Ep. 380: What’s Up with Prenda – With Kelly Smith

July 26, 2023

Mike McShane talks with Kelly Smith, CEO of the Prenda microschools and author of the book, A Fire to be Kindled. The two talk about how Smith started Prenda and the meaning behind his book title.

Mike McShane: Hello, and welcome back to EdChoice Chats, and specifically What’s Up with Mike McShane. I’m Mike McShane, Director of National Research at EdChoice. Today, we are blessed by the presence of a repeat podcast guest. I assume on other EdChoice podcasts we’ve had the same people on multiple times, but I think either on my Cool Schools podcast or now that it has morphed into What’s Up, I don’t think I’ve ever interviewed someone twice. Maybe a gimlet-eyed listener could go back and find it, but I don’t think that that’s taken place. So if I was going to pick someone to be a repeat guest, it would be our guest today. Today I’m going to talk to Kelly Smith, the Founder and CEO of the Prenda microschools. We’re going to spend some time talking about Prenda because it’s fascinating. He was on last on the podcast in June of 2020, which if anyone else listening to this feels like an absolute lifetime ago, I just can’t even imagine what has happened in the intervening times. 

But we’ll spend a little time talking about what he’s learned and what Prenda’s learned in that time period. But we’re also going to talk about his new book. It is called A Fire to Be Kindled, and it’s a lot of his, I think educational philosophy, thinking about the underlying ethos of Prenda and how he looks at it. And for someone who’s now, he started Prenda back in 2018, he’s had a lot of time to think about what schools can look like, what schools should look like, what learning can look like, and I’m excited to talk to him about it so he can share that. So without further ado, this is my conversation with Kelly Smith. 

So Kelly, I think you may be my first repeat podcast guest. We’ve done a little bit of a rebrand. I believe the last time you were on, we were calling this Cool Schools and now it’s What’s Up. But the vibes are basically the same, talking to interesting people who are doing interesting things. And you were on, I was looking back, I think your episode for all of our EdChoice Chats 190 in June of 2020. It is now June of 2023. I think this episode when it comes out will be episode 377 or something. So we’ve been talking to lots of people. I would love to start using these as brackets, thinking back to June of 2020 to now June of 2023, Prenda, the work that you all have done, what has happened in that intervening time? 

Kelly Smith: What has happened in these crazy three years? Mike, it’s great to be back. I really appreciate you guys having me here and love the work you’re doing. So thanks for all 300 and however many podcasts you’ve done. It’s a wonderful work and you’re adding so much value to this world. It’s an exciting time, as I think everybody knows. So for listeners that maybe don’t remember, Prenda started in my house with a microschool of seven students around my table, and one of those was my kid and friend’s kids. That was 2018. So by the time you and I talked, the world had already shifted in one macro crazy way, which was COVID-19. Traditional schools had closed and parents were desperate. They were all looking for answers, looking for solutions, many of them banding together in creative ways to form these pods and microschools in their house, just like I had done in 2018. 

So, Prenda was happy to be a provider of support during that crazy time. We definitely felt all kinds of stress and strain, and I’m sure you can hear it in my voice if you go back to those moments. The doors were open, but the doors were being beaten down. We were seeing lots of interest, lots of people coming in at that time, and it was an exciting moment, even though the world was in a terrible crisis around the pandemic. 

I would say three years later, so things come and go, schools reopen, a lot of people went back as parents to what they were used to. There’s a lot of things besides engaging as an empowered learner that are delivered through a traditional school, and parents like all of those things. So it wasn’t surprising to see that some of those people that had come in and done microschools in 2020 ended up going back to different settings afterwards. So, Prenda’s overall reach and numbers went down a little bit post pandemic, but that was an opportunity for us then to learn from that and build what’s needed to really enable people anywhere to open microschools, and it’s been fascinating to see. 

We got several opportunities that came up during the pandemic, specifically states like New Hampshire and Colorado. We got to do some work in Kansas and Louisiana. We met people all over the country that were thinking this way and we were able to work together with them to create microschool experiences for kids. So that was fascinating. We continue to want to reach as many as we can. It’s all about the mission for me of empowering learners, and microschools are a great way to do it. I would say what’s interesting that we’re three years later and also in the middle of a huge macro shift in the way education is happening in America. This one’s less visible to your mainstream parent. They might not be thinking about it, but I’m sure your listeners know about this movement of school choice policies that’s really sweeping the nation. 

Arizona passed a universal ESA program that gives the funding for education directly to parents, puts them in the driver’s seat, says you’re the decision maker here in terms of what curriculum tools. And that’s opened up incredible new opportunities for microschools. A wide variety of what’s important to parents and the market can respond in really creative and amazing ways. And then following that, West Virginia, Florida, South Carolina, Arkansas, Iowa, Indiana, Utah. We’re looking at all of these places where these programs are coming, and there’s more to come I think, as you guys know. So it’s another, I would say equally important moment in the story of education in America, less visible right now to your average parent, but to me equal in magnitude. We’re going to see all kinds of opportunities created through these programs that have really opened things up for families to be part of the solutions in education. 

Mike McShane: For sure. So now where all are you operating now? 

Kelly Smith: Yeah, so I mentioned we have microschools in all these places. We’ve actually were recently opening up to private pay. We’ve resisted that in the past. We didn’t want to be only a private pay institution, but if you have, for example, somebody listening in a state like Connecticut where there’s not school choice policies and probably never will be, I don’t want to be overly pessimistic, but … 

Mike McShane: That’s okay. I don’t think that’s like a stretch. I think you’re okay there. 

Kelly Smith: That parent that’s saying, “I wish we could do a microschool here,” now they can and we can do it low cost and just as a private school. So really technically available across the United States anywhere you are through direct pay. And then we’re pushing most of our focus into these universal ESA programs in the states that I just described, so Arizona, Florida, Arkansas, Utah. These have different start dates and there’s layers and caps, so we’re monitoring the details of these policy programs. But we want to be ultimately available for people to start microschools anywhere that they can do it with ESA funding and open up these opportunities right in their neighborhood, wherever they are. 

Mike McShane: Now, is that preferable to you, to Prenda? Because I know in the past, you’ve worked through charter school networks and others. You’ve tried to partner with district schools. I’d be interested in what you’ve learned from all of that, because I think I remember distinctly in our last conversation that we had, you were like, “Listen, I want to work with anybody. We can find a way. We can do Prenda anywhere. We can do Prenda with anyone. We’re happy to work with folks.” Now, I imagine you then tried to do that, and maybe it went awesome and maybe it didn’t. So maybe that would be the first question. What have you learned through the various partnerships that you’ve tried to do? And then where you think you’re going now with that? 

Kelly Smith: It’s a great question, Mike, and totally valid. I will say again, I’m here to work with anybody. Prenda never started out and never will be a political entity of any sort. We’re about kids, we’re about empowering learners. We believe some things about education that I think a lot of people believe from all different places, whether they’re inside or outside of the system, whether they’re policymakers or administrators or anywhere. So that said, how do you do it? It was really important to me that we make this available to as many as possible, and that requires working with the system. So whatever that system looks like, obviously ESA is the simplest, cleanest way to do that because money just goes to parents, parents use it for a microschool, done. That’s the end of the story. That was not available to a majority of the families we were working with in Arizona or anywhere else when we started and when we talked three years ago. 

So what that meant was we put a lot of our effort into partnerships. And we still have partnerships, we still work with charter schools and some districts. We’re happy to do it. Like I said, we find like-minded people everywhere and we love working with them to bring these benefits to kids. You asked what I learned. I learned directly about the politics of all this. And I say politics specifically as opposed to policy. Policy’s interesting. Politics can just be brutal. So there were moments where my name and picture and home address and phone number were circulated and ended up on the Wall Street Journal. That’s a long story from 2020. There were moments where I went to school board meetings and just was completely ambushed and attacked on false grounds because of folks who basically want different things that are not seeking the same outcomes that we are. So having to grapple with those realities, there’s a lot of learning there. 

Then I think even bigger than that, even bigger than the direct opposition, is just I think what’s well-meaning, but thousands of paper cuts in the format of working with these structures and these systems, there’s just a lot that has to be true. Some of it’s directly useful and helpful for kids and for helping them learn and become learners. Most of it might not be. Most of these rules are written for different reasons, so you have a situation where you’re trying really hard to deliver the type of education you believe kids deserve, but meanwhile you’re required to do things that can undermine that education. I could talk more about that if you want. That tension has always existed. We’re trying to operate inside of the system while being innovative and really focused on what kids need to become empowered learners. There’s always been that tension. I think over time, that’s played out to be difficult. So like I said, we continue to partner. We’ve redefined those partnerships. We work in different ways. But yeah, there’s a lot of learning in there. 

Mike McShane: I feel terrible because I had completely forgotten about that whole crazy story. And then I went back and I was like, did I? And then I feel even worse, because I wrote about it at the time and I remember now, yes. I mean there is that saying that no good deed goes unpunished, but no, I remember that was just an absolutely crazy … But it shows, I mean I’ll do this. While you were just chatting there, I pulled up, this is what I wrote at the time, so we don’t have to editorialize on any of this because I imagine this is something you want to put behind you, but this is what I wrote. So these are my words. These are nobody else’s and whatever. 

I remember this piece because the opening line to what I wrote was, “Kelly Smith is a very nice guy. On his Twitter profile, he describes himself to his 400 followers as physics nerd.” You probably have more than 400 followers now, but, “physics nerd, family man, tech entrepreneur, working on the future of K-12 education.” Then I tell the whole story of what happened to you. And then I wrote, “I would love to say that I’m surprised by this development, but I’m not. This has been the standard operating procedure for teachers unions for decades. They brook no dissent. They fight hammer and tongs against every potential option that they do not control. And good people like Kelly Smith get caught in the crossfire,” which I think is unfortunately what happened. 

But perhaps to look in a more, not to revisit that unpleasantness that took place, you have a new book out. It’s called A Fire to Be Kindled. I would love to know, as someone who’s written his fair share, I always think the question that I hope to get to start with is what is your book about, as opposed to diving in. So I’ll start with that one, which is, what is your book about? 

Kelly Smith: Well, you can go to the title, A Fire to Be Kindled is a reference to Plutarch. Those of you education or philosophy nerds that are listening would recognize this. There’s this quote, “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” This is so profound. I find it to be still one of the most useful ways to compare two competing metaphors. For the way learning happens for humans, I think the idea of filling a cup is very appealing. To people designing educational systems, it’s predictable, something you can just do over and over again. You know exactly if you define the standards just right, you set up the standardized test just right, and you do the lesson plan just right, and you get the kids to be quiet enough and sit in their desks just right, you can do learning to someone. It’s appealing to us as adults. We want to be able to control things the way Henry Ford controlled an assembly line. 

But that’s actually not the way humans work. Plutarch understood this 2000 years ago. So I think basically what we say instead is it’s a fire to be kindled. This is a process that’s chaotic, that’s unpredictable. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried, Mike, to start a fire without matches or lighter fluid, but it’s a whole ritual. You’re striking things together and trying to catch sparks on material that’s just dry- 

Mike McShane: Blowing on the embers. 

Kelly Smith: You’re blowing. 

Mike McShane: And hoping. And then it doesn’t work. And then maybe you get a little smoke and you have to start over again. Sure. 

Kelly Smith: I was just talking to some kids that were at a youth camp out a couple weeks ago. They said they tried to do this and they spent an hour and a half. So just to get a feel for you’re sitting there forever trying to get this right. And then when it finally strikes and the flame combusts and you can see ignition happen, it’s this moment of just pure exhilaration. It’s delight. I think I talk in the book about Tom Hanks in the movie Castaway. He catches some wood on fire and he’s just- 

Mike McShane: “I have made fire.” 

Kelly Smith: Yeah, exactly. There’s this triumphant moment. That’s what’s going on with real learning. You can see the difference between sitting there and someone’s pouring water into your brain and actual fire. I mean, that’s what is needed, in my opinion, for an individual to live a life. I mean, the subtitle, “Lead a Meaningful Life and Move humanity Forward”. I mean, if you’re going to really be you, what you’re capable of, it’s going to require all kinds of challenge and effort and repeated work. This isn’t something that’s just going to happen to you. You have to take this active ownership stance and everything in the way, not everything, but so much of the way that we structure school as people have known it, is really about filling vessels. And I’m saying, “Hey, let’s think about this instead in terms of lighting fires.” That’s what the book is for, not necessarily a critique on education, it’s just an invitation to individuals to think differently about learning. 

Mike McShane: I think what’s really important in what you just said there is because I’ve heard, obviously because Plutarch, that’s a very famous quotation, and sometimes when people use that, I feel that they are sometimes using it as an excuse. So people say, “Yeah, it’s not a cup to be filled, it’s a fire to be kindled,” and it means school is supposed to be touchy, feely, because filling a cup is kids actually learning stuff. But what I think is so interesting of your take on it is that, no, kindling a fire actually means challenging students. It means forcing them to wrestle with things and engage in conversation and difficulty. I think that’s so core to Prenda’s model is this, no, kids are going to learn stuff here. They’re going to be challenged. 

So I mean, I think in some ways the way that I’ve heard that used for, what you’re doing is a very useful corrective and actually framing it properly, which I have to imagine, given the ancient who said it, I have a feeling that that’s actually what he was talking about. He wasn’t talking about a more romantic Rousseauian view from the 19th century or whatever. So I’d be interested in you talking about that, because most people who are listening have probably heard about Prenda before. But I think this idea that the more I’ve thought about it, the more I think it’s so key of that students need to wrestle with real questions, they need to be challenged, and challenging students is okay. Students failing and learning from that failure is okay. Cosseting students or preventing them from ever experiencing that doesn’t actually do them any favors. 

But I’m wondering in your experience how that has played out. I imagine that you have to be able to work with students, you have to be able to work with their parents, you have to be able to work with your guides, your educators through this because it can be challenging. So how have y’all thought through that? How have you worked through that? 

Kelly Smith: Yeah, there’s so much in that question, so let’s walk through it. I think there is definitely a difference between an active learner, somebody making the choice, and a passive student, a recipient of education. I think most of us, as we just said, are conditioned to do the passive recipient of education approach. In fact, you’re rewarded for that because you’re not causing the teacher any trouble and you’re doing all the homework assignments and you’re playing by the rules, jumping through the hoops. That was, by the way, the student that I was. That’s how my kids were before we pulled them out and put them in microschools. And what’s fascinating about it is it really does fall short of this ideal that Plutarch is getting at of fire, of being able to really start a fire. In fact, it’s the opposite because pouring water all the time, there’s no chance of a fire starting. You’re drowned out. 

So what’s required for a student, for a young person, and by the way, also for an old person, so if you’re an adult listening to this, this is true, I believe universally, what is required to really get to that point where you make a decision to be an empowered learner. And then you get really good at it. You do the reps, you continue, you practice those skills and you stick with it and don’t quit. What’s required? Well, one of the things that’s required is this idea of connection. We talk a lot in the book about how learning is a collective and not an individualistic thing. It requires a feeling of safety and confidence and support. When you talk about challenging someone, 100% agree, I love challenging kids. I spend a lot of time with youth. I love asking them a question where it forces them out of this, I know everything, I have all the answers, roll your eyes mode, and into a mode of like, huh. It shakes them up. It can be a little scary. 

The only reason that works is because we have an understanding. They know how I feel about them and how I see them. They believe that I see them as a human being, that I honor their value and I see their potential. If that’s missing, and that’s missing, by the way, for lots and lots and lots of people, if that’s missing, none of this, you can’t do it. All you can do is attack, and humans have defense mechanisms that are well evolved over millions of years, so they’re very good at shutting off, acting out, getting out of that situation through fight or flight mechanisms. So we talk about some of the neuroscience of this in the book where you need that connection. There has to be this unquestionable confidence that this adult that’s here with me in charge of my education is actually on my team. They’re supporting me, they’re working with me on it. 

Part of the reason for that is they’re going to ask you some hard questions, like what do you want from your life? What do you actually care about? And connect it to that. So now we’ve talked about how you want to work for NASA on rockets. Now it makes sense that I’m going to grapple with math that’s hard and even today when things are difficult, because I can connect it to that future. But you can’t get, I don’t know how many of you have tried, to get a child to actually talk to you about what they really want and sincerely do that. Unless they’re sure that you’re on their team, there’s no chance. There’s no ability to do that. So connection being such a huge thing. And that was there from the very beginning of Prenda with seven kids around my table. Every single guide that we sign up, they’re just masters of loving these kids, seeing what’s possible with them, patiently working with them through all their struggles, but definitely providing that human connection and support. 

Mike McShane: So I’m interested to combine what you just said to what we were just talking about before, which was how poorly you were treated by the status quo in education. So how do you see our existing education system being able to reorient in this way? Is this the type of stuff that’s going to have to happen in new institutions that are built outside of the traditional structures, or is this something that you think that educators or schools or school districts within the traditional system are able to do? 

Kelly Smith: This is a hard question because it’s a see the future question. I will say I’ve definitely seen individuals do this inside of different structures. In fact, we have microschools on campus in district schools. I’ve seen people step up, both certified teachers, part of unions that have said, “I love these kids. I’m going to provide this type of connection and support and personalization.” And there’s all these things. Now you get into the model and you start talking about what does it mean to personalize education, to do things by mastery instead of by time. We have all these structural limitations. So I think a lot of educators feel a little bit constrained, as do the kids, by piles of statute going back hundreds of years. And that’s heavy. There’s a lot that they have to work against to create that bubble of actual real empowered learning going on. 

But I fully believe that it can and it is happening inside of structures. Is there enough of it? Are we there? Are we on the path to get there? No, I don’t think so. I think we need a lot more of it. And that’s really what I want to do, is elevate this conversation and invite more people to see themselves, especially people who have said, “I’m going to devote my life to helping young people learn,” is let’s look hard at what that means and what’s there for them. Then this is where I do run into a lot of people through Prenda where that’s what they were trying to do. They felt like they couldn’t do it, and they leave maybe a different environment and create their own environment. I think maybe that’s an interesting and pretty exciting possibility as you get more options out there. So then it can happen both ways. It can happen within and without the structures of the system as we know it today. 

Mike McShane: I’m also interested in, obviously Prenda are microschools, so the role that size plays in this. I think if we continue the metaphor, starting a small fire is easier than starting a giant fire. Now, small fires can become giant fires, but if you had to set out to do one and you said, “Oh, I just need to get three matchsticks lit,” or, “I need to light a bonfire,” I don’t know, like they used to have at Texas A&M or something. So I’m curious in your thoughts on that one, of the role of size in all of this. Is this deep support, that true relationship between adults and children, where as you talk about, this trust that exists, the support along with the challenge, the personalization, are there just upper bounds on size? Can an adult only do that for so many kids because of the depth that’s required? Is the size part of this? Is it scalable? How do you see that? 

Kelly Smith: Well, this is why, yeah, I believe it is. I got to the number 10 through my past … My entry into education was these afterschool coding programs that I ran at the library. There were days where I had fewer than 10 kids and I could connect and know their names and see them all, and there were days where I had more than 10 kids. So it really starts to feel like a group to manage at a certain point. I think any educator can tell you this. There’s a size at which I’ve got a class and we’ve got to queue up for walking from point A to point B, and we’ve got to do classroom management techniques and we’ve got to do these special claps to get everyone to be quiet. Those things are all necessary when you have a big group. When you have a smaller group of engaged learners, I mean, your point is absolutely right. The fire has to be an individual fire. There’s no such thing as a bonfire immediately. 

I start with my questions, who I am, my gifts, my abilities, my desires out of life, and an adult that can truly connect with me and help me see that and connect it to the work that I’m being asked to put in. Now, I can actually have a chance of getting to that point, but it has to be personal, so it’s challenging. I’m sure you have educators listening to the podcast. They’re like, “Yeah, I’d love to do this.” I just read Rick Hess’s book and he talks about being a math teacher at the junior high level and he said, “150 kids a day, there’s literally no way.” Even knowing 150 kids’ names is a stretch. If you can do that, that’s amazing. But to get one layer deeper with any of those kids, it would be so hard. And miraculously, there are educators doing it every day, but it’s the exception, not the rule. It’s really hard. It’s set up in a way that’s very difficult for those people to be successful. 

Mike McShane: Well, Kelly Smith, thank you so much for joining the podcast today. For everyone listening, the book is A Fire to be Kindled, and I stand by my comments that I wrote three years ago. Kelly Smith is a nice guy. Thanks for being on the podcast. 

Kelly Smith: Thanks, Mike, appreciate it. 

Mike McShane: Well, I hope all of you enjoyed that as much as I did. I think I say that a lot. I look back on, the whole reason this podcast is called What’s Up is because what’s up is a vocal tick of mine that I use a lot, and I think, I hope you all enjoyed that as much as I did, is another one of those vocal ticks. But you know what? We’re just going to go with it. 

Kelly’s such an interesting guy. He’s such a passionate guy. I had completely forgotten about the whole teachers union created a dossier on him that had his home address and all these things. The Wall Street Journal covered it. Like I said, I wrote about it at the time, so you could Google either of those. He was treated tremendously shabbily for, if you’ve now heard this podcast, you’ve heard our previous podcasts, obviously just a wonderful, passionate person trying to help kids. Did not deserve to be treated that way. It was totally wrong, but God bless him, he still has the same positive attitude. He’s still trying to solve these problems, and I think children will benefit as a result of that. 

As always, I’m always looking out for new folks to talk about, not just people who’ve started incredible school networks, though they are certainly great fodder for the podcast, but folks who are involved in state or local education, policy advocates, parents, anybody who has something interesting to say about education, I’m happy to find out what’s up with them. I want to thank our podcast producer, Jacob Vinson as always, who’s going to edit all of this together and make it sound great. I look forward to chatting with all of you again on another edition of EdChoice Chats.