Ep. 190: Cool Schools with Prenda Micro-schools

June 23, 2020

In this episode of EdChoice Chats, Mike McShane brings on Kelly Smith of Prenda micro-schools and Sarah Raybon of the Arizona School Tuition Organization to talk about Prenda’s new and innovative approach to education. Want to see what a typical day at Prenda looks like? Click here.

Mike McShane: Hey everybody. Great to be back with you. This is Mike McShane, director of national research here at EdChoice. Welcome to another EdChoice Chat, and specifically another edition of the Cool Schools podcast. Today on the podcast, we have Kelly Smith and Sarah Raybon of Prenda micro-schools. I think we’re in for a real treat today, because Prenda micro-schools really are a new and innovative educational model that I think is going to blow some of your minds.

Prenda micro-schools are small schools. They’re small groups of eight to 10 kids that meet in a home, office or a studio. They blend in-person interaction and personalized learning through technology along with adults that serve as guides to help children through their educational program. They combine flexible learning environments, cutting edge techniques, and human centered technology and passionate people to help children develop creativity, problem solving, and those ever-important 21st century skills. On the podcast, we have Kelly Smith, who’s the founder and CEO. He has a really interesting employment history, which we weren’t actually able to necessarily get into, but he’s worked in marketing and project management and consulting and strategy. He’s based in Mesa, Arizona, and is a graduate of both BYU and MIT.

Joining him is second guest, it’s always fun when we can have a couple of people on the conversation,, we have Sarah Raybon, who’s the executive director of the Arizona School Tuition Organization Association and AZCAPE. She just happens to be a really enthusiastic Prenda supporter and was able to give us a lot of context about how things are working on the ground. So without further ado, here are Kelly Smith and Sarah Raybon of Prenda micro-schools. So Kelly and Sarah, thank you so much for joining the Cool Schools podcast.

Kelly Smith: You bet.

Mike McShane: Yeah. Prenda micro-schools. We should probably start by answering the question, what’s a micro-school?

Kelly Smith: A micro-school, as you would imagine it might be, is a smaller version of school. Instead of maybe a hundred or 600 kids, a micro-school typically in our world has five to 10 students. So very small group of people meeting together. Similarly aged groups for the most part. So, you can imagine a K-2 grouping kids working together. The way we do micro-schools it’s really all about empowering students, so we want to help these kids evolve as self-learners. Then we can get into how we do that, but that’s the general picture. You should also think of pretty hyper-local groups. We like it when these groups formed through neighborhoods or communities, and we’re operating in lots of different types of communities. But this feeling of trust and belonging that happens, it’s a very natural, safe connection between people who often know each other through community things anyway, and so working together to create this great experience for school.

Mike McShane: So, how did Prenda get started?

Kelly Smith: So the beginning of Prenda was me in my house, seven kids. So one of them was my own son. I pulled him out of school and I talked to six of my friends about pulling their kids out of school. Did not have a solid learning model, but over the years previous to this, I had been doing an after-school computer programming class as a volunteer at the public library. So I had embarked on this thing where I would work with kids. Hopefully some of them would learn to like coding and go on to get a job someday, but it was really just about having some fun with the neighborhood kids. I did that every week for five years.

In the process of that, I started to ask some questions and look for some answers in terms of how learning can work, and what’s the difference between what I saw at Code Club, which was typically a very high level of engagement, kids that were very opted in to learning. They were feeling ownership and diving in, asking a lot of questions, working on whatever project they were working on. But sometimes that would be a tutorial. I saw them solving very difficult problems, doing real learning that was not easy or trivial, but doing it happily. And then these same kids would complain about disengagement and feeling of disempowerment in their structured school environment.

I was asking myself, “What’s the difference?” Because I knew a lot of these kids’ parents and their teachers were good, and so you have these great people that are working in their lives, but somehow it was adding up to a less empowering experience for them, and that included my own son. So at that point, I said, “What if we just tried something new?” And I had encountered the micro-school, the beginnings of this movement outside of Arizona. There’s some great people that are doing work in this space, so learning everything I could from them, but basically trying to invent this model. We spent a semester together kind of iterating, learning together on what that can look like.

Mike McShane: So maybe the best way to think of this is from a student’s perspective to help listeners wrap their mind around what’s happening. So if I am a Prenda student, it’s Monday morning, take it from there. What happens?

Kelly Smith: We have a great video that we’re just releasing that walks people through this, a day in the life, so I’ll make sure your viewers have a link to that. But Sarah, why don’t you take this one and just give an overview of what the Prenda day looks like?

Sarah Raybon: Great, thanks. The cool thing about Prenda is that the students are taking ownership of their learning. So, at the first part of a Prenda day, when a student walks into that Prenda classroom or that micro-school classroom, the students are setting their goals for learning. So with the support and encouragement of their fellow learners, they’re saying, “I’m going to get to this today. I’m going to get to that today.” They’re setting their goals, which I think is so important, because that is empowering them and making them feel like they matter and they can do anything. So I think that’s really cool. The kids get right down to business.

Mike McShane: Where are these classrooms?

Sarah Raybon: Well, in most cases, they are in homes. We have some that are in other facilities, churches with spare space, community center was spare space, but the majority are in private homes. So it’s broken down into three parts. Conquer, collaborate and create. After they set those goals, they get right down to their conquer time, and that’s their academic subjects. It’s mastery based. They can all work at their own level, which is fabulous. I know some of our team describes it as like a beehive. It’s buzzing. It’s not everybody just sitting there working on computers during this time, but they can be sitting in a dining room table, sitting in a group outside when the weather’s nice. Enjoying outside, sitting out back, working on their conquer time and those academic subjects at their own level, which I think that is great. Mastery based, allowing them to work where they’re at, move ahead when they’re ready, I think that’s so important.

That’s the first part of a Prenda day. Next we’ve got the collaborative time, which is when the kids get all that social interaction. They’re doing discussions, Socratic debates, science projects. They’re working in teams and groups. And then finally create, and that is the hands on project based time of the day where they’re creating something. They could be working on their own, they could be working in a pair. We have a micro-school class who just built an entire mini house. That’s amazing. I mean, it took them months, and these kids had to do some very delicate teamwork and working together and just using their academic skills to create these amazing projects. So that’s the day in a nutshell, and we’re just seeing some amazing results and some happy kids and just lives being transformed.

Mike McShane: Are these days, are they kind of like eight to three, nine to five? Does it follow the rhythms of a traditional school day?

Sarah Raybon: So think four days a week for the most part. Shorter days, just maybe 20 hours a week. So think five hours a day. Typically Monday through Thursday, but it can really fit with whatever the need of the community is. The concept is almost the neighborhood school we say re-imagined. I mean, this concept of in the perfect world a kiddo can ride their bike down the street to their micro-school, And you see a line of bikes out front and all the kids are in there doing school together. Typically the Prenda guide, so that’s what we call the teacher in the room, the Prenda guide. They can work with their little community there to set whatever is the best fit as far as breaks go. Christmas break, holiday break, whatever.

Kelly Smith: Mike, we try to give as much flexibility as we can to the guides to match this to their community. I’ve joked with people that if you wanted to do it in the middle of the night, you could. I’m still waiting for somebody to start a third shift Prenda micro-school. But for the most part, they choose times that work for the families, and that’s often mornings or the afternoons. Sarah mentioned four days a week, but we have people that do five. I mean, we have people that do seven. So it’s a lot of flexibility in terms of how they do it and when.

Mike McShane: That’s great, I’m glad you brought up these guides. So the adult, what is the role of the adult in the micro-school?

Kelly Smith: Yeah, the question, I mean, if you back up a little bit, there’s this fundamental philosophy in our mind that content, the knowledge accumulated by humanity over centuries, is for the most part available, right? So if somebody has the willpower and the wherewithal, they can go find information. It’s not about content for us. What we realized, though, was that most people will not do that. They don’t have that willpower, wherewithal, or even know to do that, right? So, what we’re trying to do in a Prenda micro-school is create a culture where learning happens. You’ll hear words like empowerment. You’ll hear us talk about core values like start with heart and foundation of trust, because what we’re trying to do is create this space where people feel safe to take some risks, to be wrong, to learn, and that starts from a very young age.

So if that’s the goal, now the question of the adult is what does that adult do? There’s a really challenging role there of being able to facilitate an environment like that, to make a space where everyone feels safe to go out and do real learning. So we find guides. In contrast to a traditional teacher, they don’t prepare lesson plans, they don’t deliver content, they don’t grade papers. The real goal is one-on-one, and I have, remember, five to 10 students. So I get a chance to know each of them at a very deep level and unlock them as a human puzzle, right? As a coach, as a mentor, as somebody who respects your innate humanity and sees great potential in you, here’s how I would help you go from where you are today to where you’d like to be and help them shape that vision.

So sometimes it’s a motivation question. You get guides having very hard conversations with, I’m thinking of a boy in my class last year that one of our creative projects that we give is called Future You. You make some sort of artistic representation of your future self as an adult. This boy decided, partly in jest just to be a punk, but I think he was partially serious about this. He made a clay statue of himself lounging back in a couch, in an armchair with his feet up, and there was a soda in one hand and a remote control in the other hand, and he’s like, “That’s me in the future. That’s what I want to do, is sit.” It was funny. Like I said, knowing him and understanding him, I was able to just laugh about it, but also ask some follow-up questions. So are you saying that your dream would be to just do nothing? To literally like recline in a vegetative state and watch television? And he’s like, “Yep. That’s exactly what I want.”

So we have theories about why motivation’s not there, and there’s these very vulnerable moments that you really have to confront some inner fears and things to get to a point of real learning. He, like many people, have had different trauma in his past where he’s shaped this message around himself that’s a little bit defensive. But it was an interesting conversation, because he knew I cared about him. We were able to talk through, “Okay. So where’d you get the soda?” And it’s like, “Well, I had to go to the store and buy it at Circle K or whatever.” “So where did the money come from to go to Circle K?” “Well, somebody gave me some money.” And I was like, “Where do you live? Where is this couch taking place, and who’s paying for the cable?” It was this whole thought process of, “No, actually that’s not the life I want.” Right?

And of course he knew that anyway. I’m not claiming to have some sort of great insight. But what was cool is to watch over time, as he got more comfortable with his role as a learner, there was a moment later in the semester where he had been introduced to computer programming. I had shared with him some of my ideas and found that he has a very natural gift for tinkering and figuring things out. Both mechanical systems, but also software systems. I was talking to him about careers in computer programming at one point and how I have a lot of friends who that’s their job and they make really good money and things are good, and there was this later conversation in the year where he said, “I’m going to get a PhD in computer science.”

I remember comparing that back to that. So this is one person, but to gradually get to that point, that’s not one document that you can throw at somebody. It’s over and over again first, and we call it start with heart. He has to be super sure that I’m in it for him, that I care about him, and I see him as a human being, right? Number two, he has to trust me. So foundation of trust. There’s this piece of, okay, I believe you when you encourage me to work hard because it’s for a reason. In the rest of our culture, figure it out, learning over comfort, dare greatly. We’re trying to get kids to see big visions for their life, and then do the work to get there.
But you can imagine all of these things sound great on paper, but where they really come to life is in these one-on-one, very high touch connective coaching sessions with an adult who cares about you, and our guides are just amazing at it. We found so many people that do this. I laugh because I was the first guide, but there’s people in our system that do it so much better than I ever did. They’re so good at just loving and connecting and encouraging these mindsets and habits that will help kids forever.

Mike McShane: Sarah, it’s my understanding that this is growing like gangbusters in Arizona. What has been the experience on the ground there?

Sarah Raybon: So when I first heard about Prenda, learned about Prenda, I was just blown away. I went and I actually visited Kelly’s micro-school and saw the kids there, and it was so different than anything I’d ever seen, and I’ve been in a lot of different school environments and educational environments. I thought, “This could really just revolutionize what we think of as education.” And the impact in under-served areas and rural areas, it’s just, that was 2018 and starting with just that one classroom, and now we have over 880 students in Prenda and micro-schools all over the state.

I think what I’m most excited about is our impact in our rural communities here in Arizona. We’ve got micro schools in tiny little rural towns. We’ve got the first micro-school on a native American reservation, and that’s just, to impact those families and to see the change in those children, to go back six months later and meet these kids, it almost seems like they’re even standing up taller. They’re just so proud of themselves and the ability to start this up. I think that the sky’s the limit. I think we’ll have close to 400 micro-schools this year, and just the interest from out of state. I mean, we get calls from other countries and from international folks that want to do things like this and want to have a Prenda micro-school in their home. So the demand has just been huge.

Mike McShane: So I know I can hear listeners’ questions in my head right now. How does this work financially? Where does the money come from to do this? How did the books balance?

Kelly Smith: Yeah, it’s a great and reasonable question, especially for people who are familiar with the system. As people know, there’s a very complex and elaborate funding structure that none of us knew by the way, going into this, so we’ve had to learn alongside as we’ve tried to bring this model to kids. But the answer really is we’re very flexible. So our goal is to basically be as agnostic as possible about vehicles for funding and how that works. We want to offer this for free to families. It’s important to us that these kids, especially in these small towns and inner city populations and Native American communities, we want to definitely make sure that people get access. We get the most excited about the people who definitely wouldn’t be with us if it was a tuition based thing.

That said, we have cases where parents are paying tuition. In Arizona, there’s a ESA program, Empowerment Scholarship Account. We use that program. So for example, the San Carlos micro-school that Sarah was just mentioning is funded through that vehicle. We’ve partnered with districts, partnered with charter schools, so we’re really trying to find as many different avenues, and there are a lot of flexibility in the structure for opportunities. So the point of it is, we want to make this available to as many people as possible, and we’re really actively open to partnerships. So if you’re watching and you think, “This is interesting. I’d like to work with these guys,” please give me a call. I’d love to talk to you.

Mike McShane: So just to be clear, there are districts that operate Prenda micro-schools?

Kelly Smith: One of our favorite micro schools, I can’t have favorites because I love all of them, but there is a predominantly free, reduced lunch inner city elementary school here in my hometown of Mesa, where the principal is a former Teach for America, just a very forward thinking, so devoted to his community and in his families. I had gotten introduced to this principal, we’ve partnered on this thing and it’s now in it’s second year. Obviously with COVID, it’s not meeting today, but as you see these kids come in and many of them with really complicated and challenging set of backstory, you’ll hear the kids themselves talk about, “I was getting in trouble a lot. I was on the verge of getting kicked out of school or having to go to a different program within the district,” and getting an opportunity to then turn that all around by owning their education.

But these kids, they meet as a micro-school inside of an elementary school, and we love that model. I mean, like we’ve been saying, my goal is to empower learners. I am actually much more agnostic about where that happens, and if you are a district or a teacher that wants to partner and get something like this going in your school, we would love to work with you.

Mike McShane: So I’m fascinated. I’m like an ed policy guy, so I’m thinking my mind right now all of the rules and regulations, and you’re talking about schools in people’s homes and guides not teachers. So how do you live within the very, very regulated world of education? How are you able to do this in people’s homes? How are you able to have this guides, or if it’s more of a part time as opposed to full time thing? The short question is, how do you get away with all of this?

Kelly Smith: Yeah, no, it’s a great question. There’s lots of answers depending on the situation, right? So if you have, for example, we’ll have a situation where everybody’s technically home-schooling. They’ve signed the affidavit, pulled their kids, and this is just a voluntary co-op of families that meet together. So in that sense, there’s really not a lot of oversight or bureaucracy. Private school type models through the ESA type programs, that’s a place where it looks a little different. For the most part, we have been regulated as distance learning.

So for example, all the education piece of what we’re doing at rolls up to the Department of Education under the same as a virtual school, and then the physical component of these micro-schools really happening through more of in-home childcare. So it’s actually a different department in the government. It’s not regulated the same way that you would try to go to a building and keep track of where are the wheelchair ramps and where are the sprinkler systems and things. but it’s still signed off on as a safe place for kids to be in a home, and there’s a great precedent for that in the sense that we have preschools and daycares meeting in homes all over the place. So you have people taking care of each other’s children in these voluntary associations that are still regulated for safety, but not in the same way that a quote school by traditional measures would be.

Mike McShane: So now as you all look to the future, I would love to know what you think the next one year, three years, five years holds for Prenda.

Kelly Smith: Yeah. I’ll start, and Sarah, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, too. For me, it’s just more and more people keep finding us and the message resonates, right? The general story is just for whatever reason, my child wasn’t engaged. They weren’t loving where they were. That could be, I was bored. Maybe the kid’s ahead and they’re feeling bored because they’re wasting time. Or maybe the kid’s behind and they’re feeling dumb, or they’re feeling this sense of, “I don’t know what’s going on.” Or bullying, fears about … I mean, there’s so many reasons why it can not work. To just hear a parent after parent come to us and say, “This is exactly what we needed.” This new environment’s still very, very interactive, and in some ways more interactive than a traditional classroom where you have to manage for people being quiet because otherwise it’s total chaos. 10 kids, you can have them up and interactive and doing all these things.

So there’s all this freedom and flexibility in these settings. It’s working so well that frankly, the goal right now is just to be able to accommodate the people that are coming. One of the things that gets me really excited as we watch people, like Sarah was mentioning all over Arizona, outside of Arizona, we’ve had inbound from lots of states now and even outside of the country. As we find these people, the ones that are self selecting to us are just people who care a lot. They line up with our culture. They’re very excited about the mission of what we’re trying to do, so there’s this creativity that they bring and they make it better. So for me, the thing that gets really exciting over one, five, 10 years is not just more kids experiencing, this more guides participating in doing good in their communities, but also the cumulative effect of making it better as everybody contributes. We’ve definitely seen that over the last couple of years of doing this.

Sarah Raybon: I think I’ll just add one thing that since we were growing and growing and growing anyway, and all had a great trajectory, great path, but when the schools were closed, I think there were a lot of families that were suddenly forced into this new environment of, “Wow. I’m seeing what’s coming home, what my kids are learning. I’m trying to now be the teacher.” Just seeing those struggles and then being exposed to, “Okay, what else is out there? What else is out there? Here I am. I’m at home with my kids. Let’s explore what else might be available. This is kind of nice. Do we like this? We’re home, we’re together. We’re able to have more family time. Now, how can we translate that into education and what that looks like?” So we’ve seen a huge increase I think just because people are looking for alternatives moving forward, because they almost were forced to at first, but then realizing that education can be different. You don’t have to go back to same old back in August, that maybe that there’s something else out there that might be a better fit.

Mike McShane: It’s my understanding you all are doing something specifically to cope with COVID-19. I would love to hear that.

Kelly Smith: We’re experimenting. We’re unclear what we’ll do on a go forward basis. We knew from the beginning that a big portion of our model is the high touch cultural elements that I’ve been talking about. You can hear that in the way we describe it. The question was with COVID, you have all these parents looking for something like, “Help me.” There are piles and piles and piles of links and worksheets. We knew we weren’t going to just want to throw more worksheets onto the pile, right? That did not seem to us to be the need. It was more of a guided path through and how to in practice do it.

So what we tried to do was take the Prenda model as experienced by our kids in micro-schools. We have a version of this where we train the parents to be the guide, so it’s more of like a home school-y version of this, and to take that and make it available out of super low cost to everyone that wants it. So we did create that, and we’ve learned a lot working with these awesome families now all over the world that are interested in what we’re interested in, and the parents have stepped up and done it. One of the things I’d say we’ve learned in that is how critical that learning guide is, and the role of somebody that’s just dedicated, trained, that knows how to be that coach and mentor. It’s been hard for us to bring parents along to that point, especially through the limited touch that we have with them.

So one of the things that we’re exploring right now as a company is, what do we actually do going forward? For this version, we call it Prenda at home, and you can find it at try.prendahome.com. It’s still there. but we really offered it through the end of the school year, because we knew COVID was happening now. This was a couple of months ago. We put it out now. What happens next school year? I think there’s still a lot of question marks, and we’re trying to decide what that’s going to look like. One of the things we’ve definitely doubled down on, though, is that level of culture and community and connectedness that we really want to leverage, whatever we do going forward.

Mike McShane: Well, Kelly, Sarah, thank you so much for joining us today on the Cool Schools podcast.

Kelly Smith: Thanks for having me.

Sarah Raybon: Thanks so much, Mike.

Mike McShane: I mean, how cool was that? I mean, that was a really interesting conversation, a totally different model. Someone who looked at the fundamental environment that they want to create for children to learn and collaborate with one another and work together and grow and be supportive in how they do that, and stripped everything else away and tried to rebuild it from the ground up. I think the growth that they’re experiencing is fascinating. It’ll be interesting to see if they’re able to maintain that growth or if that growth crops up in other places across the country. I mean, part of it’s interesting because of just the peculiarities of Arizona. Arizona is such a school choice rich state. You have lots of traditional public school districts that because of open enrollment and others where I think are really sort of being more innovative, are more open to partnerships like the ones that they have with Prenda. You have this vibrant charter school community, and a really vibrant private school community as well with the support from education savings accounts and others.

I would be remiss as the policy guy if I didn’t say this is the type of cool stuff that can happen when traditional public school districts, charter schools, private schools are open to trying new and different things and we have the policies that can support them. So if this sounds like something that’s cool or you’d like to see that kind of ecosystem develop in your state, we can help you. You can talk to us about some of the policies that make things like that happen. As always, it was great having this conversation. Thanks so much for listening to it. Please subscribe to this podcast. I’m not the only one putting out interesting content. My friend and colleague Jason Bedrick is doing these big think podcasts where he’s bringing interesting folks on and talking to them. We’re doing a lot of fun stuff too. We did a what 10 movies that dealt with education, where we all got to pick one and had a real good time with it. So please subscribe to these podcasts. We’ve got a lot of fun stuff that you can enjoy.

Also head over to our website, www.edchoice.org, and sign up for our email list. You can get a customized email to you based on the types of EdChoice content that you’re interested in. As always, I end by saying, if you know of a cool school, all of these cool schools that I profile, I generally hear about from word of mouth. Someone says, “Hey, my kid goes to this school and my grand kids go to this school.” Or, “Hey, I heard some buzz about this school. Would you talk to folks?” I love doing that. So if you know of a cool school, please feel free. Hit me up on Twitter. I’m @MQ_McShane. Send me an email. Just shout really loudly outside. The streets are basically deserted at this point, so it might carry over to me. So thanks so much for joining, and I look forward to talking to you all again on the next episode of Cool Schools.