Ep. 274: Cool Schools with Kurtis Indorf

October 12, 2021

In this episode of our Cool Schools series we talk to Kurtis Indorf, president of Great Hearts Online and Great Hearts Microschools in Arizona. He tells us the innovative things he and his team have been doing and how this new option for families has already helped so many kids in his community.

Mike McShane: Hello, welcome back to another edition of EdChoice Chats. This is Mike McShane, director of national research at EdChoice. And today is an episode of Cool Schools. On the podcast, we have Kurtis Indorf, who is the President of Great Hearts Online and the Great Hearts Microschools. So really interesting endeavor by the Great Heart Schools, which many of you may be familiar with. They are a network of public charter schools that started in Arizona, and they’re trying something new. According to Great Hearts’ website for 20 years, Great Hearts has served students with the same clear and steadfast purpose: to cultivate the hearts and minds of students in pursuit of truth, goodness and beauty. This purpose lives on in Great Hearts Online. Different tools, but the same curriculum, culture, and heart. With Great Hearts Online, we realize our purpose, a way that removes traditional barriers, deepens relationships with families and strengthens our methods of holistic student formation. We value and cultivate a sense of wonder, depth of inquiry and love of learning in all classes.

Great Hearts Online is a virtual public charter school serving Arizona students in grade K through eight, offering a tuition free, rigorous, classical liberal arts curriculum, including advanced math and science, robust arts and foreign languages. And as we hear from Kurtis, it’s also being launched as a private school in the State of Texas and as a kind of demonstration project as the backbone to a network of microschools, small schools that leverage Great Hearts Online, but actually meet in person for some parts of the week. It’s a really interesting conversation. We cover a lot of ground. We talk about classical education. We talk about online education. We talk about microschooling. And frankly, these microschools are kind of hybrid schools because some of these schools are only going to go a couple of days a week. Some may go five days a week. There’s a lot of flexibility.

So we covered a lot of ground, but Kurtis was a super interesting guy to talk to. I think you all are really going to enjoy the conversation. So without further ado, this is my conversation with Kurtis Indorf, the President of Great Hearts Online.

When I think of the listenership of the Cool Schools Podcast or the type of people who would listen to a podcast called Cool Schools, and the types of people who would know what Great Hearts is. I imagine that Venn diagram is basically a circle. But maybe before we get into this wonderful new initiative that Great Hearts is launching, maybe we could start with just talking a little bit, kind of a thumbnail history of the Great Heart schools.

Kurtis Indorf: Absolutely. Well, thanks Mike. Great Hearts launched as a public brick and mortar charter school in Arizona, about 20 years ago. And we are a classical liberal arts educational model. And we launched as prep schools, upper schools, 7th grade through 12th grade, and then moved into elementary or what we call lower schools, K through six a few years later. Currently, Great Hearts runs brick and mortar charter schools in Arizona and Texas. I think we have about 27,000 kids we educate in about 36 schools across the states, and that number is increasing and growing every day. And our mission is to cultivate the hearts and minds of students in pursuit of truth, goodness and beauty. That’s a different type of mission than other places where I’ve worked. It is inspiring to me. It’s not a mission that you can go back from. It’s hard to have a mission focused on student achievement when the mission of what we’re trying to do is human formation, student formation.

We want to create great hearted young men and women, who love good and true and beautiful things. And that’s a different aspiration that we’re pointed towards, but it also requires that all the other pieces are accomplished along the way. Academic learning, character formation. These things also have to be accomplished on the way to the goal and so that’s our pursuit.

Mike McShane: And so I think a lot of times when people hear about classical education, they immediately just want to say like, oh, old books, or the great books, or there’s this sort of set of texts and that’s what it is. But it sounds to me like Great Hearts is about more than that. It’s not just, oh, when other schools read books A, books B, books C, we read X, Y and Z. It’s more holistic than that. Could you maybe talk, first for those that may not be familiar with what types of things that you actually do read, the actual substance of the education, but then also if I’m getting that right, that kind of broader vision that you have.

Kurtis Indorf: Yeah. That’s a really great question. So education is not just what you learn, but also how you learn it. There’s curriculum and pedagogy, both. And I want to name that because we often think just about the texts or the books. But it’s also method and methodology. And so here’s a really quick example. For the past 20 years in reading and reading education in the country, there’s been a version of like teach kids at their greeting level, zone of proximal development, don’t go beyond it, all this kind of stuff. This was a huge fad in the United States. The other whole language instruction, teach kids, pull words, they don’t need to know phonics and phonemic awareness. This was a educational fad in the United States for decades.

Lo and behold research on how kids actually learn how to read has come out and made clear that phonics and phonemic awareness is a critical roadblock to learning how to read as well as word and world knowledge. Kids need to know content because when they are able to read and access texts by the content that they know. If you know a lot about oceans, you can read at a higher grade level, a text about oceans. Word knowledge and world knowledge about content matters. And that is what has been happening in classical education since the beginning. That is what we’ve been doing. And so research has come out and the United States has looked around and said, oh, we need to change what we’re doing. And Great Hearts says, this is what we’ve always done, because this is how reading literature has been taught for centuries. And not only is that how we teach reading and literature. We also use seminar and kids have to cite their ideas, using evidence and engage in dialogue with people who have different opinions, and explore, and justify, and arrive at consensus and synthesis.

Now, again, that’s a big idea right now in education in the country, but that has been how reading and literature and thinking has been taught in the classical tradition for centuries. And so it is not just what you teach and how you teach it. But these are tried and tested and true methods of education for thousands, millions of people across the world for centuries.

Mike McShane: And so now you are embarking on a new endeavor. There are Great Hearts Online and the Great Hearts Microschools. Could you talk out those two initiatives?

Kurtis Indorf: Absolutely. So Great Hearts has always sought to develop deep partnerships with families, that is deep in our DNA, is our belief that parents are the primary educator of their children. And we aspire to partner with them to help to guide their students to academic excellence in student formation. And last year, as we all across the country went into COVID shutdown, we had a lot of educators in our schools, a lot of people were like, this is really hard, this doesn’t work. But we also had a lot of teachers realize you know what? If we did this right, this could be excellent. I’m having different relationships with my kids. In some cases better. In other cases, things are a little bit trickier. I’m able to give better feedback to my students. And so many teachers across our schools were having their eyes opened to see if we did this in the right way, we could truly provide an excellent option to families that’s different than a brick and mortar option.

And so when flexibility is opened up in Texas to launch a statewide virtual school, I went out and pitched that and fundraised about $700,000 to hire a founding team. So we have our own headmaster, head of technology, head of learning design, head of growth, a whole enterprise team built from the ground up to do new models of education in Great Hearts. And we launched Great Hearts online on January 4th with 500 kids from across the State of Texas and parents were really happy. 85% of families in February, last February after just over a month said that they were more satisfied with Great Hearts Online than what they did before. Including three out of four families that were previously in a brick and mortar school said, they thought Great Hearts Online was a better education and better choice for them and their family. And so it is a different model. It’s a different choice.

Great Hearts Microschools is side by side with Great Hearts Online. With Great Hearts Online, it’s part synchronous, part asynchronous model, small class sizes, fewer than 15 kids in a classroom. We really wanted to build a different school experience. One that valued community, that valued relationships online. That seems antithetical, but it’s really not. Partnerships with families are fundamentally different and deeper in Great Hearts Online, than in a brick and mortar school. It’s truly a beautiful thing. And what we also heard from families is for some of them, Great Hearts Online is perfect. For others, they say, this is great, but I want a little bit more socialization. And so if we take a step back and just kind of look at the national market research, what I’ve seen just from the research and what I believe is happening across the country is you have large majority of students going to brick and mortar school, whether they’re public or private.

That number I believe will decrease in the coming year slightly. Online will increase. Now whether that increase is by 2% or 5%, we’re not quite sure, but all the indicators said that pre COVID that’s the direction things were going. And now post COVID, all of that is accelerated. But there’s a segment in the middle, there’s a group in the middle that says I want the best of both. I want the flexibility of online learning, but I want the community aspects of in person and I want the downsides of neither. And so there’s a study, I think it’s Titan has had two rounds of studies on microschools and pods, and found that families spent more money on pods last year than they did in traditional private schools across the United States. That’s a pretty wild statistic. And so microschools, if you do them right, provide the flexibility of online learning with the socialization and relationship aspects of in person and that’s what we’re building.

And so in Great Hearts Microschools, kids would be enrolled in Great Hearts Online, but they’d also have in person elements. And so we’re piloting Great Hearts Microschools in the coming year. Some communities want two days a week because they really like their kids at home with them, but they want two days a week of their kids being in person, of socializing. Other communities will want five days a week. And so we’re working through those nuances, really listening to communities first, having them tell us what they’re looking for and we’ll work with those founders, those Great Hearts Microschools, founders in those communities to build those models.

Mike McShane: And these are public schools. So this is free for families?

Kurtis Indorf: Not quite. Close. So Great Hearts Online is a public charter school in Arizona. In Texas, legislation has been a lot trickier. Testifying tomorrow, the Texas legislature, but in Texas, we don’t have public funding for online schools across the state. And so two weeks ago, I actually launched Great Hearts Online as a private school, because it’s the only means by which I have to provide this option to families. We have over 100 kids that have enrolled in Great Hearts Online Private in the past two weeks and have not even broadly marketed about that yet.

So the goal is for Great Hearts Online to be a public charter school funded by the state, that is state funded. Great Hearts Microschools is tuition based. It is a tuition based add on. However, because the core model, because the core academy, Great Hearts Online is publicly funded, that tuition rate is much, much lower than anything else that we can have. Most microschools use apps or software as their tools for learning. For our microschool, we have a full teaching base, robust curriculum, synchronous and asynchronous models and small class sizes. So it’s a fundamentally different school, different academic model inside the microschool.

Mike McShane: So I’m glad that you brought that up because I would love to know, like from a student’s perspective, what might like a typical day or a typical week look like?

Kurtis Indorf: In a microschool or in Great Hearts Online?

Mike McShane: Let’s do both. Let’s talk about Great Hearts Online, and then we could do a Great Hearts Microschool. And I know as you said, there’s some diversity in what exactly that might look like, but maybe if there’s one off the top of your head of how some folks are choosing to use that.

Kurtis Indorf: Certainly. Certainly. So let’s start with Great Hearts Online. If I am in, let’s say 1st grade, I wake up and I either have my two hours of live class from 8 to 10 or from 10 to 12. And so let’s imagine it is 10 to 12. I’m going to wake up, breakfast with my family. I don’t have a 45 minute commute to get to school. And as a parent, the hassle of getting ready and the stress of that. So it’s going to be … A lot of parents say it’s a quieter morning, it’s a more restful morning. So wake up, my family will get dressed, get ready. They might pull up a book and start to read while they’re having breakfast, they might take out their computer and finish up their math homework from yesterday because it needs to be done before they have live class, but they were still struggling with a problem. And I, as a professional might have some work. And then I might be able to check in on my daughter and check their homework before they have class.

I’ll get my daughter set up for class. She’ll have live class at 10 and I’ve set up a table for her in her room and a workspace, so it feels like you’re going to school. And we have our inside shoes. So she’ll put on her inside shoes for her live class time so that she understands this is going to school. For us as adults it’s important for us to set those traditions, those rituals when we work from home so there feels like there’s boundaries in the day. And so we want to do the same thing for kids. Where’s your workspace? So she’ll get set up for work for live class. And then she’ll join, she’ll start with homeroom, which is 30 minutes. And there’s going to be 11 other students in her homeroom class, who she has class with every single day. And that homeroom teacher works with those students to come up with rituals and traditions for that time.

For some classrooms, they share about a passion in their life. And so it might be my daughter’s time to share. And so she’s brought into our house, our chickens from the backyard. She’s like, oh, this is my chicken, whose name is Moose. And these are real facts about my life by the way. And she’s introducing Moose the chicken to the class.

Mike McShane: I love it.

Kurtis Indorf: Another student might be saying, hey, I practiced the piano and I want to show my whole class, this song that I learned how to play. And so again, you start to see kids are intimately connected to other students in ways that are different and by some definitions, deeper than in a brick and mortar setting already.

So they go through their homeroom routine, they review their homework, we help kids get organized with the planner. Self-sufficiency, self-reliance, self-responsibility is really, really important. Those are very important skills and traits to be successful for kids as well as adults. And then we’ll go from that into literature class. So we’ll have some Spalding instruction, phonics, phonemic awareness. And then yesterday, the class read Prince Caspian, and they’re going to have a seminar about the final fight scene. And the teacher has asked some kind of question and all the kids get out their book. And the teacher asks and students start discussing and citing evidence about the scene in the book and the significance of it to the theme, to the moral of the story. And they’re going to have that conversation for 30 minutes. Then they’re going to do some conceptual mathematics, some history, and some science. That’s two hours of live time.

After that, it’s lunch, sit down with my family, we all have lunch together and I’ve been identified to have some math tutoring. And so I go to math tutoring in the afternoon, it’s me and three other kids based on our assessments and just some really intentional data usage. And then I have asynchronous assignments. So maybe with my family, we go on a hike from 2:30 to 5 because we have time and place flexibility. Maybe I do gymnastics and I’m a competitive athlete and I’m going to go and practice and train all afternoon because I can. And then in the afternoon and the evening I do my asynchronous work, I watched the recorded lectures from my teachers, I do some math, we have hard copy materials for all kids so they’re not staring at a computer screen all day. And it’s a full school day. It’s just a little bit unbundled from time.

And so kids are able to access it in different ways. And if I’m struggling with something, I can watch the lesson 10 times instead of if I heard it once and if I missed it, it’s done. And so that’s Great Hearts Online. It gives families a lot of flexibility. There’s certainly an element of an unhurried life that parents talk about a lot. A lot of accommodations that kids typically receive in an in person school are just naturally built in to an online school. And we still have culture and community, we have regional gatherings where they go to the zoo or they go to museums. There’s still all of these assets of life through Great Hearts Online. It just happens a little bit differently.

Mike McShane: And so the microschool version, is it mostly students that would be enrolled in online, but rather than being and they’re 11 to 15 different students, they happen to all be in the same place?

Kurtis Indorf: That’s correct. That’s right. So they’re all enrolled in Great Hearts Online. We would drop off on Wednesday, let’s say, and students would have class still virtually through Great Hearts Online, but in a microschool. That sounds strange, but there’s a number of big assets to that. Typically microschools, 20 kids, 30 kids, and you might have grades K through eight and one teacher or two teachers. Now that’s nine grade levels. You have five core content areas times nine grade levels to be prepared and expert in. And typically microschools rely on software or apps to do a lot of that deep content work. In a Great Hearts microschool, that’s not the case. Every kid, every student in every grade level has a grade and subject expert teaching them live every single day.

And so that microschool leader is going to support students as a coach, as they have live class, and then they’re going to have lunch together. And then they’re going to do a science experiment, broken into K through three, and then four through eight in the afternoon to provide in person enrichment connected to the curriculum. They’ll engage and read additional texts about virtue, and have seminars together and small groups, and they’ll have excursions as well. And so you have a rich, robust academy, Great Hearts Online, and then you have the in person supports and socializing, and in person elements wrapped around that through the microschool. And so that’s what parents are really excited about. They get the best of both and the flexibility of both as well.

Mike McShane: Now, I’m curious. And the online program has only been around for a few months at this point, but I’m wondering, has anything that you’ve learned or have there been conversations or lessons that were learned in the online setting that can then go back to the brick and mortar setting? I mean, one of the things off the top of my head that I think of was that throughout the course of the pandemic, I think lots of families realized when their schools, and I say this even great schools that went online, but only did like two or three hours of synchronous education a day and got through the stuff that they needed to get through. A lot of parents were kind of like, what are schools doing all day? Like, how are they actually using their time?

And so having a sort of wing of a school doing stuff like this, I wonder, have there been conversations about, hey, look, we found different ways to use time. We found different ways to like organize kids that have been great. And that could inform what we’re doing on the brick and mortar side. And like I said, maybe it’s early and that hasn’t happened yet, but I’d be fascinated to know if any of that kind of cross communication has happened.

Kurtis Indorf: Yeah, we have not yet gotten to that point of sharing that just honestly, because things are moving so quickly. So on Wednesday I have a school in Arizona, we’re launching a school in Texas we’re launching and then a national microschool pilot we’re launching.

Mike McShane: So you haven’t had the chance to really step back and have some big 30,000 foot talks about it.

Kurtis Indorf: One of the things that I would say that has been most profound is the relationship with parents and we hypothesized last summer. So we did a little bit of a preliminary study before doing this, where we hypothesized that in order to do an excellent online school, we would have to form a deeper and different relationship with parents. And that is true. And that has been a truly beautiful thing. In SPED, for students with IEPs, not only do students with IEPs receive support, and all their accommodations, but our SPED coordinator meets weekly with those parents to provide them with support as well. And again, time is different. We’re able to use time differently, a little bit more freely and that helps us a lot to be able to do those above and beyond supports.

But teachers are in children’s homes and children are also in their teacher’s home and those relationships and that healthy trust and bonds that are formed are really powerful things. So we’ve had teachers fly out to meet their kids and go into their house. And it’s just like meeting a family member who they’d never met in person, but they have really deep, meaningful relationships with. And so that’s been one of the most profound learnings that we’ve had is what has it taken to accomplish that? And how do we replicate that across all school forms?

Mike McShane: And I’m so glad you brought up the teachers, because one of the things, as I’ve been taking notes, while you were talking, you emphasize sort of one thing that sets this type of online instruction apart from others is that it’s actually expert teachers. So it’s not necessarily that schools are leaning on online software to do that. And I think generally speaking, I think lots of other online schools lean on that kind of software because online education is hard. Teaching online classes is a challenge. And so I’m fascinated because it seems to me, you’re looking for two things. You’re looking for experts in their subject matter. And you’re looking for experts in their subject matter, who can teach online well. And I imagine again, that we started talking about a Venn diagram here. I imagine that Venn diagram has much less overlap than the previous one that we mentioned. So I’m just wondering, how do you identify your teachers? How do you recruit your teachers? How do you do professional development to have these folks that are both subject matter experts and great online instructors?

Kurtis Indorf: Well, you teach, you teach, we grow together. I would add another piece, which is you appreciate, and know, and love the Great Hearts curriculum and mission. And so all of those are smaller circles with …

Mike McShane: I was just going to say, it seems like the funnel is just getting narrower and narrower. So I’m just wondering, like, where do you find these folks?

Kurtis Indorf: So almost all of our teachers are veteran Great Hearts teachers. They’ve been in our brick and mortar schools, they’ve taught online, they believe that it can be a really powerful and beautiful thing for kids and for families. And we are fortunate, we’ve been able to recruit and hire some of our best brick and mortar teachers to come to our school. And teachers who have moved away, people who have moved from Arizona to Pennsylvania, because they’re going to be closer to family. And they desperately love to continue working at a Great Hearts academy, but there’s just not an academy there. Well, we can hire them. I can hire them. We have teachers in Mexico City, in Pennsylvania, in California and Mississippi, all across the United States. And that really helps us get the talent piece right. Now, do these individuals know Great Hearts and do they know our curriculum and our pedagogical approaches? Yes. Are they content experts? Yes. Do they know how to teach online excellently and specifically in our model? No.

And so we have a lot of training and then that also … I have a whole team built around doing this well, doing this excellently. And so in a lot of other districts or a lot of [inaudible 00:26:34] say, oh, that’s a school. Let’s just set it up as a school. There’s a whole system of supports that you have to wrap around a high quality online school. You have to do learning design differently. You have to do training differently. You have to technology differently. Communication and engagement differently. Typically, you rely on walking next to someone in the hallway to have something happen. That doesn’t work in our setting. So how do we think through culture, communication, engagement from the ground up, built for a different way of doing work of doing school. So that’s what we’ve built. It takes some time for everyone to be comfortable, but we have a really amazing team who is doing the work side by side with them.

Mike McShane: So now as you look to the future, the next year, the next 5 years, the next 10 years, what do you hope that that’ll hold? What do you think that that’ll hold? Where do you think you’ll be in 5 years or 10 years?

Kurtis Indorf: So we’ll continue to get charters to offer Great Hearts Online in other states in the coming years, that’s going to be an important part of providing access and options. We’ll also because I can’t get a charter in 50 states and that’s really complicated. We’ll also scale a tuition based option of Great Hearts Online in other states. In Texas, we’re hoping to unravel tuition based Great Hearts Online and go back to a public charter. That was always … Launching a private school here was not the plan. However, parents said, hey, if it’s not publicly funded, can I pay? And we felt deeply responsible to families to giving them the options that they want. And so that’s why we pivoted and made that happen this summer.

And then microschools, we got four pilots we’re going to do this coming year. The goal is to learn, how do we do that model? And how do we make that model work? Some states do provide kind of regulatory flexibility for microschool to be publicly funded. Other states do not. And so as the years go on, we have two different models that are explicitly linked, but also two different models. The parent that wants a Great Hearts Online education is not necessarily going to be the same as the parent that wants a Great Hearts Microschool education. There’s different value propositions. And so we’ll enter states with both and because I’m not bound by building a building and hiring people who are specific to that city and specific to driving distance, to enroll in that place, we’re able to move a lot faster. So in the coming years, look for a Great Hearts Online or Great Hearts Microschool coming soon to you.

Mike McShane: I think we’re all looking forward to seeing what happens. And so Kurtis Indorf of Great Hearts, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today to talk about your cool school.

Kurtis Indorf: Thanks so much, Mike. I appreciate it. I really appreciate your questions and the conversation.

Mike McShane: Well that conversation was great. I’m sorry if it, at some points in the background, when I was asking questions, you heard two small dogs barking. But of course, right at the moment, when I take my microphone off of mute to ask a question is when they both decide to lose their minds. So apologies, but you can take up with them. I really enjoyed that conversation. I think Kurtis is a super thoughtful guy. I think Great Hearts is a really incredible network of schools. They’re a really incredible network of brick and mortar schools. I have no doubt that they’re going to be able to pull off online schooling well, microschooling well. They’re super competent people, and super competent people tend to do things super competently. So I’m really looking forward to watching them. I hope they meet with a lot of success. I hope they’re able to find ways to make this free for students so they don’t have to necessarily pay tuition. I think there’s a lot of potential there. I think they’re doing interesting stuff.

And frankly, I think one of the things I took away from that conversation that I hope a lot of you did is just the incredible evolution that’s taken place. Particularly in the last year around improving online education. Online schools generally get a pretty bad rap and by and large for lots and lots of schools, they deserve that bad rap, like the quality of education isn’t great. I don’t want to pay with too broad of a brush because there are great online schools out there, but there’ve been a lot online schools that have been pretty darn bad. And so it’s really cool to find thoughtful people trying to use that medium of online education, but improve it, experiment with it, bring the best of in person instruction, bring a lot of lessons that folks have learned from operating other successful schools into the online realm. So like I said, I think, I’m really hopeful about this endeavor. I think they’re going to do cool and interesting stuff. And I can’t wait to watch, maybe follow up in a little bit and see how they’re doing.

As always, if you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe, like, share it. We get more listeners that way, it helps me recruit more cool schools because people are listening and say, hey, have you heard about the school? Can you profile that? And I say, yes, I’m happy to. So also please feel free to shoot me a message. I’m on Twitter, MQ_McShane. If you know of a cool school tweet it at me, shoot me a DM, happy to profile it. Yeah, like and subscribe to the podcast. Also check out our website. We recently redid it, www.edchoice.org. It’s awesome. Lots of useful stuff. Other podcasts in this series, if you subscribe, you can hear lots of my interesting colleagues talk to interesting people about interesting things. New data on the ground perspective of the politics of school choice, lots of stuff going on. So please subscribe to the podcast, check out our website.

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