Ep. 334: What’s Up with Kind Academy

July 28, 2022

We talk with Iman Alleyne who runs the Kind Academy, which features an interesting micro school/hybrid school/online model.

Mike McShane: Hello, and welcome back to another edition of EdChoice Chats, and specifically my series, What’s Up with Mike McShane. I’m Mike McShane, Director of National Research at EdChoice. And on the podcast today, I’ll be interviewing Iman Alleyne who runs the Kind Academy, a really, really interesting micro school/hybrid school/online model. The main campus that they have is in Coral Springs in South Florida, but they’re expanding, serving folks all over the place with their online school. As we’ll talk about a bit at the beginning of the podcast, Iman and I were on a panel, gosh now probably about a month, a month and a half ago that was sponsored by the VELA Fund. And it was all about micro schools and innovations that are happening in education. And she brought this wonderful energy to the discussion, and I really appreciated that, it was wonderful. It was one of these things, it was done over Zoom and so it doesn’t have the same energy as an in-person thing. And as soon as that panel was over, I was like, I have to interview her for the podcast, not just because she brought this wonderful energy, but the actual substance of what she was talking about was really cool, too. The Kind Academy is a really interesting model and we’ll have the opportunity to talk about the Kind Academy, what they’re doing there, why they do what they do, how they do what they do, and what they’re looking to do in the future. So without further ado, here’s my conversation answering the question, what’s up with the Kind Academy, my interview with Iman Alleyne. Well, Iman, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today. We were just talking before this, you and I were on a panel together sponsored by our friends at the VELA Fund and the 74. And it was lovely. And I was like, we need to keep talking after this. So I would love to know more about what y’all are doing at the Kind Academy. And I’ll start with, on your website, it says, we are an in-person, hybrid, and online school for future leaders with a progressive curriculum model, project-based learning, and community-focused experiences. And that’s basically, like, there’s the whole podcast. We’re just going to break down each of those pieces. So maybe we’ll start with the first bit there. So in-person, hybrid and online, so how is your school actually structured? What is the experience that children have there?

Iman Alleyne: Thank you so much again for having me on. So we have in-person, community events, and a community school that we’ve been doing really nature-based school since 2017 or 2016 or so. So that’s our in-person side. And then COVID hit, of course, everyone was like, what do we do? What do we do? So we started putting our education into a box is what I called it. I was literally shipping boxes to families so that they could still experience and still continue to connect with each other, because that was really what we were missing during COVID. Parents were like, especially my moms, were like, help, I just need to see faces again. So we started putting our education into a box and the kids were excited about learning again and had these experiences. So that’s the hybrid side and online side. And then families really were, we want to be able to do both. We want to spend some time with our family and South Florida where we’re at, we have so many amazing things going on and so many amazing programs. And some of my families were like, I really want to spend some time at this really awesome garden, and then on the beach with science, but I really want to come to you guys too. So we put together a two-day program, a three-day program, and a five-day program and families who are part-time can still access our curriculum and our online school from home if they feel like it. So we do a little bit of everything. We just wanted to be as flexible for families as possible. And that’s a big part of what we do.

Mike McShane: That’s awesome. So now how many students do you have in each of those different models?

Iman Alleyne: Oh, great question. So I’m going to go with last year’s numbers only because this is really the time that we’re going up and we plan on adding a lot more students this year. Last year for our in-person, hybrid-type programming, we had 50 students and then online for our different levels altogether, we had about 40 to 50 students in there, too. So some of our students are completely self-paced. They just come to our study halls and our classes and they just access the curriculum. And other students do our online pod classes as well. And they can actually see our teachers and have small group classes. So total of about 40 to 50 throughout the year. So 100 total, I would say.

Mike McShane: So now, how did you get involved in all of this?

Iman Alleyne: Education in general or starting our own school?

Mike McShane: Why don’t we start with education in general and then we’ll go to starting your school.

Iman Alleyne: Yeah, thank you. So I have my master’s in school counseling and I decided I had my son, who’s 11 years old now, and I decided that I wanted to be able to match his schedule when he started going to school. So I got my master’s school counseling and I wanted to give back of course, and I wanted to help kids and all that good stuff. So I got my master’s in school counseling. And then when I finally got to schools, doing my internship and being in schools, I very, very quickly understood that I wasn’t going to be able to fix what was happening on the social and emotional learning side. But most of my students were special needs. So I got certified in special education and I felt like I made a change there. I really felt like I could do things because kids with unique abilities, I don’t want to say that they’re thrown to the wayside, but in a sense it’s like, we don’t really care how they do on task. We don’t really care. Just, we basically set these goals for them. I was able to develop these individual education plans. And what mattered most was, are they showing growth? Are they able to attain these goals that you’re setting for them and that they’re setting for themselves? And that allowed me to be creative. My principal’s like, just do whatever. Just make sure that they learn whatever it is that they need to learn. That kid needs to learn how to tie their shoe today, help them tie their shoe. And I was like, that’s great. That’s a big deal for them. So I was able to do what I really wanted to do, but I still never had enough time in the day and recognized pretty quickly that my son wasn’t going to get that, my kids weren’t going to get that. And so many kids deserved that. So I started looking at homeschooling and so many people were doing exactly that. They were creating these beautiful curriculum around their kids and what they needed. And the homeschool community was like, that’s normal. What do you mean? That’s the way it should be done. So I really got drawn into that by the time my son was about four or five. And then everyone was like, okay, you’re certified, teach our kids. And then I started doing micro schools and we had a nature school, which I’m really hoping to get started again, but that’s my journey. I just knew that I wanted to do something different and I knew I wanted… I have four children now and I wanted something different for them and their friends and really wanted to change the way education looked in our community. And that’s what we’ve done so far.

Mike McShane: So it’s described as having a progressive curriculum model, project-based learning, and community-focused experiences. So maybe it might make sense for listeners, what does that look like in practice? What does a child’s experience of those things look like?

Iman Alleyne: Breaking down each piece, because I think that’s the easiest way for me to explain, thank you. So progressive, we’re really future-focused. There is a lot of information about what is going to be needed in three years, in five years, what’s needed right now? So we are progressive in that sense that we are really determining the goal is for us to get through the checklist of things that the state is saying that they want us to do. But we’re really progressive in the sense that my kids are working on Lego robotics right now, I was talking to them yesterday. They’re doing classes in coding. And the goal is for us to partner with the community and really reach out to those experts in those fields that are really future-focused. I was telling them, I was like, robots are going to be everywhere. There are robot waiters everywhere. If you can learn how to code robots and you really enjoy this, then you can do this. There are kids that are doing this now. So that’s a big part of our progressiveness. We’re also incredibly diverse and very accepting of all the different students that are coming through us. And I think that’s a big part of our progressive nature, progressive project-based learning. So super hands-on. The goal is to get our math and the fun stuff, the curriculum, the state standards and things like that, out of the ways as quickly as possible and understood so that we can do the really fun experiential hands-on learning stuff. So all of our kids have access to create a passion-based learning project for themselves and to be working throughout the year on those things that make their heart smile. So that’s our project-based learning piece. And then community-focused, so that’s a huge part. I’m going to give a huge shout out to Ecospace school, which I went to go visit. Colossal Academy, which is down here in South Florida as well. Just the community and being able to leverage the experts that are in the community is such a huge part of who we are. The big thing that we always talk about is that experiential learning and being able to get their kids out into the community, to have them build those relationships, is one of the most important tenets of what we do. I’m a teacher. I can teach anything. I can give anything. I can learn anything and teach it back to the students. But I want people who are just fired up about everything that they teach and just passionate about what they teach. We went to an art museum and the museum docent really just loved what he was teaching. And you could tell and just really wanted the feedback to even be better. And the kids, they feel that, and they get excited about it. So being in the community and being able to leverage going to the art museum, going to the urban farm and sitting there with the urban farmer who’s been doing this for 30 years and listening to him talk, and those are what we called our community experiences. So that’s a big part of who we are. We plan on being out at least two days per week out of the building for our field experiences. So that’s what we do.

Mike McShane: And so if I’m thinking of, if I’m a student at the school and it sounds like there really isn’t a typical day, but maybe a couple, thinking of a typical day, what does your schedule look like? Are you a normal school schedule day? Is it all over the place?

Iman Alleyne: Yeah, it’s funny. I even have a little asterisk. I sent it to my parents recently. There’s an asterisk, like this is subject to change. I don’t want any of them thinking they’re going to walk in and it’s going to be the same every day because it won’t. But we have a rhythm. In Waldorf, we talk about rhythms and we talk about what… And the students really benefit from having some rhythm. So the goal of our rhythm of our day, at least three days per week, are in the morning, morning check-in. We love agile and like scrum with our big kids and then a social and emotional learning, goal setting, things like that, about 9:00 AM. And then we’ll do from 9:30 to about 11:30, our fun, our very individualized learning. So every learner is working on their own pace, our lower school, are our four- to seven-year-old kids are working on their individual work trays from their Montessori. And then our upper school students are working either with an individual tutor on their own thing, very small groups, or on their own, on their computer, or on paper, or whatever it is. So that’s usually about 9:30 to 12:30. Recess, lunch, things like that, the goal is to be out in nature for those things. And then after that, possibly come back and do some passion-based learning or the days that we’re out of school to do a lot of passion-based learning during those days as well. So that’s what our school day… And then have the kids help clean up. That’s a big goal of ours. We follow a lot of schools that have been like, we’ve been doing this and it really helps the kids to stay engaged and know that this is their school. So the end of the day, clean up and then that’s it.

Mike McShane: So now I was curious, you are structured as a private school. Am I right in thinking that?

Iman Alleyne: Yes. So we’re a little bit of both. We’re actually in the middle of being a private school. So Florida has two different types of private schools. We have umbrella schools, which are like homeschooling schools, they’re called cover schools. And they don’t really get any access to any of the Step Up scholarships or anything like that. But students can be under you and then they don’t have to sign off as homeschoolers, they’re considered a private school student. And then you have private school private school, which is what we’re going for right now. And we just got approved by the city of Coral Springs to be a private school. The next step is to reach out to the state of Florida and get approval from the state of Florida. The fire department’s going to come in, the health department comes in and they basically say yeah, and then we can take scholarships, which is really the big dream. So we’re, I guess you could say a private school.

Mike McShane: Well, it’s funny I think a lot of people don’t realize, I think people think that private schools can just operate off the grid or whatever. It turns out, actually getting that classification is not nothing.

Iman Alleyne: It’s the toughest thing. I mean, we’ve been doing this for six years now and most people who walk into it, that’s what stops them. Most programs that run don’t even run as private schools. And I get it because it’s a challenge. They run as tutoring centers or homeschool centers. And we determined whether or not we wanted to do that. And we really wanted to make sure we could service everyone. And the only way to really do that is with the scholarship funding. So we went through all the work, traffic studies. I was like, what is this? Zoning, we’re still going through it. So that’s the fun stuff. But it’s important for us to be able to have a diverse student body socioeconomically as well as students of color, gender identities. So we really wanted to make sure we could be set on that.

Mike McShane: So now your teachers, where do you find them? How do you train them? What are you looking for in teachers? I’d love to know that whole piece of it.

Iman Alleyne: So we actually just had our first meet and greet with one of our teachers who I’m so smitten with. So we really want unique teachers, obviously. We want teachers who understand that traditional education is not… That we’re moving away from that and that students need to be respected and valued. We have a whole very long list of what we look for. So we’re very clear on our hiring paperwork and documents, but then I want to see what you feel like, I want to see, I want to meet with you and I want to get a feel for you. How are my kids going to be with you? I have three children myself and they will immediately shut a teacher down if they’re like don’t talk to me that way. So I had to be very, very sure that they like students and enjoy students and things like that. But I also like to have them give me a little demo. I’m like, pretend like I’m a six-year-old kid and show me what you would do. So that’s what I did with my last teacher. And she was like, I have grasshoppers. And I was like, what? She was like, I’ll go get one for you. She goes outside and then she starts… I’m being taught. So that was super exciting. If you can immediately know, this is what, because you could have been like, and X plus Y equals and started, broke out the whiteboard and that would’ve been like, okay. But she went to her backyard and grabbed a grasshopper and started showing me the different parts of their body. And my six-year-old would’ve been enthralled with that. So if you can do that every day and bring that, I was giggling the entire time, asking questions, and I’m not a kid. So I’m like, okay, this is perfect. And she’s super excited. I like people who are excited about education, excited about getting kids learning, and I can feel it pretty quickly if you are like that.

Mike McShane: It seems like that intersection point of enthusiasm and respect. Respecting kids, if you want kids to respect you, the easiest way to do that is to respect them. And if you want kids to be engaged in material, the best way to do it is to be engaged to yourself. And if you’re just like hey, I’m really respectful of you. And I’m really into this stuff. It’s shocking, kids are like, I can totally get behind this.

Iman Alleyne: Right. Exactly. They want to learn. And if you make it easy for them, they’ll be excited about it too. So a relationship. We focus a lot of relationships on brain development. And a big thing that we talked about was the whole brain child and conscious discipline, understanding our triggers and things like that. So teachers who come from a background of understanding that kind of stuff is really important to me, too.

Mike McShane: So now as you look to the future, you mentioned a couple of these things that you want to get the private school status and start accessing scholarships. Are you looking to build both your in-person and online? A little bit of everything? What would you like to accomplish in the next maybe year or five years?

Iman Alleyne: Oh, great question. So I love that you asked that because it gives me dreaming. So this year we are full right now and I’m sad already because I hate saying to parents, I’m so sorry, we just don’t have the spots and we’re full. And I thought we would fill, but I didn’t know we’d fill so soon. We don’t have a building, our building isn’t even accessible. So we haven’t even done tours and we’re full. So I was thinking in three years I wanted to have another building. But I think next year, I know next year now, that we have to open another facility, very similar to this model, we’re looking at the beach and having a location further east, so we’re out west. We’re in South Florida. So we want to be closer to the beach, Deerfield Beach is our next facility, hopefully. And then five years, hopefully by then we have 50. The goal is to empower teachers, especially teachers of color, to understand that they can own schools. So too many of our students don’t see people who look like us, too many students in general, don’t see students. I teach on Outschool and parents are always like, my community is so not diverse. So I need teachers of color just so that they can see people of color. So I want my students to see that. And I want teachers to know that they can open their own schools and things like that. And the ease that comes along with it, it is challenging. But I think that if they have a model, so the goal is to open 100 Kind Schools in the next 10 years. So maybe by then, 30, I don’t know. Very small, engaging, community-focused and all that good stuff, but that’s the dream.

Mike McShane: That’s a great dream. And I can think of no better place to end the podcast than on that dream. Iman, thank you so much for coming on today and the best of luck on all of your future endeavors.

Iman Alleyne: Thank you so much for having me. I hope you have a wonderful day, Mike.

Mike McShane: Well, I hope you enjoyed that conversation as much as I did. I don’t think that I overbuilt it at the beginning, talking about the great energy that Iman brings to these conversations. I’m really glad we got to spend some time talking about this idea of how she finds teachers and trying to find people with the right sort of passion, the belief in the model, the attitude about kids. It’s one of the things that I love about school choice, that I love about the school choice movement, is trying to empower people who have really well-developed, well-thought out visions of what education is supposed to look like. Now, the thing is, maybe some of you were listening to that and her particular vision of education might not have been your cup of tea and that’s fair enough. It’s a free country. I get that. But one of the things that I would love for you to think about is even if the pedagogical model isn’t exactly aligned to how you think education could work, how much better would the world be if all of our schools were just run by people as passionate as that, who believe so much in what they were trying to do and why they’re doing it? And imagine a world in which all of the schools in America had that, and there were different versions, so there were folks who maybe think of a more classical version, or a more STEM-focused version, or any of these sorts of ideas that people might think are important, more workforce development, whatever it might be. But each one of them is run by passionate people who believe in that model and really want to see kids benefit from it. I just think it would be such a better world, such a better educational ecosystem, such a better environment, better for everyone across so many levels. If we had a million Imans with different visions, all executing on them at the same time and people free to choose between them, I just think it would be a better world and it’s one that’s worth shooting for. And to be honest with you, that’s what we do at EdChoice, right? We work to empower parents to find educational environments that best meet their kids’ needs. We want to empower educators to create those environments so that everyone in there, the kids are excited, the teachers are excited, the administrators are excited, the parents are excited. Everyone’s rowing the boat in the same direction and everyone’s having a great time, a worthy fight. And I hope that as you listen to these podcasts and are engaged with EdChoice, one that you would like to join us in. If you’re interested in knowing more about EdChoice, obviously you can go to our website, www.edchoice.org. Please subscribe to this podcast, give it a five-star rating. That would be awesome. It helps more people find out about it. If you know of interesting people or interesting schools that you would like to have profiled on this, or one of our many other podcasts, shoot me an email. On Twitter, I’m @MQ_McShane, shoot me a message, shoot me a DM, tweet me a link to a school. Definitely will check it out. And who knows, that might be the next episode that you hear. But until then, I want to thank our producer, Jacob, who edited all of this together. And I look forward to talking to you all again, as I answer what’s up about something else going on in American education, take care.