Ep. 366: What’s Up with Fusion Education Group – With Pete Ruppert

March 30, 2023

CEO of the Fusion Education Group, Pete Ruppert, talks with Mike McShane about the innovative one-to-one school that Fusion Academies offer. 

Mike McShane: Hello, and welcome back to another edition of EdChoice Chats. This is Mike McShane, Director of National Research at EdChoice, and today we have another installment of my podcast, What’s Up with Mike McShane. Today we’re going to answer the question, what’s up with the Fusion Education Group? To answer that question, I’m going to be chatting with Pete Ruppert, who is the founder and CEO of the Fusion Education Group. This is a really interesting school network. Some folks might not be aware of it, but as Pete will tell us, it has 80 plus schools physical locations, serving more than 10,000 students in 18 states across the country. They’ve also showed up a growing online academy that is serving even more students and by the time this comes out, there’ll probably more students enrolled, but clearly something that’s growing. 

So Pete has a really interesting experience because he’s been in this space of innovative education as he will discuss on the podcast for a while. So he has seen ebbs and flows, ups and downs, and I think has lots of really interesting lessons to learn. We’re going to spend a fair bit of time talking about the model itself because I think it’s really interesting. It actually kind of dovetails a bit. Those of you that read my most recent book about hybrid homeschooling, I actually heard a lot of echoes from a lot of the folks that I talked about in the hybrid homeschooling space where students might take a smaller number of very intensive courses and then have time to themselves to work on “homework”, enrichment work, or whatever you want to call it. 

In the hybrid homeschooling space, they may be in a physical school for the classroom time and then at home for the other part. But what we’ll learn about today that the Fusion Academies, which are the schools that Fusion Education Group runs, they actually keep a lot of that in-house and on campus. So I hope that that’s got you all excited. This is a really interesting conversation. I think you’re definitely going to enjoy it. So here is my conversation about the Fusion Education Group with Pete Ruppert, it’s founder and CEO. So Pete, could you give me the kind of overview of the Fusion Education Group? 

Pete Ruppert: Sure, absolutely, Mike, I appreciate it. Fusion Education Group today is an organization, we’re headquartered here in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and we own and operate a chain, if you will, of 81 physical campuses plus an online academy called Fusion Global Academy. The physical campuses are all known as Fusion Academies, and we’ve been at this for about 16 years now. When I started the company and we acquired the original campus from female entrepreneur genius named Michelle Rose Gilman, who’s still a partner with us today, and it was her vision that I fell in love with, that we have acquired that original school and we’ve replicated ever since. So today we serve north of 10,000 students across these 81 campuses, plus online and physically in campuses in 18 different states. 

Our online school services kids in all 50 states, plus over 30 countries now who attend our online school. Our focus is sixth through 12th grade students. And our unique differentiation is we’re driven to be the most personalized schools in the world. In virtually every class, we have a one-to-one setup where one teacher and one student go through the class together, and it’s not like full-time tutoring where a student has the same teacher all day, but instead, students move from class to class and teacher to teacher depend on the subject. So we’ve been doing this since 2007. 

We acquired the original Fusion in 2008, and today, like I said, we’ve grown substantially and we’re proud of the fact that with our one-to-one setup, our teachers can be so much more than just teachers. They can indeed personalize the education around the needs of the kid, and they can also provide a really important component to education, which is the mentoring aspect. So our teachers are able to coach and mentor and get to know each and every kid and help them overcome any challenges and be right with them by their side. So we can indeed help each and every kid achieve their potential and be excited about their future. And I think that’s ultimately what we try and do is change the direction and the trajectory of every student where they can leave Fusion inspired and ready to go do amazing things in the world. 

Mike McShane: That’s fantastic. And there’s so many different ways. Basically what you said there… It’s like a pinata. You can hit it from every angle, candy’s going to come out somewhere. So I got to figure out exactly how… So I’m fascinated by this sort of one-to-one model. Maybe it would help… Could you sort of walk through, let’s say I am a Fusion student and I walk through the doors in the morning, what does a typical day look like for me? 

Pete Ruppert: Yeah, great question. And so one of these we get frequently asked is exactly how do we make that work? How do you make a one-on-one classroom work? Well, as we all know, one-to-one is much more effective simply because you don’t have 25 or 30 kids in a classroom. And so the student can move through the material so much more quickly. And so in a traditional school, most of us went to, Mike, we would go to math class every day from 11 to 11:50 five days a week. Well at Fusion with your one-to-one teacher, you have maybe a couple of hours a week with your teacher on that math subject, so maybe Tuesday and Thursday. So think of more like a block schedule in a college environment is more like how our program works. And so when you’re not in class though, you’re assigned homework and independent study work. 

So you’re not just done in those two hours, then you have to go work on the material and the assignments you’ve been given in what we call our homework cafe, which think of a large room with a Starbucks type of feel with some conference tables, with some couches and some chairs. And students can study for tests or get their homework done and have a little bit of socialization time because that’s a key part of what we try and bring to a student as well, because in a one-on-one classroom, you’re not getting that. So we have to make sure we provide that to the homework cafe through our lunchtime clubs and associations we have and other things that we do throughout the day. 

So a student might come in on Monday, and on Mondays I have math and my science class and my English class, and that’ll be Mondays and Wednesdays typically. And then on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I might have three other subjects, science and my foreign language, et cetera. And so you’re balancing out, a typical full-time student might take six classes per semester, and some take additional courses that we offer as well. And some might do work on Friday, but the majority of the work week is done Monday through Thursday. And then many students will take additional classes, or we have some group options as well, sometimes on Fridays, ways to enhance the educational experience for the child so that they’re really getting all they can from the educational experience. 

Mike McShane: And so when we are looking at your students, the students that you serve, is there a typical profile? Is there a great deal of diversity? Do different campuses cater to different communities? Who is your typical student? 

Pete Ruppert: Yeah, great question. And what’s funny is the typical student is not really typical. Many of the students who come to us have come to us because they’ve struggled or they’ve been frustrated, or they’ve not been challenged in a traditional public or private school. And so mom and dad see their child not thriving and think about, “Okay, is this the best option for our kids? Should we look for other things?” And so they end up finding about Fusion and this idea of that one-to-one learning. What we really try and position ourselves as is a school built around the needs of each individual kid, so that every student who walks in says, “Oh my gosh, this school is built for me.” And if we can deliver that kind of feeling for every student, then we know we’ve had a successful program. If you think about students who have struggled in the traditional school for whatever reason, sometimes it’s because they’re not getting the material, they’re falling behind in their classes. And so parents feel like it’s not being personalized enough for them and they’re not thriving. Other times, they might have social or emotional challenges, be they come from an environment where they were bullied or a dysfunctional family situation, or their son or daughter’s gotten in the wrong crowd and is heading down the wrong path. Sometimes families come to us with their son or daughters extremely accelerated, and they’re frustrated because they’re bored and they’re not being challenged and they’re looking for something else, and they want to really tackle their education in a positive light. And sometimes we have kids who are athletes or actors or musicians, and they have these passions outside of work and they need that flexible schedule. And so every kid comes to Fusion with their own unique story, which is kind of the power of the way the program works. 

And every kid knows that every kid’s story is unique. And so because our schools are smaller, we get the added benefit of not necessarily having the cliques of the jocks and the musicians and the computer geeks, et cetera. And instead it’s a small school. A big school for us might be 80 to a hundred kids, sixth through 12th grade. So the power of it is that every student knows each other, and then every student knows every teacher and every teacher knows every student, even if you’re not necessarily teaching them, because it’s a small environment that is designed to feel like a family like atmosphere. 

Mike McShane: That was actually… I was interested in hearing two numbers. And one, you just said, which was, I was curious what your school size was, so this 80 to 100 range, you’re saying. I’m interested from the teacher’s perspective, what is the usual sort of student load for teachers? How many individual students is a teacher responsible for in their particular subject area? 

Pete Ruppert: Yeah, it’s a great question. So I’ll go back a little bit and talk about the student day. So I should say when a student comes in, they have those three classes on Monday, and those are basically an hour each. And then we will provide assignments after each one of those classes. And so then they have three homework cafe sessions, and then there’s a lunch hour. So a school day is pretty full for a regular student. Teachers on the other hand are teaching. Depends on their schedule, depends on what subjects they teach, and how much variability they have to teach various subjects, but a teacher can teach five, six, seven, even eight or nine classes a day if they’re interested in doing that and they have the demand from students. But I would say generally, our teachers are teaching that traditional school day of five or six hours a day. 

Mike McShane: And who are your teachers? Where do you get your teachers from? And one of the things that I’m interested in… In my sort of world as a researcher, one of the things that I’ve been fascinated with is looking at innovative schools like yours, and other schools around the country, and asking these questions, where do your teachers come from? And recognizing that most… And you can correct me… If your experience has been different, let me know. But that most traditional avenues that prepare teachers, teacher preparation programs do not prepare teachers to teach in sort of innovative school models. They’re taught to teach in kind of the traditional school model. So I’m sort of interested, A… It’s always good when you’re a researcher and you’re just looking at numbers, that people’s real world experience jives with that. But I’m curious both where you get your teachers, and what if any sort of supplementary preparation training you have to do to get your teachers to work in your particular model. 

Pete Ruppert: Yeah, really great question. And I would agree with you. The certification model and the necessarily education schools that are graduating teachers are not necessarily preparing teachers to teach in new, unique, innovative models like a Fusion. And in fact, so as a private school, we don’t require teachers to be certified. And in fact, the vast majority of our teachers are, although we do have some certified teachers who may have taught their traditional system and decided they wanted to come work at Fusion. But what we’re really looking for, Mike, is two things. One is content expertise. If we’re going to have somebody teach history, we want them to have been a history major. Or if they’re going to teach math, we want them to be a math major or an engineering major, or some content that gives them the ability to know the material. And then secondly, our job is to make sure we find teachers who can build relationships with adolescents, right? 

That’s so important, that teachers… We actually call our teachers teacher mentors because we think that’s half the job. If you can really build that relationship and build that trust with the student, and then personalize the educational delivery, they’re just going to be a great position to have success. So those are the things that are what we focus on all the time. And we find that we can then provide the training to teach effectively in a one-on-one classroom and to pace the material accordingly. And we provide all that with any new teacher year comes on board. 

Mike McShane: Is that summer learning? Is that mentor teaching? Is that professional development seminars? What are you doing with those teachers? 

Pete Ruppert: Yeah, it’s a combination. Any new teacher who starts with us goes through our new teacher training program, which is a mix of some online training modules that we’ve created and have standardized for all new teachers coming into the program, as well as some campus related teachers development from the assistant director, for instance, who’s typically the one who is the person doing the hiring and training and development of the teaching staff. And so it’s a mix of that. And then we provide… With a nationwide network of teachers, we have chat groups. So history teachers have a way to share ideas and best practices with each other within a fine defined community. And so there’s a lot of ways that we try and create an environment where teachers can network together, share ideas, get advice, and help, both on the campus, as well through the national and international network. 

Mike McShane: Now, how have you experienced the kind of labor market for teachers? I know in certain cities around the country, in different places, I talk to school leaders, and they’re like, “We are scratching and clawing for top teacher talent.” I’ve talked to other folks in other places who’ve said, “Well, actually we have,” I don’t want to say a glut, but “We have a large number of great, frustrated teachers that want to try something new, and so we have a way more people apply to positions that we have spaces for.” I’m wondering where your experience has been. And maybe it varies from place to place, but are you in this kind of scratching and clawing for top teacher talent or are you seeing lots of opportunities, lots of folks out there that are sort of interested in this type of work? 

Pete Ruppert: Yeah, great question. It’s a mixed bag. There are certainly areas in some metro areas, San Francisco, for example… San Francisco Bay Area would be a perfect example, right? And you had that great resignation of teachers after COVID, et cetera. So we weren’t immune to that by any means. And in some pockets, we still struggle to try and find high quality teachers that can come on board. And there are a lot of options, right? With inflation a couple years ago, and even now, there’s a lot of options for teachers to leave the field to be able to find higher compensation in other markets. All that being said, we went through a challenging time, and I think that’s kind of leveling off. And we’re learning how to market to and find those teachers better than we used to. It used to be a lot easier. 

Now, we got to find… Since we’re not necessarily recruiting that certified teacher out of a state university, we need to find ways to find folks who have an interest in education, but they never really seriously considered it because they felt like they had to be certified and they had to be an education major. And in a private school environment, as you know, and especially in a one-on-one environment, you don’t have to be intimidated by a 30 student classrooms. You can build a relationship. You have content expertise. We can provide the training and a support to ensure you can do a great job and impact kids from the get-go. 

Mike McShane: So you’ve mentioned a couple broader trends, things that are sort of out in the space that you’re working in, things like inflation, things like the pandemic. I’d be interested, since you’ve been doing this for a couple decades now, what has the last five years been like? What has been your experience in trying to navigate all of these disruptions that have taken place? Because obviously we see in the traditional public schooling system, in higher ed, in charter schooling and in lots of the private school space, homeschool space, just massive disruptions have taken place. So I’d be interested in just how all of those things have affected the work that you do. 

Pete Ruppert: Absolutely, for sure. We talked about teachers a minute ago, and certainly that whole general movement of the great resignation and trying to find teachers, it’s forced us to be much more effective in how we do things. Forced us to rethink a lot of things in terms of recruiting and retaining teachers. It’s a challenge and I think it’s much more challenging today than it was five years ago. The second big thing I think was the whole way technology changed in virtual learning. When COVID hit, we went virtually within a couple of days. 

We took, I don’t know how many schools we had at the time, but let’s say we had 70 back then. We flipped almost overnight, 70 schools from teaching in physical campuses to teaching from home under a Zoom connection. Now, we had the benefit of two things. One is one to one learning is a lot easier to teach over Zoom than it is at a 30 person classroom with third-graders or second-graders, so we had that benefit. 

I think the other benefit we had is we’d been preparing to launch what’s now known as Fusion Global Academy or our online school that serves kids across the country in the world now. And so we had done a lot of that work that helped us give us some preparation to when COVID did hit fortuitously, it made us easier to transition. And so for whatever, it was almost a year there, we were teaching almost a 100% virtually across your organization, so that was a big challenge. And even today we have many physical campuses where a kid will take most of their classes face-to-face on the campus, but they might choose to take a class or two virtually on Mondays or Fridays, or in the morning when the traffic is really bad. Mom and dad don’t necessarily have the ability to get them there. 

And we’re fine with that, and that’s kind of the new era of what we’re in. And I think the thing that I’m most excited about, Mike, is what has happened in the last five years is that I think it’s forced parents to become better consumers of education. COVID opened them up to the realities that we read about in the papers all the time of maybe the academic program that they thought their students were getting wasn’t as strong as they expected, or there are other issues or problems that they were in. And so it forced parents to step back and say, “Wow, I need to be much more involved in my child’s education than I was before. And technology and some of these innovative solutions out there, I should probably be a little bit more open-minded to.” 

I used to say to folks that as parents, our job was to hopefully be successful enough to be able to move into a geographic area with a good school district. And if they had a good reputation for a school district, I’d put my child on a bus in kindergarten, and then 13 years later they’d graduate and they’d be ready to go. Well, for a long time that worked. But now I think parents are realizing that it’s not the same education that I may have gone to 30 years ago. And so it’s forced them to become more in tune and more involved and more responsive to their child’s needs. And that’s ultimately a good thing. 

Mike McShane: So now you mentioned this Fusion Global Academy and it’s interesting. So it sounds like from what you’re saying that it’s Genesis, was before the pandemic. Can you talk a little bit about the process of standing that up and where it is today? 

Pete Ruppert: Yes, absolutely. Luck is sometimes fortuitous, in that here we’ve been talking about doing this and our big question was, as private schools we’re not exactly cheap. One-to-one learning is an expensive proposition, it’s costly. And our bet was will parents enroll their students in Fusion Global Academy, which works very similarly to how our face-to-face physical campuses work, in that every class is one to one, it’s you and your teacher and you move from class to class virtually throughout the day, and it’s still costly. And so our bet was that there’s families out there who don’t live around a Fusion campus and we’re only in 18 physical states and only have 81 physical campuses in the US. 

That means there a lot of open area where parents are looking for something more customized, more flexible, more in tune with maybe what their child needs. And so we had been preparing to launch and we were probably about six months away from launching when COVID hit and we accelerated that. 

And so we officially launched, I think it was in the summer of 2019. Is that the beginning of COVID? Is that when it hit, if I’m remembering, or 2020? 2020, that’s right. And so it’s gone great guns. That first year, we had a few hundred kids who signed up and it’s grown substantially since then. So today it’s a sizable piece of our business. And like I said, it’s grown to where we’re teaching kids in 50 different states and over 30 countries now, students who are coming to us full-time, and it’s really working well. So we’re extremely satisfied with the progress we’ve made and the fact that now we can reach kids anywhere. 

Mike McShane: You’ve mentioned a couple times in the conversation, you’ve emphasized the fact that you’re private schools. And I’m curious because I could imagine you could incorporate in any number of different ways. You could have become a charter school or you could have tried to do something like this within the traditional public schooling system. So why privates? Why do you operate as private schools? 

Pete Ruppert: Well, it kind of goes back to the genesis of the organization. And before I started this company, I had run a charter school organization called National Heritage Academies, which is a large charter school organization today. And my experience there was that we felt really proud of the program. We felt really proud of the education we were providing, et cetera, but we were still kind of a traditional school. And part of that was is the way that charter schools or laws are set up. You’re in many ways, and it’s even more so today, you’re really constrained by the paradigm of how public schools should work even as a charter school. 

And some of the innovation they had hoped for, I think has kind of been reigned in overtime, because lots of political reasons and things like that. But one of the things that I, as an outsider coming into education during the experience when I had my eight years of running national heritage was that we were a better mousetrap, but we were still a mousetrap. 

We were still putting 28 kids in a class and greeting you by age. And if you were 12 years old, you’re going to be in sixth grade, whether you liked it or not. And some kids could have been learning at the seventh or eighth grade level, and some kids were behind and probably needed more fourth and fifth grade level material that they could have success with and master and accelerate from there. And so it’s an amazing challenge that teachers in all schools are forced to deal with. And inevitably what happens is teachers have to teach in the middle of the class. 

Schools try and provide some personalization on both ends of the bell curve, et cetera, but that’s a tough proposition. And so it just dawned on me during my timeframe there that the world of education has got to change all the other industries that we hear about. 

And if you want a pair of shoes, there are stores built around your type of shoe. If you want a personalized dress or if you want to go to a restaurant, that everything is personalized and customized except for education. We’re still doing it the same way we did a 100 years ago. And so when I was launching the company, I felt like the future of education has to be about personalization, customization, and specialization, and whoever gets there first is going to win. 

But I also knew trying to do that within the establishment of the public school realm and the charter school realm was not going to be easy, because you’re controlled. You don’t control your price, you receive what the state gives you. And in order to provide something as innovative as what we end up finding and replicating since then at Fusion Academy, it’s very costly. And so my idea was private schools was the way to go. One, because we could control the price based on the cost we had to put in to run a program. And then two, you’re not constrained by a lot of the regulations that charter schools and public schools have. 

Mike McShane: And so now, yes, agreed with all of that, but private schools still have a fair number of regulations that they’re under, accreditation, all of those things. Given that, it seems, even to me, we think of the private schooling sector as being amenable to innovation and all of those things, but a lot of those structures and even some of the state regulations, and like I said, accreditation, others, are still kind of built around more typical models. 

Have you all run into any headaches with that, like dealing with accreditors or dealing with any sort of state regulations or others saying, “Hey, yeah, we’re not going to do classrooms the way that other schools do classrooms. Our schedule’s going to look different, our calendar’s going to look different, our teachers are going to look different.”? Has that been pretty smooth or have there been some headaches? 

Pete Ruppert: For the most part, it’s been pretty smooth, but each state is different and there are more regulations in private schools in some states rather than others. And so, for instance, seat time, mandatory seat time has been a big regulation, that you have to have a certain number of minimum requirements of days of instruction and hours of instruction. And for all the right reasons for public and private schools that are more traditional. In our program, you’re going to be able to accelerate through the material at your best pace. 

And so, while we certainly have required number of sessions per semester, et cetera, for a class, students can, if they just take the standard schedule, can finish sometimes even a month or a month-and-a-half earlier than a traditional school, and then they can take the next class and they can continue to accelerate. And so, we get many students who want to graduate early and so they come to Fusion and say, “Hey, I can graduate in three years and then I can go off to college, et cetera.” 

And so, that’s probably been the biggest regulation. I know there are some states where the public school has to approve a new private school opening up in their district, and that’s a little bit of the fox in charge of the hen house, or whatever you want to have. And so, we’ve had a few bumps and bruises in that area as well. But by and large, we do do a thorough analysis of the regulatory environment for private schools anywhere we try and open, because we just don’t want to be disruptive and have all kinds of legal hassles and things like that. 

At the end of the day, the beauty about being a private school is parents don’t have to come to us, right? But if they believe that we can better meet the needs of their child, wouldn’t we want to give every parent that opportunity? And if they’re not happy, they’ll leave. So, it’s a classic consumerism model, if you will. 

Mike McShane: As you look to the future, what does the next year, five years, 10 years hold for y’all? 

Pete Ruppert: Yeah. We’re so excited about the future, and I always tell our team here that, despite our success over the last 15 years and building this national organization and serving kids internationally, online, et cetera, we’re just touching the surface on what Fusion can be. 

And I really believe that a couple things are going to be our focus and one is our vision of creating the most personalized schools in the world. We’re probably already there, but I wanted to just cast this image that you’re never there, right? You’re always trying to figure out, how do you make schools more responsive to the needs of every kid, so every kid who walks in can get their life changed and change their trajectory? And shouldn’t that what be high school is all about? As kids graduate from high school and they’re excited about their future and they’re ready to go attack it. 

And too many times, kids, they hate school, they can’t wait to get out of school. They’re so demotivated. They don’t want to go to college or go on to the next thing. That’s not what we want. So, we want to change that. And this idea of becoming the most personalized schools in the world, and we actually call it Fusion My Way. It’s a shortened version of what I described earlier, where every family feels like the school is built for their kid. And what Fusion My Way means is that no matter what your modality or a mix of modalities, now we can offer face-to-face, we can offer online. 

In online, we have both the very synchronous program where one-to-one classes, just like we do in our physical campus, as well as an asynchronous model where students have more of that traditional online learning, where they’re working more with a computer and there’s not as much teacher interaction, but it’s for the more independent student who maybe can’t afford a high-end synchronous program. So, we have that as an option. 

And so, we want to be able to create this Fusion My Way environment where families and students can pick what’s best for them in an a la carte basis. And then, really think about the school being the center of personalized services for any student in the community. And we think about our physical campuses, because we have this paradigm that says, “The school is the school. You go there from 9:00 to 3:00 or whatever it is, and then you go do other stuff. You go somewhere else for tutoring, you go somewhere else for college counseling, you go somewhere else for coaching and development and things of that nature.” 

We want Fusion to be a place that whether you’re full-time or part-time, you say, “Hey, my kid is doing fine in school, but I just don’t feel like he or she is getting enough help on the college application process.” Or, “We think he could use a learn how to study, or executive functioning, or personal financial management.” Those kind of things. That we can be a place to help service kids in the most personalized area in all these things around education and educational development. 

Mike McShane: Well, Pete, thanks so much for joining us on the podcast today. 

Pete Ruppert: Thank you, Mike. It’s a pleasure. Thanks for your interest. 

Mike McShane: Well, I hope you enjoyed that conversation as much as I did. I think it was really fun picking apart the model and understanding why they do the things that they do, who they serve, where their teachers come from. Because there’s so many intersecting things, shaping these schools, the teacher labor market, the students, the pandemic, advances in online learning, the needs for community, but also for personalization. And our discussion today, I think, touched on a lot of those. 

So, I think those of you who may not have necessarily been interested in this particular schooling model, I hope it actually gave you a chance to think about the schooling system that we have and the broader questions that it’s trying to answer. Like I said, I really enjoyed the conversation, so I hope you all did too. 

As always, I’m always looking for interesting folks to chat with. Feel free to email me, mcshane@edchoice.org. That’s where I find out about so many of these folks. Just let me know, say, “Hey, I know an interesting person. I know an interesting school or school system. Something cool’s going on and you need to know about it.” Please feel free to give me a shout, or you can tweet at me or anything like that. Please like and subscribe to this podcast, give us high ratings. We really appreciate that. It helps other people find it. As always, I look forward to chatting with you all again on another edition of EdChoice Chats.