Ep. 288: Cool Schools with Bill Wendl

December 14, 2021

In today’s episode of the podcast we talk to the principal of Prestonwood Christian Academy’s hybrid schooling program, Bill Wendl. He tells us about the innovative ideas needed in order to successfully run a hybrid educational option.

Mike McShane: Hello, and welcome to another addition of EdChoice chats. I’m Mike McShane, Director of National Research at EdChoice, and it is my distinct pleasure to host another addition of my series, Cool Schools. We have been profiling this entire work on hybrid education. We actually dig into their philosophy towards hybrid education.

Again, if you’ve heard past podcasts, or if you have read my book Hybrid Homeschooling: A Guide to the Future of Education, available at your local online retailer, you’ll learn that lots of different hybrid schools have different attitudes about what is done during the in-person learning days and what is done at the at-home learning days. How much should we use technology? How much should we not use technology? How much should we rely on parents as educators? How much should we not rely on parents as educators? And PCA Hybrid, I think, has interesting answers to all of those questions, particularly with the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic.

But we talk about a whole bunch of stuff from where they get their teachers to the trends that they’re seeing in education and end up by kind of looking towards the future of what is in store for this school. It’s a really enjoyable conversation. I think you’re going to get a lot out of it. So without further ado, here’s my conversation with Bill Wendl, the principal of PCA Hybrid.

So Bill, we are talking about PCA Hybrid today, and it seems to me that just that term there has two parts, the PCA, the Prestonwood Christian Academy, and then the hybrid part. And obviously, I think a lot of people’s eyes might be drawn to the hybrid part. But maybe before we start, could you tell us just a little about, in general, about the Prestonwood Christian Academy?

Bill Wendl: Yes. We’re actually celebrating our 25th anniversary and-

Mike McShane: Congratulations.

Bill Wendl: Thank you. And it’s been a great school system over the last 25 years and it’s grown. We’re located in Plano, Texas. We also have a north campus, which is located in Prosper, Texas. And both locations, the primary campus is on our church campuses. So, we are a church school, which is very positive thing because we have the infrastructure of our church, the support of our church, that makes our jobs much easier. And so, it’s Prestonwood Baptist Church that is our founding church.

We’ve grown to almost 2000 students now, and we have also an online program, and we’re a K to 12 school. Our north campus goes K to 11th grade and they’ll be adding a senior class next year, so a lot of growth taking place. And then we’ve, about three years ago, we decided to look for some type of a, what we’re calling a new model school. Our head of school at the time, Dr. Larry Taylor, felt like is this current Christian school model, is it sustainable? And felt like there’s, since a lot of Christian schools have just struggled financially and other ways, he felt like there was something out there that we could begin to investigate.

So, he started investigating that and others several years ago. This was way before the pandemic, so this was not a pandemic reaction to start a hybrid school. We were already in the middle of exploring this. Of course, that accelerated everything and made it real serious and everybody got excited about it pretty quickly.

Mike McShane: And so, how long have y’all been doing the online school?

Bill Wendl: We’ve been doing it 12 years now. This is our 12th year.

Mike McShane: Oh, wow.

Bill Wendl: So, it’s something that’s grown. Last year we had over 100 students in the program and we had over 500 courses that we sold, if you will, or facilitated. And that program is unique in itself, which could be in a whole other podcast. I could tell you more about that, but it’s a great-

Mike McShane: I’d love to hear more about it. Sure.

Bill Wendl: So, we’ve been pretty innovative with that as well, and I’ve been involved in that process this last year as well. What we’re doing with the online program is we have what we call shared students, so a lot of our students take our online courses, but they also come on our campus and they can take a certain number of we call brick and mortar classes in our school. We have some students that are 100% online, some students that come in and they just take brick and mortar classes part-time and then some of them are, they’re, again, shared students. So, they take online courses and they come in and take some selected brick and mortar courses as well.

Mike McShane: That’s great. Now, the PCA Hybrid. If you could maybe talk about that a little bit. Obviously, as you mentioned, it’s really interesting that this started before the pandemic when, I think, maybe some people knew about hybrid education or hybrid schools, and then suddenly the pandemic hits and everybody knows what they are, at least the term or at least the kind of idea behind it. But if you could talk maybe through the kind of specifics of how the school week works, what sort of the offerings are in-person and what’s done at home and sort of the structure of it.

Bill Wendl: Well, we’ve studied a lot of different models that were already in existence that were similar. And so we took the best of those that were out there and to make it fit best for our school. So, what we landed on, we have what we call it three day, two day. So, three day a week at school, and two day what we call satellite learning days. We don’t want to call them homeschool days because they can go to the library. They can do those at grandma’s house. They can do it in the car. So satellite learning days are two days face-to-face, at school days are three days a week.

And so we do that on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday. And the reason why we picked that was we felt like that would maximize the time because our Wednesday five-day program, that’s early dismissal. That’s when we do our teacher development on Wednesday and it ends early, so we wanted to let that go by the wayside because we didn’t want to shorten our day. And then the reason why we did Friday was because that gives families that want the flexibility to have a longer weekend, they can do their satellite learning day on that Friday.

We started with kindergarten first and second and fifth and sixth, so our middle school starts at fifth grade in our five-day program. We felt like we’d start at the base of both lower and middle school. And our goal is to have eight students per grade, and so that’s 40 total and we have 51. So, we’re really excited about our numbers and our families that are part of our program.

Mike McShane: And so now when you talk about the satellite days, I’d be interested because I think different hybrid schools around the country have different attitudes toward those satellite days or home days or as, you’re right, everyone calls them something different. And some lean more on online instruction, as you mentioned, very self-directed students can be in charge of it and others lean more towards a kind of homeschooling model where it’s more like the parents are the teachers. Oftentimes it’s not on computers at all, but it’s more sort of traditional paper and pencil school work. So where do you all come down on that? Is it a mix of the two? Does it lean more towards one or the other?

Bill Wendl: Yeah, we’ve been very intentional about that. Our design is such that we felt like our families that would be interested in this would want to not have to homeschool their kids those two days. So, our are activities that our students work on at home are something they can do pretty independently. And those activities are designed by their classroom teacher, so our classroom teacher designs their units with that in mind.

The unit development is such that they design it with, “Hey, I know I’m going to have my students at school these days. I know these are going to be satellite learning days,” so that’s part of the design. And the parent has to oversee that, but it doesn’t have to be the pseudo teacher at home. They’re there just making sure their student’s on task, age appropriate course and developmental appropriateness. And you know I have three children, two of my children also happen to be much more independent. My son would had to have mom giving a little bit more encouragement to stay on task.

Mike McShane: I’m so glad you brought up your teachers because I’d be fascinating. So, the teachers for this program, did you bring them from the traditional five day a week side? Were these new teachers brought in specifically for this program? Do you have teachers who teach in both? Sort of the broad question, where do your teachers come from?

Bill Wendl: Well, there again, when we designed this, we felt like we needed to hire our own teachers. That’s how we went into it. We’re hiring our own teachers. They are contracted and trained for this model. They know going into it here’s what the expectations are because it’s different. Even though you don’t have to be here two days a week, you really are designing those other two days.

Now those two days, they’re off those days. There’s no synchronous learning taking place, so that’s the plus. And so the same qualifications that we have for our current school, our five day model, same qualifications, so we need to have certified teachers that are degreed and/or certified in their areas. Also, they have to have a biblical worldview that aligns with our values, so same qualifications.

And so, it was very difficult kind of getting that started. But I felt like once the word got out about our school, then I started getting some more interest. I’m hoping that more and more will come in the future as we add grades. And I think that’s one of the challenges is finding a teacher that is qualified that’s willing to understand and learn this new model and be willing to do it for the funding that’s available for them.

Mike McShane: Well, that’s the thing. It seems to me the traditional pathways that we have into teaching to get those credentials, to get those degrees are not necessarily aligned to the type of model that you have here, to get your traditional certification or if you’re getting your bachelor’s in teaching, that’s geared towards a five day a week model. So, are you finding teachers who had previously taught in a hybrid model somewhere else? Are these people who are making the transition? Where do you find these folks?

Bill Wendl: Some of them are teachers that maybe had taught early in their career, then they started having their family. They’ve been out of that career for 10 years and they don’t want to go back in five day a week. They kind of like this, a little bit more time, white space for themselves and their family, but they do want to continue their career and they love teaching and so they get back into it part way, so that’s one type of teacher.

Another type of teacher is on the kind of the flip of that. They started their career, now they’re starting to have babies. They want to continue their career, but they don’t want to leave their child in a daycare five days a week, so it can actually work very well to get together where they’re at home with their child giving that care 100%, and the three days that they’re at school, they have another caregiver. So, we have some families that are doing that.

And then, of course, as everyone knows with the pandemic is people are staying at home more. So we have families that they’re staying home no matter what and they have this opportunity to extend their career or reboot their career, but they do it in a way that it fits more what the trend is just from the world standpoint.

Mike McShane: No, and I think you are really, you are riding the crest of a wave here. Because I think of so many folks that are in that mindset of saying, “Listen, we were doing traditional kind of a five day a week,” whether it was in teaching or, frankly, in other fields and have said, “Look, can we find some way to have a bit more flexibility here?” And they’re willing to make, especially when they, as you brought up, having kids and others and rethinking that kind of work/life balance. And so this opportunity to say, “We’ll teach three days a week and be at home two days or others.” I mean, I just, I think there’s an incredible, incredible growth opportunity there. I’d be interested in your students. The students that come to this, are they more students that are coming out of traditional five day a week classes? Or are they students that are coming from traditional homeschooling? Where are they coming from?

Bill Wendl: Primarily, they’re families that were in a five-day program and they got a taste. They got a taste, not because they wanted to do it, but someone stuck this thing in their mouth called virtual learning at home. And they like, “Hmm. I kind of like this. I kind of like it because I can spend more time with my children. They can be educated, but they don’t want to send them back to a five-day program.” And they’re in a position in their life where they can do that. And one of the things that I’ve heard that’s really been encouraging to me is when I say younger families, anybody’s younger than me that has a family, so 30 and 40-year-olds, those are young to me.

Mike McShane: God bless you. Thank you.

Bill Wendl: Yes. So these 30 and 40-year-olds, which I love, they are going, “You know, I want more time with my kids. I want to disciple my kids. I don’t want to send them to even a Christian school and advocate that responsibility to them. I want to do more of that myself.” So it’s also, and hit me between the eyes is that a lot of our 30 or 40-year-old families are really doing a better job than I did my kids because they’re a little more serious about discipling their children. Willing to, I won’t say make it a sacrifice, but make this change. And, of course, everything that’s going on with people staying at home and working it just kind of convergent of a lot of different things and it seems to be working.

Let me give you a really kind of cool example. I have several cool examples. I’ll just give you one. I can give you a lot of examples. That’d be another conversation, but I have a family who has three boys. They have a set of twins, twin boys. So those boys are going through our five day. They have a sixth grader who is going to hybrid. The mother, I tried to hire her to work in our hybrid program and it didn’t work out, so our five day hired her. She’s a music teacher.

Then I needed one music class and I twisted her arm. Didn’t have to twist around too much, so she’s teaching a hybrid music class. So she had as two of her kids in five day, one child in hybrid. She teaches in the mornings for our five day and teaches one hybrid class once a week in hybrid. She has parents here. Her parents one day a week facilitate make sure her one that is staying home is staying on task, and her husband works at home on Friday, so you have this convergent and this great creative way to make it all work. And I see families that are doing that. They’re making it work because they really want it.

Mike McShane: That’s awesome. And so, now I have to imagine in the kind of marketplaces in which you are operating, you’re in a crowded field. I mean in the Plano area, in the sort of Dallas Metro, everywhere, there’s lots of great schools. There’re lots of options that are there, so how do you think about sort of positioning yourselves in the marketplace? How do you situate yourself vis-a-vie all the other schools that are there? I don’t envy you having to operate a school in such a crowded marketplace.

Bill Wendl: I think you’re right. It’s crowded, but it’s hungry. That sounds good to me. I’m not sure what that means, but people are hungry for a Christian education primarily because what’s going in our world, in our culture. So, they really want that. Then also they’re looking at new trends. They’re looking at new ways to do school, and so we provide that. They also like flexibility. That was one of the key things is flexibility. People, human nature, we want that flexibility.

The way we, I don’t want to say compete, but the way we kind of position this and design this is flexibility without losing any of the quality. So the quality is there, the programs are there, the core values are there, everything that Prestonwood offers is still there. It’s just now we provide some flexibility.

That’s kind of it in a nutshell, my elevator speech about what’s unique about our hybrid school and what helps us rise to the top. And on top of that is we have this huge infrastructure that’s in place. So we have this huge fine arts program, athletic program. We have a nurse in every building. We have people that are very highly qualified with curriculum development, so we have all this and piggybacking on a lot of that as well.

Mike McShane: The question I think a lot of people at this point in the conversation will be interested in, tuition. What is tuition for the school? Is it different than the five day a week model? How does that work?

Bill Wendl: Yeah, our business model is this is that you can imagine all the cost of running a school. A lot of that is underwritten because we just, like right now I’m in a classroom that is one of our classrooms and it’s an empty classroom because we built a new middle school. And so a whole floor, a whole wing, if you will, of our school was vacated. Some of our cost is just really low because of the current infrastructure, so that helps.

Secondly, the model is such that our parents are paying 60% of a full tuition. They’re here three days a week, and us, we’re paying our teachers 60% of a full-time salary. So, those are the two or three big factors that have worked well for us.

Mike McShane: Well, that’s great. And I think that probably makes this education more available to more families that may not be able to afford the full-time five day a week and they’re able to defray that cost. You know, it seems to me, I mean, you all were on the online learning trend before it was popular. You are on the wave of hybrid education before it was necessarily as popular, at least as well known as it is now. So I’d be kind of interested just in the attitude, the environment of the school. You are somewhat unique in this regard, right? There are lots of schools that could conceivably open an online presence. They could open a hybrid presence and they don’t, so what makes you all different? What is sort of in the water there that encourages you to do all these different innovative things?

Bill Wendl: Well, that’s a great question. I think there has to be that passion, that burning, the why. Why are you doing this? And you have to really have that passion because there’s a lot of obstacles. It’s a lot of extra work. And really, it kind of boils down to this, and for me personally is it really expands our ability to offer Kingdom education to families. If we didn’t have this hybrid model than a lot of folks would be in a different school situation that really wouldn’t come alongside the values of their family, so you got to have that burning desire that this is important.

Secondly, you have to have the entrepreneurial spirit. You got to be willing to be innovative. There’s not a book written on this. If there was, it wouldn’t fit all the models and it wouldn’t fit everybody, so you got to have an entrepreneurial spirit. And educators, let’s be honest, they’re typically not the most entrepreneurial people, so you got to be entrepreneurial.

And then I read a book that gave, I think it was 10 different things that you needed to have in your plan in order for any innovative approach to happen. And one of them I think is the most important is you had to have a somebody that was driving it, someone at the executive level that was very passionate about what you were trying to do. So, it can’t be just driven by someone in middle-level leadership. It needs to be someone at the top or near the top that can really drive this. It’s the fuel, if you will, to make it work.

Mike McShane: I’m interested sort of how you got involved in this. What was your background? What did you bring to the school?

Bill Wendl: I’ve been in Christian education since 1984. It’s probably before you were born, and so I’ve been doing this a long-

Mike McShane: Actually the year I was born. You got involved the exact year I was born.

Bill Wendl: Well, you can remember that. Trends have changed so much and I’ve seen over the years that we’re missing something. We’re missing something in Christian education. And I feel like what we’re missing is not the heart, not the ideals, that hasn’t changed. What’s drifted is, I think, just the buy-in by everybody. There has to be a buy-in. Christian education’s become more popular. Well, back when I started it wasn’t as popular, so you had to make a social sacrifice, a financial sacrifice. You were doing it because you’re just really a passion for and understanding of.

Now it’s become more popular and accepted, and so I think we’ve lost a little bit of that commitment. And so I believe that commitment now is coming back again, like I talked about earlier. And so I’ve seen over the years that passion start to come back in to certain segments of the Christian school population. So, I was asked about two years ago to run with this. My background has been everywhere from teacher/coach to a middle school principal to head of school. And recently I’ve been here. I’ve been here for 15 years now, and the last 13, prior to this position, was middle school principal.

Mike McShane: I’d be interested, sort of a question I like to end on, is as you look to the future, this is obviously a new endeavor that you’re involved in, but this is part of a long lifetime that you’ve had in Christian education. If you were to think of PCA Hybrid one year from now, five years from now, 10 years from now, what do you see the future having in store?

Bill Wendl: Well, the next, say, two to three years, it’s kind of this baby, so we’re nurturing it. We’re feeding it. We’re making sure it’s healthy. We’re inoculating it for COVID or whatever. We’re doing all these things to help it grow and be healthy, so that’s really important. Now, it’s easy to get ahead too far. I kind of think five, 10 years out that we really need to focus on making it healthy.

But beyond that, I see it developing into, not only its own identity within our school, but also dovetail into what we’re doing. So it has to merge, if you will. You have two different communities, but they really need to work together, and it’s a symbiotic relationship. I would love for our hybrid school to be able to offer classes for our five-day students. So, an opportunity for students from hybrid to take classes that are brick and mortar and vice versa. We may have a situation that something we’re offering would be a kind of a neat, cool thing.

Five to 10 years from now, it’s I see education as being kind of an à la carte thing where you come to the school system and you say, for example, “Hey, here’s my situation.” We say, “Okay, so here’s your options. You can go straight hybrid and this is what that looks like on the menu. Or if you want to choose from our menu, you can take hybrid classes, maybe your core classes, math, science, and English, and then you can take this online history class. And oh, by the way, we have a apologetics class that is in our five-day program and you can take that as well.” So I really feel like that’s the way education is going, and I feel like the hybrid at school can help be that framework to make that work.

Mike McShane: Bill Wendl of PCA Hybrid. Thanks so much for coming on the podcast today to talk about your Cool School.

Bill Wendl: Thank you. I appreciate it.

Mike McShane: Apologies if, I don’t know whether the recording picked that up, there was a little bit of fuzziness there at the end. It’s one of those things where you’re recording and you’re just white knuckling it hoping that your internet connection stays through to get the interesting things that a person has to say and not make them repeat themselves over and over again.

But I really enjoyed that conversation. I think, as I said sort of setting this up, I really took a lot of their thinking around how they do their satellite days. As you’ve heard another podcast that we’ve done here, some schools say, “When kids are at home during a sort of hybrid model, we really want parents playing an active role. We don’t want kids staring into computers. We want it to be a more traditional paper and pencil environment.” PCA takes that in a different direction, and I think there are lots of really interesting opportunities there. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer as to how to structure those things. But I do think there are things that we can learn about how schools answer those different questions.

So trying to get the best of both worlds, leveraging that technology. And especially I think trying to take it easy on parents so that parents don’t necessarily have to play as active of a role as instructors being able to leverage technology, having students develop more as independent learners, I think, as he said, makes it possible for students to not necessarily have to be at home. They could be at the library. They could be at grandma’s house. They could be doing lots of different things while they’re learning. So I think, like I said, there aren’t right or wrong answers in how to structure hybrid education. They’re just cool, interesting, innovative people trying to answer them. And I think we can learn from all of the different ways in which people are trying to wrestle with those issues.

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