020

To kick off Season 3 of our Cool Schools series, Mike McShane chats with Chris Harper, head of school of Grace Prep. This school, located in Arlington, Texas, was the first university model-school to open in America.

Mike McShane: Hello and welcome to Season 3 of the Cool Schools podcast, part of the EdChoice Chats podcast series here we have at EdChoice. My name is Mike McShane. I’m director of national research at EdChoice and I’m super excited to join you for another season of Cool Schools. You can always go back and check out the earlier seasons that we’ve had on our website. At the end of each season we publish on our blog a kind of season end roundup where we have transcripts of all of the podcast interviews that I did and little summaries that have all of the key details.

But now it’s time for Season 3. For those of you who may be new listeners to the podcast or you haven’t listened in a while, this podcast basically has two goals. The first is to celebrate cool things. There’s a lot of doom and gloom out there in education world, but I am of the contention that there’s actually way more cool stuff happening. There are so many thousands of entrepreneurial, hardworking, full-hearted educators that are out there trying to do awesome things for kids. And I think it’s important that we celebrate the great work that they’re doing. So, that’s what I try and do on this podcast. Interview cool and interesting school leaders who run cool and interesting schools and talk to them about what they do.

The second goal is to kind of expand our notions of what schools might look like, to talk about the possibilities there in education, and maybe get people thinking, questioning. Why do schools look the way that they do? Might they look differently? Why do schools do the things that they do? Might they do things differently? And go ask those hard questions. Rethink maybe some of those fundamental assumptions and change the way that we educate children for the better.

Now, one thing to note, the purpose of this podcast is not to adjudicate whether or not these are “good” or “bad” schools. I’m not going to ask the people that I interview to parse their fourth grade reading or math scores. If folks are interested in trying to find that data, you can go on and do that yourself, and I wish you all the luck in the world. I’m not trying to sort of attack people with this podcast. I’m really trying to have this podcast be a celebration. So, that’s something important to keep in mind if you’re a perhaps a more skeptically-minded person, fair enough. But that’s not what I’m doing here. I’m trying to celebrate cool schools and that’s what we’re going to be doing.

Another kind of focus this season, building on some of the work that we’ve done before is using this as an opportunity to identify lessons that all schools can learn from. So, while some of these schools might function in unique and different ways, have unique pedagogical philosophies, I think that they are accumulating lessons that schools across the country, more traditional schools, whether those be traditional public schools, or charter schools, or private schools, I think that they can actually learn from the things the schools are doing. They may not do everything that these schools do, but that they will do some of the things or maybe one or two key lessons, some problem that the schools were able to solve. Something that these schools were able to rethink, and that they can take this back to their school and improve what they’re doing even in a more traditional context.

The other thing that’s happening this season is that we’re going to focus a lot more on hybrid homeschooling. For those of you that follow my work, you may know at this point I’m in the process of a long kind of research project trying to understand more about hybrid homeschool. Now for those of you who are unfamiliar, hybrid homeschools are schools in which children attend what we would consider a kind of traditional brick and mortar school for part of the week and are homeschooled for part of the week.

Now importantly, these aren’t online schools. These aren’t homeschool co-ops where children who are entirely homeschooled occasionally get together and work with other students. These are kind of officially structured operating schools that work on this kind of model: part of the week at school, part of the week at home. Throughout the conversations that we’re going to have, we’re going to talk to private schools that do this. We’re going to talk with public charter schools that do this. And we’re actually going to talk to some traditional public schools that do this as well. So, it’s not really the purview of one sector or another. And again, I think that the schools actually—while interesting in their own right and a sector of the American education system that is definitely growing—I think that even if you’re not into hybrid homeschooling, some of the lessons that they have learned over time will apply to traditional schools and can actually, I think, improve the offerings of traditional schools, whether those are traditional public schools, public charter schools, or traditional private schools.

And so, we’re actually starting this season with the first university model-school that opened in America called Grace Prep in Arlington, Texas. Now it’s important to note here at the beginning that university-model schools are a type of hybrid homeschool. So, all university model schools are hybrid homeschools, but not all hybrid homeschools are university model schools. We’re going to talk to some university model schools and also some that are not. So, it’s an important thing to state at the beginning that university model schooling is a particular manifestation of hybrid homeschooling. They are very particular. You can check out their website and the overall organization that oversees it is called NAUMS. You can check out the resources that they have to have their kind of particular understanding of how this is supposed to be done. But they are kind of unique in their approach towards hybrid homeschooling.

So, Grace Prep was the first of this model of schools. It started in 1992 and now there are more than 88 university-model schools across the country. But Grace Prep, if you go onto their website, they say that they’re the first school to marry two proven elements of educational success. The first is professional classroom instruction of a teacher, and the second is a caring at-home mentoring of a parent that combine into a single unified college simulated program. Their theory was this: place any child in a warm, secure, inviting environment with professionals who care, parents who are engaged, and a viable plan for success, and they will thrive.

So, on the podcast today we have Chris Harper, who is the head of school of Grace Prep. He joined the Grace Prep team in August of 2016. He in the past had been an administrator in both public and private schools as well as being a church pastor. He’s a really interesting guy. We had a really fascinating conversation about both Grace Prep and some of the lessons that they’ve learned, and I hope you enjoy it. So, without further ado, here’s my conversation with Chris Harper of Grace Prep in Arlington, Texas.

So, it is my understanding that Grace Prep was the first university-model school. There are now, what, more than 80 or so across the country. So, you all were trailblazers, and I’d be interested to know what’s that story? How did Grace Prep come to be?

Chris Harper: Well, it kind of came out of necessity. There were a group of individuals who understood the importance of a traditional education, reason and logic and arithmetic, those things. But they also held to a strong belief in time with the family. That especially early in life that a child’s best education happens in the home. So, instead of being a traditional homeschool where all the learning took place in the home, these families got together and they started a school where they hired professionals, professional educators, to essentially teach the classes that they weren’t comfortable with: physics, chemistry, literature, those sorts of things. It started really as more of a co-op where families could pick and choose what classes to enroll their child in. Everything from your common core, which is your English, your sciences, your math. And then extracurricular activities. They also wanted a place where fine art could be practiced and applied. They wanted a place where athletics could take place. So, they kind of wanted all the trappings of a five-day-a-week school. They just didn’t want their kids to be in school 40 hours a week.

Mike McShane: Sure.

Chris Harper: So, they wanted the cake and they wanted to eat it too. So, they started Grace Preparatory Academy.

Mike McShane: And so now what grades do you serve? How many children do you serve?

Chris Harper: Yeah. So, now we’re K-12. We had to progressively build up to that, but we’re a full K-12 now, and we serve approximately 500 students a year. We have a waiting list in I want to say nine of our 12 grades, an exponential waiting list actually. It’s growing by the week. Families wanting to get into Grace Prep and participate in the model.

Mike McShane: And so for your students, the combination of sort of home days and in school days, how does that look? Does it vary based on how old they are? How does that look for them?

Chris Harper: Yeah, so it looks different as they get older. In kindergarten through sixth grade, they’re only going to be on campus two days a week and they’re going to be in the home three days a week. But they have full access to all the extracurriculars and all the fine arts, all the athletic, etc. And what that looks like is teachers are going to teach core content on Tuesdays and Thursdays. And then on Monday, Wednesday and Friday the students are essentially at home practicing with their families, practicing with their parents. But that’s all going to be guided through a biblical worldview curriculum that’s provided to the parents.

So, for example, my son and daughter participate. My daughter’s in the second grade and my son’s in the first grade. Every weekend his assignments, her assignments, their worksheets, what they need to read, what they need to do, is uploaded via the Cloud via internet and my wife or myself or we actually have a nanny who also helps. They can pull that stuff right off the internet and work with them at home based upon what the teacher has assigned. Also, our teachers will utilize technology, Facebook Live, Vimeo, YouTube. They can upload lessons. They can do a 10 to 15 minute teaching segment using YouTube, Vimeo or Facebook Live and then upload that and our community has access to that, too. They can go back to that if they need further instruction.

Now as the kids get older into middle school and high school, we added a day. So it’s going to be Monday, Wednesday, Friday on campus, and then you’re at home Tuesday, Thursday. And that Tuesday, Thursday at home, it’s a lot less parent intensive. So at that point, at that age, especially if they’ve been through our model, the student has a pretty good grasp of time management. They have a good grasp of expectations and they really are self-learners at that point, utilizing all the tools we’ve given them to complete any type of work study assignments on Tuesday, Thursday to be prepared for Monday, Wednesday, Friday.

Mike McShane: So, now I think there are some folks who might hear what you’re saying and say, “How can students at that age, in middle school, in high school, be so good at time management that they are able to essentially have two days less in a traditional school environment and still get everything done?” So I would love to know, what are the things that you do to help instill time management skills so that your students can have that flexibility and that freedom and still meet with success?

Chris Harper: Yeah, that’s a tremendous question. And we really attack that on two or three levels. One, parents and even educators today need to understand that content is no longer king. You go back 20, 30 years and content drove everything. As a matter of fact, people would pick schools or they would pick universities because they would want to go learn under a certain individual. This individual had the information. This individual has the knowledge that I need. So, I would go study medicine at X, Y, Z school. Today that’s no longer the case because everyone has unlimited content at the tips of their fingers. If you have a smart phone or a home computer or an iPad, you have access to the same content that medical and business professionals around the world have access to. So, learning can no longer be content driven.

So, one of the things we do is we cut down on the busy work, the searching and the redoing of the content over and over again. So, it’s more qualitative than quantitative. For example, in mathematics, at a typical five day a week public school, you may work the same concept 30 to 50 times so that you learn that concept. Well today you really don’t have to do that. That’s a lot of busy work all because of access to content, because it’s a logical advancement. Our kids were grasping concepts much faster. So, we drive home concepts quicker. They pick up the concepts and then we tailor our work to make sure that mastery is happening on those concepts. We’ve discovered that just by doing that, you’re knocking off 20-30 percent of what you’re doing in a typical five day a week, eight-hour school day. So, really it’s qualitative versus quantitative.

The second thing we do is from an early age, we start to practice those time management concepts. I mean, our kids are seeing syllabus at a young age. Our kids are accessing online tools such as Google Documents. Everything as simple as Google Docs and things of that concept where they have to learn to manage their time. There’s not a teacher five days a week, eight hours a day saying, remember that you have this due, or remember you need to read this. Remember we have a quiz in two days.

It’s kind of sink or swim to some degree for our students. You either pick that up and begin to develop those good habits or you don’t make it. It’s the same way linked-in’s go to college. You know, I just had a meeting this morning with a college advisor and the national average now for students finishing a four year degree is six and a half years. It takes 6.5 years to finish a four-year degree now. And I asked the advisor, what do you think is the culprit behind that? And he said largely student’s wasting their time. He told me that LSU, Louisiana State University, just built a $50 million water park on their campus. And their students absolutely love it.

Mike McShane: Can you blame them?

Chris Harper: That’s going to keep them there another 2.5 years, and they don’t realize that they’re paying for it through tuition and through activity fees. And it’s no different than Liberty University. They have a ski resort on their campus. I mean, colleges are using these things to attract more students, and not just attract them, but they want to keep them there as long as possible either on mom and dad’s dime or student loans. So, 30 years ago the student loan debt was $250 million. Today it’s $1.4 trillion, and that’s just over the course of 20 or 30 years.

So, all of that to say we start teaching them good time management habits early on. And really with our younger kids, it’s more educating our parents because our parents are poor at time management. So, it’s getting them in the routines and habits of that co-teaching model and being sure you have… For example, tomorrow is 100th day of school, so we have a huge 100-day project that all of our students do, that deals with the number 100. They’ve had that assignment now for two months. We don’t have a lot of people reminding them that the hundred day project is due tomorrow. So, the parents have to stay up on that and they have to instill that in their kids.

Also our kids have so many unique interests. You know, at our school we have concert pianists that go to school here. We have junior Olympic gymnasts. We have kids that are serious about acting and kids that are serious about athletics. So, if that’s what’s driving their motivation to succeed and their motivation to do things with excellence, we want to give them the freedom to craft a schedule around that. One of our alumni, I was just hearing a story from him the other day, while at school he was the Dallas-Fort Worth leading three-point shooter. He shot 44 percent. His dad takes all the credit because his dad said that every day he wanted to be in the gym. So, I made a deal with him. If he gave me four hours of classwork in the morning at home, I would go shag balls with him in the afternoon.

The young man had to learn if he wanted to succeed at basketball and be great at that, he had to learn to manage his day between doing the schoolwork and playing a sport. He didn’t have time to play Xbox. He didn’t have time to waste time playing PlayStation and sitting on the internet and those things. So, it begins to develop those healthy kind of discipline patterns and habits as you go through our model so that when you step into college, you don’t get hit in the face with it, and you’re like, “I have all this free time. What do I do with it now?” We’re teaching them to manage free time early.

And then the third thing it does, a lot of our students work. In an era and a day when you know people are taking on jobs later and later in life, at least a third of our high school students have a job. Our schedule permits them to work busing tables at restaurants. I have two students that just got a job at a local farm. On Tuesdays and Thursdays they farm and then do school work in the afternoons. And that just creates a better, in my opinion, a more well-rounded, holistic human being as they’re moving forward into society.

Mike McShane: Well, so I’m glad that you brought that up because I’d be curious. Your goals are to create these well-rounded holistic human beings in society. How do you measure success? Like how do you know that what you’re doing is working?

Chris Harper: Yeah, so we have defined success a few ways. We have the standard metrics academically: ACT scores, SAT scores. Are students getting accepted to four-year universities? The level of university. So, we measure all of that. Every student, at least in my tenure here, every student who has applied to a four-year university and has wanted to go to a four-year university gets in at Grace Prep. Now we have some students that choose not to do that. We have some that choose the military. We have some that choose to take a gap year. We have some that choose to do a vocation or a trade, which is tremendous. We celebrate all that equally.

So, we have those kinds of baseline academic metrics. We start that as early as kindergarten where we’re doing skill mastery. K-2 we don’t assign grades at Grace Prep. You either master the skill or you don’t, which actually is becoming the norm now. I was reading recently that a lot of medical schools are no longer giving GPAs and assigning a letter grade. You either mastered the concept or you haven’t. And as a doctor it’s important that you master the concept.

Mike McShane: I certainly hope they’ve mastered it. Yes.

Chris Harper: Right, right. No one, at least I’ve never asked my doctor his GPA. I just want to make sure he knows how to remove an appendix.

Mike McShane: Absolutely.

Chris Harper: So yeah, we’re looking for mastery. So, on the academic side, that’s great. One of the things we’ve recently started to track is we were kind of taken aback by that whole 6.5 years statistic as far as a four-year university. So, we’re actually not just tracking our students that get accepted to college, which is the norm. Schools across the country, high schools across the country, do that. We actually want to see how many are finishing in four years. How many are finishing in five years? How many are finishing in six years? How many are not finishing? You know, again, the national average is, depending on what you read, 45-50 percent of young people that start college don’t actually finish. So, we’re going to start measuring success by those who not only get accepted to those four-year schools, but then complete those four-year schools in a reasonable amount of time. So, that’s another metric.

We’re also looking for familiar connection. A big part of what we do here is obviously there’s time in the home. And when we say time in the home, that doesn’t necessarily mean that that our homes have personalized classrooms where mom or dad or the grandparents or the aunts and uncles are sitting there teaching. That just means that they’re with the family. There are some of our parents that they’ll do school at the zoo, or they’ll do school out by the pool, or a school may look different in that home. When we talk about those home days, we just mean time with that family. The example I gave earlier, for that family it was doing work at the kitchen table in the morning and playing basketball in the afternoon.

So, qualitatively we look for and we hope there’s greater familial connections. There’s a deeper appreciation for mom and dad. There’s a deeper love for family, a deeper commitment to family. And that’s not largely quantitative. I mean that’s hard to measure. There are some quantitative measurements that we take. For example, how many of our current students are alumni family? Are they children of alumni that have graduated here and seen the importance of the family centered model? So, we track that. But mostly it’s qualitative and we’re hoping that over the years these young people come to sense the importance of family and then that they would replicate that in their lives moving forward.

Mike McShane: I’d be interested. What do you think traditional schools could learn from Grace Prep? And I mean that in the sense of sort of this could be a traditional private school, like a five-day-a-week private school, or if you think about traditional public schools, are there lessons you’ve learned that could apply to them?

Chris Harper: For sure. I think the biggest thing would be the time component. I don’t know when or where it was designated that children need to be in school five days a week, 40 plus hours a week. And that’s if you don’t do anything extracurricular. If you’re playing a sport or doing the debate team or whatever, you may be in school 50-60 hours a week. As grown people our work week is only 40 hours, and I think it’s generally accepted after that you’re going to burn out at some point. So, I don’t know who or where. I mean I know the history of public education. I know the first school board that started in Boston and Thomas Jefferson and those guys wanting to take an illiterate workforce and make them literate so that they could be useful, especially during the great industrial revolutions and things like that.

But I don’t know when or where someone said that five days a week, 40 hours a week is the norm. I would challenge that. I would say it’s overkill. I would say at Grace Prep we’ve learned that three days a week, 24 hours a week is sufficient. And if people say, “Well, where’s the proof?” Well look at our ACT scores. Look at our SAT scores. Look at schools that our kids are going to. We’ve been doing this for 20 plus years now, and we’ve exceeded all of the nominal public schools and we compete with your upper echelon public and private schools across the board. That’s academically, socially, morally, etc.

So, that would be my biggest takeaway. Or if I’m on the outside looking in, I would have to ask the question: How are these guys able to do it in three days a week? We’re doing five and we’re still not having the results. And the answer would be because time with the family, there’s something, both biblical, there’s something historical, there’s something about a child being with mom and dad, a child being with grandma and grandpa, a child being with their aunt and uncle, whoever is their caregiver. There is something just natural, something logical, and again, something historical and biblical with that and how that produces a better student. How that produces a better civilian. How that, in my opinion, produces a better human being.

Mike McShane: So, now I would love to know, looking toward the future, what do you think the next year, the next five years, the next 10 years has in store for Grace Prep?

Chris Harper: Yeah. So, we’re excited. Just the traction that we’ve made over the last 10 years. Really, Grace Prep has come into prominence, at least here in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Like I alluded to earlier, we’re a high-demand school now. We have a lot of people wanting to get in. We’re looking at expanding. We’ve started to identify markets in different cities across the country where we think a Grace Prep model, not just the university model school, but we would like to create our own brand where we would begin to franchise out Grace Preps. Have a Grace Prep of Nashville. Have a Grace Prep Portland. Have a Grace Prep San Diego. These different types of cities. So, that’s actually in the next year or two, I’m going to start focusing on that. How do we take this regional presence and then take it to the next level and make it a national presence?

You know, we’re at 70 to 80 university-model schools now in the country, but it’s only in 20 different states. So, we’re not even in half the country yet. A great majority of our population in America has no idea that there is an alternative model of education where you don’t have to be a homeschool parent. You don’t have to know chemistry and physics and these sorts of things. But at the same time you also don’t have to give away 40-50 hours a week of your time with your child to a stranger, to someone who I’m sure is lovely and is a professional, but who honestly you really don’t know. So, we can’t wait to kind of introduce that to the rest of the country and then see if we can spin off 10, 12, 15, 20 schools in the next five to 10 years.

Mike McShane: Wow. Well what a great place to end. Chris Harper of Grace Prep, thank you so much for joining the Cool Schools podcast.

Chris Harper: Hey, it was a pleasure. You guys are doing just tremendous work, and thanks for having me on. If you ever need anything, let me know.

Mike McShane: Well, I really enjoyed talking to Chris there. It’s funny. These conversations often will just kind of, by their natural flow, kind of settle on one or two topics. Sometimes I ask a similar set of questions and want to see what comes out. I was really, really intrigued by the conversation that Chris had about time. You know, time is increasingly, it’s just such a precious commodity and I think that unfortunately, I think as Chris pointed out and probably jives with a lot of our own experiences in schooling, or I used to be a teacher and definitely feel this. Too much time is wasted in schools. It’s time that could be spent with families, or it could be spent doing any number of other enriching, wonderful activities. And it sends really kind of subtle messages to kids. Like if you don’t respect their time and you waste their time, it’s just one of those little subtle things that sort of says this is not a serious place. We’re not doing serious things here.

So, what Grace Prep is doing, both in their own work to maximize the time that they spend with children, but also to teach children to maximize their own time. I just see that paying any number of dividends. Again, some of these may be hard to measure, may be these kind of longer term outcomes. But respecting children’s time, teaching them to make the most of it. I think is something really interesting and something that lots of schools, and even sort of endeavors outside of schools could definitely learn from. So, I really appreciate Chris taking the time in the midst of a big, busy school and a potentially growing operation to chat with us here on the podcast.

If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe. You can always check us out on SoundCloud. I think it’s like SoundCloud/edchoice. But it’s easier just to subscribe. It shows up. It does all of the work for you. Put the internet to work for you. So yeah, definitely subscribe, check out everything. And if you could do one other thing for me, head over to www.edchoice.org and sign up for our email list. You can kind of customize the stuff that you’re interested with so we don’t just inundate you with stuff. You only get what you want. But if you’re interested in the work that I’m doing on hybrid homeschooling, schools like Grace Prep and others that are going to be in the series or just the general other writing and research that I do, you can get that sent to you.

I have also lots of really cool and interesting colleagues that are doing cool and interesting work. You get updates on what’s going on in school choice world around the country. Cool events that may be near you. Stuff that’s interesting to read. Can’t recommend it highly enough, www.edchoice.org. And maybe if I’ve asked for two things, this is just like a half thing at the end. This might only apply to a small number of you, but I’m always on the lookout for new cool schools to profile. So, if you know of a cool school in your area, maybe your kids go to one, your grandkids go to one, someone you know works at a cool school, please send that information my way. Email it to me. Hit me up on Twitter for it because I would love to talk to them about it. Anyway, take care and talk to you soon as we profile another cool school.