Ep. 354: What’s Up with Teach From DeHart – With Matt DeHart

January 24, 2023

On Mike McShane’s series What’s Up, Matt DeHart talks about his foundation, Teach From DeHart and his current status establishing a new school in Pennsylvania.

Mike McShane: Hello and welcome back to another edition of EdChoice Chats, and particularly my series, What’s Up with Mike McShane. This is Mike McShane, Director of National Research at EdChoice. You can probably hear my dogs losing their mind in the background, because even though I’ve been working quietly for a long time, literally as soon as I hit record, they decided to lose their mind. So thanks fellas, appreciate it.

Anyway, on the podcast today, we are answering the question, what’s up with Teach From DeHart? We will be interviewing Matt DeHart, who is currently an educator, an elementary school teacher in South Carolina. He is the founder of the Teach From DeHart Foundation, which is a really interesting thing which we’ll talk about, that helped students experience travel, have sort of enrichment travel activities. They raised money to send kids on trips. Many of them, it might be their first time in an airplane, or get to sort of expand their horizons a bit.

Then based on the success of that foundation, he is now launching a new school in Arnold, Pennsylvania, along with the principles and lessons that he learned both in teaching and with his foundation. So, it’s a bit of a circuitous path that we will take in this conversation. We’ll sort of start in his classroom now, we’ll navigate through the foundation and eventually end up several states over and the new school that he’s launching.

But it’s a really interesting story, and part of the things that I’m interested in talking about on this podcast is entrepreneurial people, folks who are starting new schools, what that process looks like. Where do you get the idea? Where do you sort of pressure test it? Where do you get support? How do you make all this stuff happen? He’s looking to launch the school in the future. He’s in a fundraising process now, capital campaign, et cetera, so it’s a really kind of interesting pivotal moment to be talking to someone who’s starting a new school.

So I really enjoyed the conversation, I think it’s super interesting and I think you will too. So without further ado, here is my conversation with Matt DeHart of the Teach From DeHart Foundation and the soon-to-be launched Teach From DeHart Academy.

So Matt, it’s great to have you on the podcast. I think before we talk about the new school, I would love to just get a little bit of your background. I know you’re an educator. How long have you been involved in education? Where has that been? What have you done? Kind of give me the story.

Matt DeHart: Yeah, so I love talking about this opportunity with education in my family, because I’m a third-generation educator, so I come from a long line of people who are passionate about making a difference in the lives of others. I got to see excellence in education through my grandfather. The gymnasium is named after him at Berea High School in Greenville, South Carolina. My mother, Cindy DeHart, who the gymnasium is named after her at Brooklyn Elementary School. Then my father who has just been in multiple coaching opportunities across the country, in the nation, in the world, actually.

I’ve just gotten to watch this prestigious push for excellence through my whole life. For a while, I honestly wore that on my shoulders of I had to match up, but really it’s an opportunity to be a part, right? So I come from two parents who were public educators, grandfather, public educator, and I knew that I wanted to go into public education to try to make an impact and to set students up for success.

When people ask, “Well, how long have you been in education?” I’ll say, “This is my fourth year in teaching.” They go, “Whoa, you’ve got all of these things you’re doing and all this stuff’s going on.” It’s truly because I’ve seen it my whole life.

So, how long have you been in education? From about six weeks old I think is the way to put it, with my mom bringing me into the gym six weeks in to me being born and full scale jumping in from there. But I’ve been blessed to see excellence from across the board from my family, and now to be able to try to put that excellence into the Teach From DeHart Academy, which will be coming to Arnold, Pennsylvania is kind of the push.

But before the academy as well, it really started with the foundation, which was called the Teach From DeHart Foundation. So, obviously Teach From DeHart is a play off my last name. I tell people all the time, my elementary ed degree came right there, that was the moment it earned its worth, because I was like boom, creativity, ready to roll and felt really good about it.

But the Teach From DeHart Foundation was an opportunity for the students that were in my public school classroom to get a chance to travel. Not just travel in a sense to see different parts of Greenville, South Carolina where we’re currently based, but also a chance to fly.

So we’ve had the privilege through our team, and it’s not just me, my name is on it for licensing rights, but besides that, our team helps get this thing going. We’ve been able to fly over 60 students from public school classrooms in Travelers Rest, South Carolina, from Pittsburgh to Atlanta, giving them the chance to see the world, to experience their learning and to see an airport. Believe it or not, that’s a big change for a lot of students.

So, it really started with this foundation of opportunity to give students a chance to see the world around them, and now has developed itself into a curriculum which will be the basis for the Teach From DeHart Academy.

Mike McShane: Yeah, so I’m fascinated. So you’re teaching in the classroom, I’m assuming you noticed that your students have not had some of these opportunities, you see it as enrichment, all of those things. So, what prompts you to start this foundation? How do you do it? Who do you reach out to? How did that happen?

Matt DeHart: Yeah, so that story in itself is one of my favorite stories. Whenever my first year of education, I was using an example in class about architecture and I was talking about, “Oh, this bridge is the hanging bridge just like the one in downtown Greenville.” I look, and the students, it’s blank, and I’m like, “Wait a minute.” So I go, “You guys know the Reedy River Bridge downtown, right?” They’re like, “No.” I said, “Raise your hand if you’ve been downtown.” That’s 20 minutes down the road mind you, okay?

Three out of 28 students raised their hand. I sat there and it hit me, okay, their perspective is limited to the four square miles of this city, we have to change that. So, I went home and I talked to my wife and I said, “I want to take these kids on trips, I want to give them experiences.” I just felt this need to show them the world. Honestly, COVID hit right when that was happening, and so it gave me time to think and talk to my wife, to pray through it, to think through it.

Coming out of the COVID summer, we talked about it and I said, “I want to start a foundation, because I know the district is not going to allow me to take students out after school. That’s just not going to happen. There’s too much red tape, it’s just not going to be the case, so I have to do it on my own.” But I’m a teacher and I don’t make much money, so I have to figure out a way to fund this. So, I discussed it with her and I said, “I’m going to start a nonprofit. We’re going to get a board of people who are like-minded together to start a nonprofit to take these students on trips.” The Teach From DeHart Foundation was born.

It’s really cool, the students from that year experience it, they actually walked with me through the process. So, I told them in August, “Hey guys, I’m thinking about starting this foundation to take you guys on trips.” They’re like, “Oh, really?” Then it became, there was the logo, the heart and the tie, and they were excited. Then I got to say, “We’re official and we’ve got $100 in the bank, so I’m going to take some of y’all on a trip,” right?

My mom wrote me the first check, she said, “Here you go, here’s your first donation.” To that, it’s taken off. It’s two years old and we’ve gone from the idea, let’s just take these kids on trips, one flight in the summer and pursue those opportunities, to let’s start a school based on this model of excellence, travel and student perspective change.

Mike McShane: Yeah, so I’m so glad. That was a perfect transition, you did my job for me there. So you built from this and you’re starting a school, so talk to me about that. What was the sort of impetus to saying you want to do more than … because I mean, this sounds like a lot, right? You’re teaching, you’re running this foundation, there’s a lot going on there, and to take an even bigger step now to start a school. So, talk me through that thought process.

Matt DeHart: Well, again, I want to push the perspective to the team. So, this has been a group of people that have helped me pursue this, from my co-teacher Devyn Washburn, to my best friend who now is our assistant director of operations, Cam McKennedy, and our board of directors who came behind and said, “Dear, you got a crazy dream. You’re going to fly these kids who have never seen anything outside of Travelers Rest, South Carolina, but we believe in it, we’re going to run with it.” So I could do all the dreaming in the world, but without them this wouldn’t have been able to come to be.

What happened was when we were in the airport after the first ever summer trip for Teach From DeHart, flew the students to Atlanta, Georgia, because COVID, it was the only place we could go that was open. We flew them and we were about to fly back and a group of parents cornered me at the airport. These are parent chaperones that have come with this trip, and I’m thinking, “Oh no, what’s happened? I’ve messed something up. Some kid didn’t get fed,” I don’t know. They stopped me and they said, “You need to start a school.”

Mind you, I’m 25 at the time, so I’m going, “What? Start a school? That would be unreal.” They said, “No, you need to take this curriculum. I mean, our students are not only well-mannered, they are academically pushing themselves. They can speak to adults, they’re having conversations that I’ve never thought would have. We’re having these moments at home that I never thought would happen, it’s because of the curriculum that’s been pushed. You need to develop that into a school model.”

So, in the back of my head I was like, “Thank you guys, that’s real sweet.” In the back of my head, I had it there, told my wife about it, and we both kind of laughed. We were like, “Yeah, we’ll see.” A year later, the vision came to be. So, a year later I was visiting her family in Arnold, Pennsylvania and I actually heard it as church service, a gentleman talking about the area and how heavy the poverty rate was and how perspectives had to change, and so it just struck me.

I was like, “Man, I want to go walk around and see what’s going on. I need to walk around this town. I’ve come up here for six years and I’ve never really walked around, I need to do this.” So, I told my wife, “I’m going to go and walk, I’ll see you later.” It’s funny, she told me, she said, “I knew I should have stopped you, because I knew when you said, I’m going to go walk around-

Mike McShane: You’re getting us into something.

Matt DeHart: Yeah. Yes, she said, “I knew it, I knew it.” I was going down into the area and parked my car and started walking. I’m just walking down the street and I look on the corner and I see a school. I’m thinking this school’s open. So mind you, I’m a southern boy in Western PA at this point who’s used to … you meet someone for the first time, you invite them over for collard greens and mashed potatoes for dinner. That’s just how it works. That’s not the case in Western PA, I learned that very quickly.

So, I’m walking down the street and I see this school and I’m thinking, “I’m going to go talk to this principal.” I’m walking down the road, and when I turned the corner to the front of the school, I see a for sale sign. I see this beautiful very vintage looking school building, and boom, it hits me. Here it is. It was the clearest message I could have gotten. Here it is, this is the school, DeHart Academy, take it.

I called my wife and I said, “Hey, I found it.” She goes, “What did you find?” She never knows, every day’s an adventure in our life with me. I said, “I found the school. We’re going to put it in your hometown right here in Arnold, and we’re going to open a Teach From DeHart Academy.” I tell people, that was the hardest sell I’ve had to make of this whole process was my wife, because she loves living in South Carolina. She was like, “You got four different seasons, it’s nice and comfortable here.” She really got to love South Carolina, and I explained to her, I said, “No, just give me a chance to let me talk to you about it.”

I explained this vision, I said, “Not only are we going to do middle school education, we’re going to do fifth through eighth grade.” I said, “But we’re going to educate the parents. We’re going to provide adult ed, we’re going to do whole family two gen education, and we’re going to impact this entire community. Because you can impact the future, but what if you can impact the present, right? What if you can impact those who think they don’t have a second chance who think their time is up because they had a kid at 16? What if we can make them change their perspective and give them those opportunities?”

She sat quietly for a little bit, and she’s like, “Well, okay, if we’re going to do this, you need to take two weeks, you need to pray about it, you need to think about it for two reasons. Number one, this is going to completely flip up our whole life,” right? I was like, “I agree, understood.” She said, “But number two is you need to take this seriously for this town, because this town is used to people letting them down, and you cannot be another …” She’s like, “Basically I will not be attached to somebody who lets these people down.”

So thought about it, prayed through it for about two weeks and then I knew. I walked up to her, I said, “We’re going to do it.” Prepared for a battle, right? I’m prepared to have to defend, and I said, “We’re going to do it.” She says, “Okay, what’s the next step?” And we went from there.

So we went to the board, presented it to them, the idea, it was unanimous approval to move forward. We started a fundraising campaign. We announced in January of 2022 that we were going to be coming to the area, we were going to fundraise to purchase the building. By March, we signed the dotted line, we owned that building debt free. So, we were able to purchase our location debt free. We own it, it’s in the foundation’s name and we were able to move forward. So now we’re moving into capital renovations campaigns and partnerships, so we have seen a massive turn in a short amount of time.

Mike McShane: Yeah, that’s what I was going to ask you. So, where are you in the process right now?

Matt DeHart: We are currently seeking charter application approval. So we’re finishing the charter application right now, working with our attorneys to get that finalized and then we will present to the district to which we have put out a plan of partnership. So, we were very intentional to make sure that the district understood we’re here to help the community. It is not about us, it’s not about our team, it’s about these kids, it’s about these parents, right?

So when we announced that we were going charter, before we even made the announcement, we met with the school board members and we said, “Hey, we want you to know that this is what we’re doing. We’re going to be transparent, we’re going to be honest, we’re going to be open, and here’s our plan of partnership. We’re going to volunteer in the community,” which we’ve already done every month this year, we’ve been volunteering in the community. “We’re going to work the concession stands,” which is a very big deal from what I’ve found out. Working in the concession stands is a pretty big move.

But also, we’re blessed enough to be able to partner with a foundation out of Georgia where we’re going to be giving a full ride college scholarship to a senior in the local school district. Full ride, four years, taken care of, to show that we’re not just talking about partnership, we’re about partnership. So, we’re in that process right now of finalizing that application to present to the district for approval.

Mike McShane: The hope is that the district will authorize you?

Matt DeHart: Yes.

Mike McShane: I’m not sure Pennsylvania, are there other authorizers? So if it doesn’t work with the district, is there a state board or is there-

Matt DeHart: Yeah. Mm-hmm. It goes to the state, the district does not … you appeal and then you go to the state. But our hope, our goal here is that this partnership is a true partnership and we can be a model. That’s what we’ve told them, we want to be a model of partnership. There’s a lot of contention a lot of times between districts and charter, and so we don’t want that. We want to be the model for, oh, you know what? They made it work, so why can’t we make it work? Kind of an instance.

Mike McShane: So, talk to me about the vision for the school. You’ve talked about the curriculum, you’ve mentioned the grades that you want to serve, but if you could, sort of paint that picture.

Matt DeHart: So, we are going to be the only charter model that’s going to educate both the student and the parent. So, we’re doing fifth through eighth grade middle school education. We’re not looking to branch out of that, this is our niche market, because we want to hit those students when they’re most impressionable to provide that perspective of success, right? We are not just a school, we’re an example for how to reach students at that level and to see themselves at a higher level, right?

So when I talk about the curriculum, we have a high academic, high social rigor curriculum. Our students are going to perform well academically through different educational method. We’re the teachers that stand on the desk, we sing, we rap, we dance, we do everything we can to get those students passionate about coming to school. They say, “No, I want to go to school this day.” They’re sad when they go on break type instances.

But also there’s a social rigor in what we say are keynotes by the age of 12. So our students will be able to speak eloquently to a crowd, they’ll be able to engage other adults, other opportunities. These kinds of students that will come through the academy model will be the leaders of the world, and that’s because they’re trained in those departments.

Actually this past summer with a public school in South Carolina, we flew them up to Pittsburgh as their summer trip. They got to tour the city, experience things, but then they did community service. So we did a clothing drive, we served over 30 families, and then the students actually presented the Teach From DeHart Academy model to the Arnold City Council. So I stood up for about two or three minutes, our assistant director two minutes, our engineer two minutes, and then we turned it over to the students.

We had five students, 11 years old, go up there and speak to the city council. But what the requirements were, you can’t use your notes, you’ve got to be on point, you got to be ready to go. So these students are walking up, cracking jokes to the crowd, getting everybody engaged, looking at the board, making eye contact, smiling, using their hands properly, and it was a really magical moment. It was an emotional moment for me to watch them put this on display, but it was really cool to watch the emotions of the crowd, the tears. People are crying, going, “We don’t even know these kids and they’re making us cry.”

The best part was the wrap up, was that we had the opportunity to tell them, “These students you’re meeting, they’re not aliens, they’re from almost the exact same demographic at South Carolina. These type of students are right here in Arnold, PA. This is what our model brings to the table.” We sought approval from the city council and we received it with open arms.

So, this model of academic and social excellence will push these students to the next level, as well travel. So, travel was initially a part of the teach instruction. Students will get to experience each year. Sixth, seventh, and eighth grade, students will get an international trip, go somewhere. So if you’re learning about the Colosseum or about Rome, you’re going to go to the Colosseum. Learning about Ancient Egypt, you’re going to go see the pyramids, right? You get that opportunity to experience your learning.

Then this part’s really fun for us to develop, is that two nights a week we do GED training and technology training for the parents of these students. So, the picture that we like to have is that a student sitting in the crowd of an auditorium watching their mom or dad walk across the stage to receive their GED through the Teach From DeHart Academy. Then three years later, that same student walks across that stage to receive their eighth grade diploma with full confidence, and they’re hugging each other saying, “We did it, we did it.” And they get to do that together.

Mike McShane: So, tell me a little bit about Arnold. Talk to me about the community. Maybe for people who aren’t familiar with Pennsylvania geography, where exactly in Pennsylvania is it? Tell me a bit about that community.

Matt DeHart: So, Arnold is a community rich in history and rich in pride. This community, they love each other, they love their town. It’s actually where ALCOA, the aluminum company, used to have their headquarters and their base. Then as most western Pennsylvania towns, companies pulled out, steel mills pulled out, aluminum company pulled out. When it did, the surrounding areas struggled to survive.

So, it’s right outside of Pittsburgh. We’re in the Western PA side about 30 minutes outside on the border of Allegheny County in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. So, it’s a small town and a town that we have been so welcomed in. We have felt the welcome, the love, the excitement. The mayor is on board, he’s behind us, he’s pushing it forward with it, and so we love our town, we love Arnold. We actually have shirts now that we’ve made for the DeHart Academy and it says I, with our DeHart logo, I Heart Arnold, PA. So we do, we love Arnold, PA and we’re thankful to be in that town.

Mike McShane: Well, look, thank you so much for joining the podcast today. If folks want to find out more about what you’re doing, where can they go to look?

Matt DeHart: Yeah, our website, teachfromdehart.org. Teach from and then D-E-H-A-R-T.org. It’s got information about the foundation. You can see actually trips, videos from our previous opportunities where we’ve taken students places, as well as see more information about the academy. There is a place as well to donate.

We are currently in a capital fund to raise money for our building construction so that we can open in the fall of 2025 on time. So, we’ve been blessed enough to buy the building and I know that we’ll continue pushing forward to renovate and be opening in 2025. But teachfromdehart.org, and you can obviously reach out to me as well. My email is dehart@teachfromdehart.org. So, last name@teachfromdehart.org.

Mike McShane: Well, thanks so much to Matt for joining the podcast. Again, as I said at the beginning, we took kind of a circuitous path there, starting where he is now and pointing to where he’s going. But I thought it was really interesting. I think a lot of what I’ve written about in the past, we’ve talked about in the past is around entrepreneurial ideas. How do you start them at a smaller scale?

So obviously starting an entire school, he’s in the process of raising I think millions of dollars to build this building and he’s going to hire staff, and it’s a big undertaking. So, you don’t really want to do that blind if you’ve never tried anything like it before or if you haven’t been able to test the ideas out at scale. So, the fact that he was able to use this foundation to try some of this stuff out, to take kids on trips and have it be a success and develop the ideas organically over time at lower risk I thought was really interesting. I think that’s a cool way of testing out ideas.

Who knows, there’s maybe an alternate universe where those trips go poorly, or the kids don’t benefit from them and they say, “Okay, maybe you got to try something different. I want to do something in my own classroom or in something else.” But they did work and the parents loved it and the kids loved it and they got a lot out of it, and hopefully his students will in the future.

So, excited to see what happens over the next couple of years. Maybe we’ll have to have a follow-up podcast here in a couple years after the school launches to see how it all goes, ’cause I imagine there are any number of more twists and turns in that journey that is still to be made.

So thanks for listening, I really appreciate. I have to tell you, this was a podcast topic that was recommended to me. A colleague emailed me and said, “Hey, I heard about this kind of interesting school that’s starting, you should talk to this person.” That’s the best way for me to find out people to talk about on this podcast. So if you are listening and you know someone who is doing something interesting, they don’t necessarily have to be a school founder, though I love talking to those folks.

If you know a teacher, if you know someone in the philanthropic space, if you know an entrepreneur, if you know a volunteer, if you know anybody. If you know a principal, if you know a superintendent, any of these folks that are doing cool, interesting, innovative things in education that are making schools, places where kids want to learn and teachers want to teach and happy, thriving institutions, send them my way. I love talking to them, I love giving people the opportunity to talk about what they’re passionate about and what they’re interested in. I think we all benefit from that. So, send that on to me. You can tweet it at me, you can email it to me.

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I think that’s all I’ve got. So, it was great talking with Matt. I appreciate him taking the time out of his clearly busy schedule, as both teaching and trying to launch a new school in a different state. Really appreciate his time to do that. As always, I appreciate Jacob Vinson, who edits this and makes me sound coherent, which is a challenge. I look forward to chatting with all of you again on another edition of EdChoice Chats. Take care.