Ep. 170: Cool Schools with Jefferson Academy

April 7, 2020

In this episode, Mike McShane chats with Tim Matlick—executive director of Jefferson Academy and the Summit Academy Home School program in Broomfield, Colorado.

Mike McShane: Hello and welcome back to the Cool Schools podcast and EdChoice Chats series podcast. My name is Mike McShane. I’m director of national research at EdChoice. Today on the podcast we have Tim Matlick, who’s the executive director of the Jefferson Academy and the Summit Academy Home School program in Broomfield, Colorado.

You’re getting a two for one special today, because Tim actually oversees two linked programs, but they do two different things. Jefferson Academy is a more traditional charter school. It’s a Core Knowledge school, and we’ll spend some time talking about exactly what that means. But it’s also host to the Summit Academy Home School program, which is a hybrid homeschool program, where children attend school for one day a week. Some of it’s for enrichment, some of it’s for core content instruction, but provides support to homeschooling families in Colorado.

It’s a really interesting conversation. Tim shares some of his experience in the charter school sector, where he was in the more traditional charter school sector before he joined this. And we’re able to tease out a lot of interesting lessons and data points and all sorts of cool stuff about going on in charter schooling and in hybrid homeschooling in Colorado. So, without further ado, here’s my conversation with Tim Matlick, executive director at Jefferson Academy.

Great. So, Tim, I mean if we could maybe start at the beginning, how did Jefferson Academy come to be?

Tim Matlick: So, Jefferson Academy is actually one of the oldest charter schools in Jefferson County, in the state of Colorado. There was a school that was in the county that was a very high-performing school at the time. It was an option school, which is similar to a magnet school. But some of the founders of Jefferson Academy struggled having the students enroll there, because they were on IEPs, and that particular school at that time was not taking students with IEPs.

And so, five of the seven founders had students that were on IEPs got together and said, “We want to start a high-performing school that also serves these kids.” Now things have changed over the years, obviously that was 26 years ago. So, things are significantly different now, but that was where it began, with just these parents that wanted to serve their kids.

Mike McShane: And now how has it evolved over time?

Tim Matlick: So, it started out as a K-6 school, kindergarten through sixth grade Core Knowledge school. And they actually started in one of the district’s buildings. They purchased an old elementary school off the district. And then it slowly grew to add seventh and eighth grade and now it’s a kindergarten through 12th grade—a K-12 school.

So, in the K-7 realm, it’s a Core Knowledge school. And then when it goes to the secondary, it is a college prep and a coordinated-humanities school. And it truly is a college prep school. So, they’re really pushing the kids in the direction of college. It’s designated as a remote site for one of the local community colleges. So, a lot of our kids do concurrent enrollment here in Colorado.

Mike McShane: So, now what does a typical day for one of your students look like? What does a typical week for one of your students look like?

Tim Matlick: At the elementary, they come in about 8:00. We have a soft start, 7:45 to 8:00. And then we have a master schedule that the kids work through. So, they take their math and their language arts first thing in the morning, and then they go through their traditional program. They also have five specials that they go through—the Spanish, the art, the music, technology. And they’ll rotate through two specials each day. And so, they’re interspersed throughout the core content. As a Core Knowledge school, it is very content rich, so there’s a lot of material to learn. And it does move very fast paced at the elementary.

At the secondary school, the secondary school took on a block scheduling. And so, they actually only have four classes per day, they’re each an hour-and-a-half long, which allows the teachers to really get into depth in the content on a particular day. So, the students will have those four blocks. And we struggle a little bit with students that want to transfer either into the school or out of the school with other high schools in the area, because what would normally take a full year in high school, they do in a semester at our school because they have those longer class periods. So, just something that we worked through with the local high schools.

Mike McShane: And so now part of the offerings, it’s my understanding, is there is this Summit Academy program that’s affiliated with the school. Am I right in saying that the schools are kind of affiliated with one another or work together?

Tim Matlick: Sure, absolutely. So, Jefferson Academy has the contract with the district for the charter school. In one of the programs, it’s a designated program under our contract in Summit Academy, that’s a homeschool program. They have a different facility. So, there’s two different sites where we do homeschool programming. One is North Denver, in the North Denver area, Westminster area. And then one is in South Denver in the Littleton area. And they fall under Jefferson Academy, because they don’t have their contract, but they work with us through the programming.

Mike McShane: And how does that program work?

Tim Matlick: So, at Summit Academy, they’re homeschool students that come to the school for one day of enrichment and content. And so, in the state of Colorado, if a student actually goes to a school for 90 hours a semester or 180 hours a year, then the state will fund them for half of what a normal student is funded for. And so, the state actually does provide funding, which is really great in Colorado that they do that. They provide the funding. And so, we have one set of students, we have about 200 students, 220 students that show up on Wednesday. We have another 220, 230 that show up on Thursday and the same on Friday. So, they cycle through, but they’re different kids each day. But it’s the same content.

Mike McShane: And so that funding, I was just trying to do some mental math of the calculation that the state makes. Does that allow for different types of programming? Is that a revenue stream for the charter school side? How does that work?

Tim Matlick: So, it is a little bit of a revenue stream. So, at the bare minimum, in essence, if a student goes to school one day a week and that hits the 90 hours or 180 hours, then there’ll be funded for two and a half days’ worth of funding that a normal student would get. One of the things that we run into with homeschool, is that it actually is more expensive to work with homeschool students than it is with traditional students. The biggest reason is that the class sizes need to be smaller to really accommodate the needs of those kids. And so, in a normal school where you would have 28 students, at the homeschool program you’ll run between 8 and 15 per class.

Mike McShane: What are some examples of the enrichment classes that you make available to these students?

Tim Matlick: Sure, so some of the enrichment we have sign language ASL—so they teach ASL to some of the kids. They actually have a class which works with scooters and some of those things. We have technology. We have programming. We have segues in there. And then we also have special classes designed for kids with dyslexia and then the traditional classes.

Mike McShane: So, I’d be fascinated. So, now you are working in what we might call the more traditional side, which is the Jefferson Academy side, and this very innovative piece with the Summit Academy. So, I’d be interested, what lessons have you learned? Do lessons that you’ve learned on one side influence or change your behavior on the other side? Is there—I’m trying to think of the best term—a cross- pollination that happens? How does each side inform the other?

Tim Matlick: No, that’s a great question. In my previous role, before I came to Jefferson Academy, I was a community superintendent in the district, and I worked with all the different charter schools. And so, I was working with Montessori schools, Waldorf schools, Rocky Mountain Deaf School, just a bunch of different schools. And it’s really interesting when you begin to look at this, and I’ve talked to some of the administrators in both buildings. The top-performing students at our traditional college prep high school actually score about the same on the national test, ACT and those things, as the top performing students at the homeschool program. And yet the students at the homeschools programs spend less time per day on their own, working on content.

And so one of the challenges that we’ve taken on the one side is saying, “How can we do a better job of really educating our kids in the time that we have, so that they can have a great lifestyle when they go home, on the college prep side, without just providing so much content and so much homework that they really struggle?” And on the homeschool side is, “How do we support the parents in the work that they’re doing at home?” Because in Colorado, it’s the parent’s primary responsibility to educate those kids. It’s not the homeschool program enrichment responsibility to do that.” And so, we’re supporting the parents. And so we’re trying to figure that out.

Mike McShane: I mentioned I’m kind of a public policy guy, and I’m fascinated with these kind of overlaying layers of public support and programming and others. How do you, when you’re interacting with your district or with the state, are there particular… I’m trying to think of just the rules and regulations navigating that. How do you navigate all of those different webs?

Tim Matlick: So, we have the student information systems that track all the student data and that’s what’s used to report through what’s called the Pipeline in Colorado. So, the student data is tracked from the district side. It goes to CDE, Colorado Department of Education. So, what we had to do is go back into the system and rebuild parts of the infrastructure of the system to designate homeschool students, so that we could separate them out from a lot of the tracking that the district did. For instance, they don’t actually have to take the state-mandated test. Most of the homeschool parents choose to take the ITBS, Iowa Test of Basic Skills. And so, if we weren’t pulling that data out of the reporting that goes to the state, then the schools reports would look poor, because we’d have 800 students that didn’t test in essence.

So, we really had to go back in and look at this from the base level to say how do we designate, how do we separate these kids out?

Mike McShane: I’m also interested in sort of charter authorizing. It seems like your authorizer has granted you a lot of flexibility to do some cool and interesting things. So, who authorizes you and how do you navigate that relationship?

Tim Matlick: Sure. So, we are authorized by the local district, Jefferson County School District, here in Colorado. It’s the second largest school district in Colorado, behind Denver. They have 17 charter schools. Right now, there’s about 2,400-2,500 students that are homeschooled in homeschool programs through different charter schools. So, there are six charter schools that have homeschool programs.

The relationship that we have with the district is actually really, really good. When they support the work that we do. We purchase a lot of the infrastructure—this is unlike a lot of charter schools—we’ll purchase the infrastructure that we need to run the business. And so we actually keep all of our financials inside the districts financials. We use Infinite Campus. We use literally all the software that the district has for their neighborhood schools. We just purchase that off of them. We purchase special education, we purchase ESL services. It’s just a really good working relationship.

Mike McShane: And I’d be interested to know, so as I learn more about what you’re doing and think about other places around the country, it’s relatively unique that just in your district alone, there’s six charter schools that have some kind of homeschooling programs or others. So, why is this happening there and not in other places?

Tim Matlick: It’s a great question. I think part of it is because the charter school community in Jefferson County, everybody’s a little bit different, but we come together once a month for consortium meetings where we get together and we learn from each other. And I think what they’ve seen for instance, is the Waldorf School, when they saw the homeschool program and how it was working at some of the traditional charter schools, the Waldorf School said, “Hey, we can do this and do this in a Waldorf way.” And so they started their program and it’s grown to about 100 students.

The same thing with some of the Montessori schools when they looked at it and said, “This is a great idea. We can actually take the concept of homeschooling and we can do support for…” One of the schools is going to start an agriculture program for homeschool students because that fits into the Montessori method. So, I think it just came from word of mouth and people just enjoying the idea of figuring out how to give parents these different choices.

Mike McShane: Do you think that those types of conversations could take place in other cities and other states? Are there things that are standing in the way? Is it public policy? Is it culture? Is it… I’m just trying to understand, this sounds awesome. I live in Kansas City. Why isn’t this happening in Kansas City?

Tim Matlick: No. Great question. I think there’s two issues. One, the charter school law in Colorado is really good and really strong, and the homeschool law is actually really strong. And so, in both of those, that allows us to do this without having to struggle with the legislature and the statutes that would prohibit this from happening.

So, I think it really depends on the laws in an individual state as to whether it’s allowed. And then I do think that in the states where relationships are a little bit more contentious than they are right now in Colorado with charter schools and traditional schools and authorizers, it might be difficult to sell this as an add on, so to speak, to their authorizer to say, “Yes, this is actually a valid program that’s supporting parental choice.”

Mike McShane: And I’m interested, how do you work with your parents, particularly on the homeschooling side? I know kind of homeschooling parents can be very protective of their children and the educational program that they have for them. So, how do you communicate with them and how do you work with them?

Tim Matlick: So, it’s a great question, again. We actually communicate separately between the different buildings. And so, Jefferson Academy proper, the K-6 and the 7-12 buildings have one series of communications and we work with those parents one way, under the direction of the principals primarily. And at Summit Academy it’s the same thing. So, the principal will communicate with those parents. If we’re doing some global communication, I will usually communicate with the parents or with the principals and they can push out the information to the parents.

When we started, I think it was about 14 years ago, I started a homeschool program in a different charter school. And it was really interesting because those parents, to your point, they were saying, “We want to be part of this program, but we don’t want our kids in the system.” And the only way to actually get funding for those kids was to put them in the system so that it could be reported to the state so we could receive funding. So, that was one of the barriers early on that we were dealing with when homeschooling really picked up.

Mike McShane: So, how do you measure success? How do you know that what you’re doing is working?

Tim Matlick: Couple of different ways. The kids do take the ITBS tests and so we track that. They have to take it every other year in the state of Colorado. So, third, fifth, seventh, ninth, 11th grade. Also, the ACT testing, so we look at that data to say, “Are we really giving the kids what we need?”

The homeschool teachers actually participate in a lot of the professional development that we do either at Jefferson Academy or at the district. And so, we’ll send administrators from the homeschool program to the district to pick up on things that the district is bringing out as well. So, we really take the educational look at it to make sure that we’re meeting the needs of the kids and graduation rates as well.

Mike McShane: Thinking back on, and more the Jefferson Academy side, I would assume that some of our listeners are familiar with Core Knowledge. Maybe a lot of them are given who I imagine listens to this podcast. But could you maybe give a little description about the Core Knowledge curriculum and why you chose it?

Tim Matlick: Sure. So, Core Knowledge of the curriculum was established by Dr. E.D. Hirsch, and he had a basic concept that said that there are some basic things that kids need to know in order to function successfully in the world as we know it. So, what he did ism in his team of researchers, they really did the research on the basic items that these kids need. And then they came up with a sequence. So, it’s not so much a curriculum as it is a sequence. They sequenced this learning over eight years.

What happens with the content is you’ll catch the content three different times, most of the content. The first time, it’s pretty much what happened. The second time in an older grade, you get into why did it happen? And then in the middle school—sixth, seventh and eighth grade years—you really get into the analytics of what does it mean to us that it happened.

So, one of the things that I really like about the Core Knowledge program, is that it’s not very directive to teachers. And so, you don’t open a book and it says, “Run this assignment and do it this way.” What Core Knowledge does is say, “Here are the items that students need to learn in this content area at this time.” And then it’s up to the teachers to figure out how to meet the needs of those kids. It could change every year. So, we often have one teacher that’s doing group work with one set of kids and the other teachers teaching the same content but in their class are doing it as individual work. So, it works really well for those highly intuitive, independent teachers that really want the opportunity to, as people say, “to get into the art of teaching.”

Mike McShane: And where do you find those teachers? What are your primary tools for recruiting great teachers?

Tim Matlick: Normally it’s word of mouth. So, sometimes with teachers, some teachers like to have everything really documented and scripted said, “Here’s how you work.” And they’re great teachers as well. It’s just not a good place for them to be here. So, a lot of times it’s word of mouth. When teachers have that freedom to be teachers, then they talk to their friends and we get a lot of referrals. Right now, the market’s a little bit harder. So, we’re hitting job fairs and it’s just pretty tough right now.

Mike McShane: Is that just because the economy’s getting better so it’s tough to… Or is there more competition from other schools in the area?

Tim Matlick: There’s two things. I think the competition is there, but also we have a lot of people retiring, and nationally, teachers have been getting out of the profession, and so it’s harder to find great teachers at this point in time.

Mike McShane: So, if you look to the future of both the Jefferson Academy and the Summit Academy program sort of within there, what do you think the next year holds? The next three years hold? The next five years hold?

Tim Matlick: Sure. So, we are, at Jefferson Academy—the K-6 and the 7-12—we’re pretty much stable. There’s not a whole lot of room to grow. Summit Academy, we’re going to be adding 90 new students next year and another 90 at the North campus. We’re going to add 180 students, run about 750—close to 800—students at the Westminster campus. And then at our campus in Lakewood, we’ll be going from 150 students this year to 200 students next year. And the following year we predict that we’ll split into two days and we’ll probably hit close to 275 students on the homeschool side on both of those.

One of the things that we’re actually pretty excited about is that we recently worked with the district and got permission to work with a program called Hope House. And it’s a program that helps pregnant teens and new moms under the age of 21 work toward getting their high school diploma or their GED. So, we were able to wrap about 15 of those girls into our homeschool program. We hold that at a completely different site, but we’re able to really tear down the barriers to entry for those new moms.

Mike McShane: And the other students, what is driving that growth?

Tim Matlick: That’s a great question. I don’t have any data on that. My perception is that some of the demographics of the homeschool families are changing and have changed over the last 10 years. And I think just some of the families that are getting into homeschool just want a different alternative than sending their kids to a neighborhood school or a traditional charter school. But I don’t know.

Mike McShane: But I think that’s a really fascinating thing, because I know as more data is collected on homeschoolers, it turns out that they’re a more diverse bunch than I think lots of folks thought before. So, when you say that they’re changing, is it socioeconomically changing? Is it philosophically changing? Where are you seeing the change occur?

Tim Matlick: Philosophically. When I started in the homeschool sector about 14 years ago, the largest percentage of the folks that we have in homeschool programs were either unschoolers, or families that were wanting to travel, or very conservative families. And so, what we’re seeing now is it is literally spread across the entire demographic. It’s not those groups, but we just have kids from all different families and perceptions coming in.

Mike McShane: Well, Tim Matlick of Jefferson Academy, thank you so much for joining the Cool Schools podcast.

Tim Matlick: Thank you Dr. McShane. I appreciate it.

Mike McShane: So, that was a great conversation. It was really cool to be able to talk about the differences between the more traditional charter school that’s operating there, as well as this innovative homeschool program. And I really think that bit that we had at the end there where we’re talking about the differences in who is choosing to homeschool, I think that as I spend more time in hybrid homeschools across this country—again, public homeschools, private ones and others—I think that that’s a story that we’re seeing in lots of different places. That people are looking for different options. It’s not the traditional people that you think are homeschoolers that are homeschooling now.

And I think this creates an incredible opportunity. There are other states that could be like Colorado in how they support these schooling options. And I think that some of the things that he was describing on the public policy side could really be informative for folks.

So, if people are interested in having those conversations, please reach out to us. I think there’s lots of opportunities there to really expand the set of options that are available to students.

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