Ep. 361: What’s Up with Sora Schools – With Garrett Smiley

March 9, 2023

Garrett Smiley, CEO and co-founder of Sora Schools, joins Mike McShane on the “What’s Up” series to talk about his Georgia based online private school.

Mike McShane: Hello, and welcome back to another edition of EdChoice Chats. This is Mike McShane, Director of National Research at EdChoice, and this is part of my series, What’s Up with Mike McShane.

Today, we’re going to answer the question, what’s up with Sora Schools? Sora is a really interesting online private school. It’s based in Georgia right now, but as you’ll find out on the podcast, there are definitely plans to take it much wider than that. On the podcast, we have the co-founder and CEO, Garrett Smiley. There’s always been talk about online education and the pros and cons of online education and whether or not online education is the future, but Garrett and I have a really interesting conversation. I think he’s a very thoughtful guy, and that’ll come across in this interview here, really someone who took the time to think about other people who’ve tried similar things and the lessons that he could take away from them and his whole team.

If you’re interested in online education, if you’re interested in private education, we spend some time talking about just entrepreneurship in general, I think this is a conversation that a lot of people will benefit from. And so without further ado, because I’ve got you all hooked right now, we’re going to go ahead and deliver the goods. This is my conversation with Garrett Smiley, the co-founder and CEO of Sora Schools. Garrett, I went on the Sora Schools website and it says in big block letters, “The future of school.” I would love to know, I don’t know if we’re doing our Marty McFly thing here and you can have your dispatch from the future, what do you see as the future of school?

Garrett Smiley: Sora, what we stand for is bringing world-class, future-focused education to everyone through the internet. I know I answered your question with the word, generally not how you’re supposed to define words, but how we view the future of education is interdisciplinary education. So, having students learn real-world problems or inquiry-based education, a project-based education. It’s a lot of the buzzwords that we know and love, but really what we’re trying to do is take the best practices that we see in a lot of independent schools that have existed for hundreds of years, these golden 40, 50, $60,000 a year experiences that are really focused on the student, where they’re at and their interests, personalizing the curriculum to them, their strengths and weaknesses, asking them what they find meaningful and beautiful about the world, and then bringing their learning to them, meeting them halfway in that respect.

But as we all know, as I’m sure your listeners know, that’s not usually how things work in the traditional education system. It’s been designed to be efficient and we cannot blame the people who design this and the people who continue to run it. It’s an amazing thing that we’ve done to scale education the way we have. But we just think in the year 2023, I think that’s what it is now, 2023, we should be able to bring some of these practices that have thus far been very hands-on, not scalable, expensive, human-intensive, like an interdisciplinary student-led curriculum, and use software, use the internet, use all these things at these corporations with hundreds of thousands of employees, even this Zoom software we’re using now, to make this experience much more accessible to students who traditionally wouldn’t have access to this type of experience.

Mike McShane: It seems like the school sits at this very interesting intersection, which is a pedagogical model that we tend to associate with brick and mortar education, small class sizes, all of those things that are necessary to make project-based learning, personalization, meeting students where they are, but using the internet or having students go to school online. So, I think it may be difficult for people to wrap their heads around how that works. Maybe, it might make sense to go from the perspective of a student, and then I’m actually fascinated to know from the perspective of a teacher what it looks like. But if you are a student attending school, what does it look like? What does a day look like? What does a class look like?

Garrett Smiley: Absolutely. Before I answer that directly, I’ll say, Sora is designed to be a high fidelity, this world-class, independent school experience. It’s just online, just like how maybe some of your listeners or remote workers. There can be wonderful work environments where we do impactful, challenging work in the manner that you would in the office just online. So, it doesn’t mean it’s a watered down version. It doesn’t mean we’re attacking even a different problem per se. It’s just the format’s changing and we really don’t see that high fidelity, high quality experience online. Usually, online is frankly just a worse version. But Sora is trying to completely change that paradigm. We just don’t have the costs of a building and we use software to make it much more efficient to bring it down to a price point that is as of today, less than the per people spend of a traditional public school. That’s the context for my answer.

How Sora works for students is every six weeks, our students meet with their advisor, which is a trusted adult. We have this advisor relationship much like you would see in many high quality independent schools to map out what they want. All that we ask our students is to choose enough learning experiences, learning enough new stuff to graduate on time. But which experiences is totally up to them. So, whether they want to take one of our interdisciplinary expeditions, something like the physics of sharks, the science of Marvel, the life and math of Socrates, any of these, how to build a Martian society. We have so many of these. Whether they want to join a live session, which is structured like a liberal arts college. You might imagine small groups, two to three meetings synchronously a week, pre-work, et cetera. They can join that. They could do an independent study project.

They pose, “Here’s how I want to demonstrate my mastery,” or maybe they do something between we have asynchronous curriculum or maybe a group project they propose with a student. It doesn’t matter what it is, it’s really about finding something of our literally thousands of options we offer speaking to their interests. So, they go through that and then six weeks later, yes, they have a default path they’ve set with their advisor before, they have the opportunity to recalibrate, go, “Oh, actually, I would like to take… I found this super interesting. Oh, I’m not super into science,” or, “I don’t really want to be a doctor anymore. Let me explore this thing.” So, they’re constantly tweaking that. They’re taking, roughly call it, four experiences at a time. They meet two to three times per week for an hour. That’s small group. That’s active learning. That’s a debate. That’s a Socratic discussion. That’s even a lab we do. That could go on forever. We have so many different modalities and experiences that we offer, but they’re ultimately in the driver’s seat of their education.

Mike McShane: All of these courses that you have, are they like a library that students can choose from? But you mentioned that they’re synchronous. So, are they just happening on a rolling basis, like an instructor is teaching that course every six weeks and you can loop into it with them? Are you hiring people ad hoc to do this? I guess, that was a whole bunch of questions embedded in one. Maybe, we’ll start with who are your teachers and how do you recruit them? Do they design their classes? Do you design them for them? Let’s talk about the teaching aspect of this.

Garrett Smiley: Wonderful question. We have, of course, I’m biased, but the best faculty. They’re full-time people that we hire. We hire them from lots of different backgrounds. Most have come from independent schools or even public schools, but we are lucky enough to have hundreds of applications for every open faculty position we’ve listed to date. That’s because, yes, of course, we pay well and we like to respect our teachers in that way, but more importantly, we are asking them, “When you come to Sora, you’re going to co-create eight to 10 learning experiences with our talented curriculum team that you own, that are yours.” These are often like one of our first teachers, one of the student’s favorites, he has created an Ethics through Dungeons and Dragons experience. He loves D&D. He loves ethics. He’s the philosophy guy.

Teachers can bring in, we call them experts at Sora, their passions, their curiosities, and create these novel learning experiences that I don’t even think you would see even at the most elite schools because we are asking them to bring their passions to the classroom. Students really can tell, frankly. To answer your previous question, the faculty are usually teaching about five of these sessions at a time. Yes, we have lots of informative feedback. We have office hour models. They have their advisees. So, it’s a little bit of a different class load than the traditional high schooler. But yeah, they’re asked to teach five-ish of these at a time and I see, I go to these all the time, they are a 100X more energetic and exciting than the high school classes I had to go through.

Mike McShane: Now, your school sits within an education system that is oftentimes not particularly well-built to handle innovative models or playing with calendars and schedules and credits and all of those things. I’m curious, do students get quote, unquote, “credit”? Do they have a transcript? How are they able to move on to go to college? Any of that stuff?

Garrett Smiley: Wonderful question. I think there’s often a false dichotomy in the progressive, innovative education sphere. I think oftentimes, parents or even faculty members think that it is either we have these stringent academic standards, every student is going through the same scope and sequence, they’re getting their grades, and that’s what gets them a college ready high school transcript, I think that’s a common conception, and then on the other side of the spectrum, there’s, “Let’s build a wonderful student-led curriculum, the likes of Sudbury Valley or Agora for going to the EU.” That side of the spectrum.

In most cases, the academic standards are lax. If the students don’t get everything, it’s okay, and that will not net out an accredited transcript. I think oftentimes, we think that you can either fall in one of these two camps. At Sora, we’re going right between the eyes. We’re going right now in the middle. We’re saying, “You can have a world-class, student-led curriculum where students are choosing between literally thousands of learning options every six weeks. They’re submitting their projects, while we’re ensuring they get all the academic standards you would expect in a traditional middle and high school experience.”

At Sora, we call these units and abilities. We are making sure every six weeks they’re demonstrating mastery over enough new units and abilities to graduate on time. Our custom software that we’ve built tracks each student’s independent progression. Every student’s in a different space. We know that, it’s okay, but by the time they’re at the end, we will make sure with their advisor and the software and partnership that they get all that they need to do to accomplish their goals and get our accredited transfer, accredited by Cognia, WASC, approved by the NCAA. All the big names. Thus far, we’ve only been in existence for four years, but we have a hundred percent college acceptance rate, top colleges, Georgia Tech, RISD. Clearly, it works.

Mike McShane: Now, those students, does it have to be linked up to their state that they’re living in, the standards to it, and do you have to link those up to 50 different states? I don’t know if you’ve grown around the world, if you have to link it up to other people. Are you able to pick one state’s standards? How do you get those gears to work together?

Garrett Smiley: We are a school based out of Georgia in the United States. So, we abide by most of the rules there. My legal team is going to yell at me. So, I won’t make any blanket statements, but in most states, how it works is you’re a distance learner in Georgia, and it’s all right. Some states we have to make concessions. We have to fill out independent paperwork, whatever it may be. But as an independent school accredited by these third parties, we actually don’t have to act like a charter school or a public school matching up the standards of the states directly.

Mike McShane: It’s like going to a boarding school, but you’re-

Garrett Smiley: That’s exactly right. But, without leaving your home.

Mike McShane: Boarding school from your home.

Garrett Smiley: Precisely.

Mike McShane: And so talking about your students, where did they come from? Do they have a typical academic profile? Are they a little bit of everything, a little bit of everywhere, or are you starting to see trends and patterns? Who are your students?

Garrett Smiley: We’re definitely seeing trends and patterns. Of course, being an early program, I think we’ve made tremendous strides in four years and I would call us one of the leaders in scaling an innovative form of education. But we are still a young program. So, we’re seeing that there are certain profiles that it really attaches to nowadays, communities that really like what we’re doing. The way I would describe this typical student, although of course across the spectrum we have students, is a student who perhaps they get B’s and C’s in their traditional public school. They are a bright kid, but they come home, they ask their parents questions like, “When am I ever going to need to use this? Why do I need to learn this? This feels like a waste of my time. I can learn this faster on my own.” These are things that we always hear with our students.

Frankly, I think many of our parents who are more successful at Sora, they describe just seeing the joy of learning leave their students’ eyes. It’s starting to become a soul-crushing endeavor rather than a soul building, which is what education is meant to be. We hear these things over and over. Sure, they could continue in their traditional public environment or maybe their more traditionally styled private school, but they feel like it’s doing something to their kid. It’s not healthy for them. That’s usually the impetus. They start looking at, “What will make my kid feel like there’s more meaning in this?” That’s many of the times when they come across Sora. They’re looking for other options and the way we message around creating a relevant curriculum, putting the student in the driver’s seat using the design with a trusted advisor adult, it really speaks to those types of families. But then again, we have the extremely gifted students. We have students who are academically challenged, and we need a lot more support and both sides have been highly successful in our program as well.

Mike McShane: Now, what have you learned from other attempts to do similar things? Obviously, there have been a lot of other online schools. I think we can fairly say some have met with more success than others. There have been other for-profit schooling models. Some have met with more success than others. I’m wondering, as you look at that landscape, what lessons have you taken away from other attempts in this area?

Garrett Smiley: Another fantastic question. You’re good at questions. There have been hundreds of attempts to do similar things. When we were starting Sora back in 2019, even before the pandemic when virtual schooling became a boom and a trend or whatever… Actually, 2018 when we were starting this, we did exactly that. We took a step back. We tried to talk to as many people as possible. Who started online schools? Who started more progressive, even in-person schools that didn’t pan out? Can we find commonalities? I will say online schools, even with some very well-known, I won’t make enemies on this podcast, colleges and brands attached to them, they’re not good. They’re just not good. They were built with a ’90s mentality of what the internet was, namely, a content repository, and that is not the superpower of the internet anymore.

The internet is, it solves the content problem of education forever. But they didn’t even attempt to build the human into the machine. They didn’t try to replicate that world-class, brick and mortar experience that we see in many hundreds, thousands of schools that do it really well. They were saying, “That’s not our core competency. Screw it.” It was the sentiment we heard and saw over and over, and we wanted to go the complete opposite direction. We wanted to, in the ethos of a more student-centered school, say, “Content is handled. We’re actually going to meet students, design the curriculum with them.” In the beginning, Sora was much more of every student designing their projects. We didn’t have this expedition model as fully built out, but what we knew is we wanted to lead with the human relationships, the advisor model, the faculty, and we immediately saw how well that worked.

It’s hard, of course. It’s easier to throw some YouTube. This was my experience in my online school. They threw at first textbooks, and then near the end and through 2008-ish, whenever YouTube came out era, it started to be YouTube links or whatever. They went, “Let me know when you’re ready for a test.” That’s how they’ve been designing it for a long time and still are. We went just the complete opposite direction. It’s harder, but it’s worthwhile. That’s the ethos we’ve been building since then and finding efficiency rather in the administrative aspect of running a school. So, it takes lot of software to empower our students and our educators to do what they do best. We have the highest proportion of teaching faculty to students. That’s our cost driver instead of the bloat of administration that we see, especially in higher ed but creeping down into secondary school as well. I could go on a long time about the learnings. I assume you don’t want me to.

Mike McShane: No, I do. Actually, I’m super interested. I was going to maybe broaden the lens just slightly, your perspective as an entrepreneur in the education space. Obviously, you mentioned the pandemic. There’s so many interesting things that are happening, but they’re running into the existing model that’s there. I would just be interested in your thoughts on not just Sora in particular, but educational entrepreneurship in general, the headwinds and tailwinds. What is propelling you forward and what is making the space more hospitable for people like you who are creating interesting things to try and solve problems? And then, what are those headwinds? What are the things that you’re running into? Is it regulation? Is it whatever? Is it skepticism? Is it politics? Who knows? You can start with either one and go. If you want to start with the headwinds and then come back around to the tailwinds, however you want to do it.

Garrett Smiley: I’ll start with the headwinds, because you touched on one of them in that intro. I think one of the primary headwinds is this skepticism, or I’ve heard it referred to in certain blogs, I don’t know if this is a proper way to say it, but the COVID PTSD of the experience.

Mike McShane: Sure.

Garrett Smiley: Parents are like, “Whatever the hell that was, I don’t want that again.”

Mike McShane: Yeah. “Absolutely want nothing to do with it,” sure.

Garrett Smiley: Exactly. It’s hard to place blame on the traditional programs that overnight had to transition to be in an online program. I totally get it, and I know some friends who are navigating these waters and holy cow, it was difficult. But parents saw a quite bad port, if you will, of traditional school to the online environment. It was rushed, but from my perspective, I’m sorry if this offends anyone, it was the worst parts of traditional school brought to the impersonal internet while in the process, removing all of the crutches that makes traditional school work in many cases. The extracurriculars, the relationships, the stuff that most admins see as a bug, not a feature, but in reality, it’s a huge feature and it’s like the buttress holding up the crumbling institutions from my perspective.

They got rid of that on accident, they kept the bad parts, and then they even, in most cases, ran that poorly because it was such a rushed job. I probably would’ve too in their position. So, I can’t blame them there. But what parents now think is that’s online school. But Sora is a world-class, high fidelity independent school experience where our classroom is the internet. It’s a completely different paradigm. That consumer education has been difficult, but we’re finding our way around it. This is an interesting anecdote. We did an internal study. I don’t think I’ve actually shared it anywhere but here. We’ll be breaking news. We asked parents, I think about a thousand parents, not of our current population, “What percentage of your students thrived during COVID education?” Actually, 38% of them said they thought they thrived. They answered yes to that question.

Then we asked, “What percentage of you would consider online school as a permanent option going forward?” The answer was 3%. What is that disconnect? I consider in my mind that 35% to be our winnable population. They actually liked what it did to their kid. Maybe, the pressure is less, the more asynchronous environment. Bullying is a real thing, and maybe some kids moving from that toxic environment was extremely healthy to them. So, they actually liked what they saw. They said their student thrived, but they look at the academic quality like, “Never again. It’s not worth it. My kid’s flying behind. What will everyone think?” And so, I really consider those 35% to be our winnable population. You can have that. You can have your cake and eat it too, and we’re bringing a world-class innovative education into your home. So, I think that’s a main headwind from a certain perspective.

The tailwinds are immense though. We have the ESAs passing state after state. Sora, we’re $12,500 a year. So we’re still, of course, expensive for many families, although we’re on the affordable side of the spectrum as far as independent schools go. But this $8,000 in some states of Arizona and now Iowa… Utah’s looking like it’s all coming around this 8,000 because of the state’s contribution to the pot. That’s going to be an absolute game changer for so many families in making this accessible, which is we’re a social impact company. That’s why we’re ultimately doing it. So many more tailwinds, just how it woke parents up to what was happening. Sure, they have this trauma, but I don’t hear many parents. As we were just saying, they didn’t like what they saw. The default of traditional education, which has been the case for so long I think is becoming less of a default. That’s how we’re seeing the 9% decrease in enrollment and all these other massive trends. So many. We could talk about this all day, I think.

Mike McShane: Well, I’d be interested. As you now look into the future, the next year, the next five years, where are you now? Where do you see yourself in the short to medium term?

Garrett Smiley: Sora has the advantage of having started in 2018. We’ve actually been running this program four years. We have gone through tons of iterations. We have incredible backers who have funded things like our LMS and just building an incredible team around this problem. We’re super lucky to have that, and we’ve been doing it for a while. So, I think we’re actually quite good at it, and it is an incredibly hard problem to solve. Starting a school is ridiculously challenging, since we’re speaking to all the other entrepreneurs out there, but I think it’s worth doing.

The value proposition of schools as an entity are more needed than ever. With content, I see so many entrepreneurs attacking the content problem. From my perspective, that’s an illusion. There’s no content problem after the internet, especially in 2023. The problem that we need solving is trusted relationships between students with each other, faculty and students, bringing the parent into the education. It’s inspiring them to want to learn, finding meaning for what they want to do. That is really the core function of a well-designed, which is not many of them, school from my perspective, and that problem has never been more relevant. Did that answer your question? Probably wouldn’t have.

Mike McShane: Yes. That was like it answered in the very big picture, philosophical way, which I appreciate. I was wondering more of just brass tacks of, are you hoping to grow 10%? Are you hoping to double? I know some of the other folks that I’ve chatted here, some of these micro school providers and others, they’re like, “As soon as we can open one, it’s full. So, we’re hoping they’re popping up like mushrooms everywhere.” I don’t know if you’re thinking of growing more slowly and purposefully? Growing faster? How do you think about that as you look to the future?

Garrett Smiley: Yeah, it’s such a tough question, and it’s hard for me to moralize on this, but I will say that is our approach for four years really until this year. We want to grow slowly. We want to respect the problem. We know how difficult this is. We also know what the stakes are. It’s kids’ childhoods. It’s setting them up for the rest of their life. It’s not really something you want to get wrong, at least for me, if I wanted to sleep at night. So, we took it very slowly and I’m glad that we did. But now, our satisfaction scores are just through the roof, frankly, both students and parents. Still problems, still opportunities that we’re working on and huge initiatives that we’re pushing to make it even more awesome for next school year.

But my mindset has shifted that now we have this thing that’s helping a lot of people, really helping them, touching stories we’re getting all the time, how do I take this thing and help as many kids as possible? That’s how we’ve set ourselves up from the beginning, being on the internet and wanting to be scalable and accessible, like we said in the beginning of this show. How do we fully live into that mission now? That’s our number one priority as an organization. Of course, just enrolling students directly by having partnership conversations or even opening up little in-person, micro school type things. We’re trying to keep an open mind because what we’ve built I think it can go in a dozen or more different form factors depending on the community and the need.

Mike McShane: Is it scalable to the point where you think you could have 10,000 kids? 50,000 kids? A hundred thousand kids?

Garrett Smiley: I hope a million.

Mike McShane: A million?

Garrett Smiley: A million is the goal.

Mike McShane: Is that the number? Is that you would love to have a million kids in a Sora school?

Garrett Smiley: Yup, globally. That’s the number when I wake up in the morning that really excites me. I think there’s tons of merit to building a global school as well, which we didn’t even touch on, and only an online school didn’t do that. We’ve only accepted 200 kids to date in keeping this small and grown intentionally, mostly off of word of mouth. In the short term, we are looking to remove all the blockers, or all the bottlenecks rather, that will keep us from growing rapidly in this way. Thus far, our software is scalable. We’ve had no problem recruiting extremely talented faculty. As I said earlier, we have less than 1% acceptance rate of our faculty to date. We’re building out robust teacher training and credentialing. We’re building out all the pieces that you would need to bring this to a hundred thousand, a million kids. Now, we just got to do it.

Mike McShane: Well, I can’t think of a better place to end than that. I know I will be definitely looking forward to seeing what you all are able to do. I will say if folks want to find out more, where can they go to find out more?

Garrett Smiley: You can go to our website, which is soraschools, plural, .com. We’re also Soraschools or Sora_schools on most social platforms, which we keep updated.

Mike McShane: Awesome. Well, Garrett, thank you so much for taking the time to chat today.

Garrett Smiley: Thank you for having me. It was super fun.

Mike McShane: I really enjoyed that conversation. We could have kept talking for much longer, but I can tell he’s a busy guy. So, we wanted to get the hits. We gave that information of their website, their social media and stuff. They have a really beautiful website. You can check it out and get more information that’s on there. I think it’ll be interesting. I hope to have them back on the podcast in a year or two or five or 10, Lord willing, if this thing’s still going on then, to learn whether they were able to accomplish this. I’m always really energized by people who have big goals, who want to do things, who want to help as many kids as they can in the best way that’s possible. So yeah, I’m really excited to see what happens there. We’ll see how it goes, but I really appreciate Garrett taking the time.

Having a chance is really a privilege, doing podcasts like this. Those of you that have been listening to the last 4, 5, 6 of these have really stood out in my mind of just really interesting, thoughtful people from a lot of different backgrounds doing different things. But I’m just energized. I think so much of the stuff during the pandemic and seeing NAT scores and everything that was coming out after that, it’s very easy to get discouraged. But obviously, seeing school choice on the march in so many states, as Garrett brought up, in Iowa and in Utah, building on growth in Arizona and West Virginia and all these places, Florida, Indiana, Wisconsin that are making it happen, I think we’re going to see more innovation like this and kids having access to things that they never had access to before.

It’s an exciting time, and it’s cool to see people really jumping in. There’s this energy that I just haven’t seen in the space in some time. I think when I was getting into this, I don’t even want to say how long ago it was, but 2008, ‘9, ’10, ’11, there was a certain energy in quote, unquote, “education reform.” It was for different issues and for different reasons, but there was definitely an energy there and it petered out, to be perfectly honest with you. Something’s happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear, but no, I think things are happening here now that are super interesting and encouraging, and it’s fun to be a part of it and it’s fun to talk to people who are a part of it. That was a very long discursive take on that conversation I just had, but that’s where it took my mind.

For those of you who are still listening to this, thanks for going on that little detour with me. As always, thank you so much to Jacob Vinson who edited this podcast and who’s had to listen. If no one else had to listen to this, Jacob certainly did. As always, follow us. Subscribe to this podcast. Email me interesting people. A great thing about this podcast is it’s region escape velocity at this point, where almost all of these people that I talk to are other people who I know and trust sending me people’s names. “Hey, this is a really interesting person. You should talk to them.” It makes my life so much easier. So, send me people’s names. I love talking to folks. I love learning from them, sharing what they’re doing. With that, I’ll leave it. Thank you so much for listening. It was great talking to you, it was great talking to Garrett, and I look forward to joining all of you again on another edition of EdChoice Chats. Take care.