Episode 5- Innovative School Model Built For Scale!

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In this episode I interview Kelly Smith founder and CEO of Prenda Schools. Kelly has been obsessed with learning things and building things since childhood – from a neighborhood baseball card business to a rap album to a line of cleaning products to high energy laser physics. After a master’s degree in nuclear fusion (MIT), Kelly did engineering and marketing roles at various technology companies and sold a small software business in the clean energy space. He started volunteering with an afterschool code club at the Mesa Public Library, helping kids learn computer programming, and he was so excited about the power of self-learning that he started a microschool around his kitchen table in January 2018. He is the founder and CEO of Prenda (prendaschool.com), an education company that helps people run microschools out of their home. Kelly lives in Mesa, Arizona with his wife and four children. For more information about The Edupreneur Academy please reach out at https://edupreneuracademy.org/

Transcript

Erin Starkey:
Welcome to Reimagining Schools, a podcast from the Edupreneur Academy. Today, I’m talking with Kelly Smith, an Edupreneur in Arizona who’s going to tell us a little bit about his school model called Prenda that’s helping us to change our thinking about the way schools work. Hi Kelly. Thank you for joining me today. How are you doing?
Kelly Smith:
You bet, Erin. Thanks for having me. I’m doing great.
Erin Starkey:
Well, I’m excited to hear about your school model and what you’ve been doing. So, I would love to just start with that. If you could tell us a little bit about Prenda and what you’ve been doing and how you got started in the educational entrepreneurship world?
Kelly Smith:
Prenda helps people run Micro schools. The way we define that is five to 10 students in an informal space. So, this tends to be a home or a dance studio or a community center, a small group. They don’t have to be the same age, they tend to be grouped loosely in age and Prenda supports K-8 today. So, that little group meeting together every day, doing their core academics, we have a learning model that’s very driven around the student and empowering them as a learner themselves. So, that we’ll be personalized, blended learning for mastery, there’s collaborative inquiry led activities where kids are learning together as a group and communicating face to face and then project based learning really get to be creative and tinkerers and engineers and solve problems and all of this running with a learning guide. So, this is an adult who knows these kids very well and plays a coach, mentor, facilitator role for the model to work.
Erin Starkey:
So, the guide doesn’t necessarily have to be a formal education teacher, they can be… what are the requirements to become a guide?
Kelly Smith:
So, the requirement really is great at people, great at kids. So, being there as a connector for this learning guide. Now, as we all know the heart of this, the individual one-on-one connection and motivating a young person through this messy ordeal of becoming a learner is a really hard job and a lot of people in formal education roles do this well, we’re really trying to select for that and then say, in addition to that, the science piece of it, the academics, the pedagogy, the content we’ve assembled around that person. So, think of this as a remote school in the sense of look, we’re able to help kids access things that they need to learn, we can monitor their data and intervene as needed and we do all the way through to special education and do this in partnership with schools, but all of that in addition to now the learning guide, playing that role one-on-one in person to be there as that connection, that adult that sees me, knows me and cares about me and can help me through this difficult journey of learning.
Erin Starkey:
And that’s the important piece, is to have that human connection and someone that can walk you through and I know a lot of parents really struggled with that over the last year and a half with the pandemic and keeping their kids at home, but trying to figure out how they could navigate through that challenging time and some things about that were probably, I think parents found that maybe were better for their kid and other things were big struggles and challenges, one being that parents obviously that work can’t necessarily stay home, but maybe there is somebody like a guide that is willing to do this and take on a group of students and help them navigate the curriculum. Would you go back just a little bit and talk about how you came up with the curriculum and how you got started and all of this, where did you come from before Prenda started?
Kelly Smith:
So my degree in school was in plasma physics, I was trying to make nuclear fusion work. I left that and I did a career in energy technology, clean tech, trying to help industrial plants and commercial buildings use energy more intelligently, but that led me into software and technology so, a lot of my background was in the tech world. I’ve always been entrepreneurial and I had sold a very small software business back in 2013 and moved back to my hometown of Mesa, Arizona. So, this was the moment when I had some extra time. My oldest son was eight years old and I decided that it might be fun for him to learn computer programming. So, I didn’t mean to get into education, it was by accident, but started with the two of us and instead of doing it at home, we did it at the public library.
Kelly Smith:
So, I put up posters around the neighborhood of the library and said, come down for free and learn how to make a video game and kids came and it turned into this just amazing volunteer activity for me. I didn’t mean for it to be anything more than just a fun thing I would do as an afterschool program once a week. But in that afterschool program I got to see firsthand what happens when a child decides they want to learn something and the power of that and everyone listening, you that have seen this before you know what I’m talking about. There’s just this fire in their eyes, this passion, this dedication, it’s so different and fulfilling an obligation that someone else gave you or jumping through a box or any of those things, the only way I can describe it is, just a powerful experience when learning’s really happening and it’s coming from a place of a human being deciding that they want to learn.
Kelly Smith:
And I saw that firsthand. I got to see that from my own children, for my friends kids. I personally worked with thousands of kids at the public library over a period of several years as a volunteer and so that led me then to this question of, well, what if school was like this? What if we optimized for that and what would that look like and what would that take? And so, I started doing all the research. I started a Micro school in my house in January 2018. So, this is now almost four years ago and one of my own children in that Micro school again, it’s around my kitchen table. There were seven kids and me and we did… really these pieces that we had been piloting in the after school coding program but by this point, I realized that actually none of those were my idea and there’re terms for these things that exist in the academic literature around education.
Kelly Smith:
Many of these ideas are well documented to engage and inspire and help kids learn. Things like project based learning, but they’re not widely accepted or implemented. A lot of the reason for that is structural, it’s hard to really build that into a system that already exists. So, for me it was really a question of, what format would allow for these types of learning modalities that I think great educators are already trying to do and wanting to do, how can we build that in, in a way that really is accessible and can work for lots and lots of people?
Erin Starkey:
Great. And so, the original Micro school that you started just at your kitchen table, was that just a purely private model, you just had students that you knew, how did you structure that?
Kelly Smith:
Great question. Growing up in the middle class suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona, I literally didn’t know anybody in my life that paid for school. That just wasn’t in my world, my family definitely didn’t. I went to the public school down the street, the kids that I was working with in this Micro school they were all going to a variety of public or charter schools for free. So, one of the design criteria for me from the beginning was that this is accessible to everybody, that this is free, parents don’t have to pay for it to be able to access the program and so, what that meant was finding partners and I went contacted my friends at the local school district and I talked to new friends at a variety of charter schools and I found a school that would partner with me through their virtual school program.
Kelly Smith:
So, these kids were actually enrolled as virtual learners. They were able to be funded that way and that meant that there’s additional support and resources available to them as well and we worked together on that initial pilot semester and we’ve since added many more schools that are looking to expand the portfolio of options that they offer to families. Micro schools are a great part of a portfolio approach and we have happily been a provider for those schools that want to offer Micro schools.
Erin Starkey:
That’s great. And I think that you really solved one of the problems that a lot of people think about in terms of just access. How do we find ways for all students to access so that we don’t end up just creating a model for schools that only some people have access to which has largely been what’s happened, even in the public school we know there’s issues with just the way the districts are structured and equality for all students so, it’s definitely something that as my public education background I think about and want to continue to find solutions for in the future so, I’m glad that you thought about it that way. So, is that how you’ve continued that connection with Prenda? Do you guys still have a connection with the curriculum through another online curriculum provider?
Kelly Smith:
We work with a variety of schools in a variety of states. We’re in many places, I would love to be able to tell your listeners and viewers right now, anywhere in the United States we can work together. The reason we can’t do that is because our model working in partnership with schools means state by state we need to go in understand the regulatory landscape of how education works, as you know in America that’s state by state it varies quite a lot. And then you have to go within that state, we understand the regulatory. Now, we find the right partners and we work together to approach families and communities together with those partner schools. So, it’s a little bit slower of a process, we would love to be able to just immediately open the door and serve all kids, but we’re working on that and that’s still the model today. It started out with just that one partner school in Yuma, Arizona, but that has grown really all over the country today.
Erin Starkey:
That’s fantastic. And I think that’s such a big opportunity for people that are interested as a guide because basically you’re a partner coming alongside them, helping them to navigate what they would be navigating on their own to find these partnerships and figure out how to find curriculum or purchase curriculum. So, the fact that you’re able to do that and also that’s happening more and more in all the states. So, even though I know you mentioned that some states are more of a challenge than others, I really feel like that gap is closing. We’re starting to see more options in states available that I think are probably willing to partner, like you mentioned so, that’s great. So, thinking about just from your entrepreneurial background and how you got started, what were some of the early challenges that you faced in getting this off the ground and getting it started?
Kelly Smith:
There’s no challenges in entrepreneurship.
Erin Starkey:
Never happens, right?
Kelly Smith:
Really, at every step of the way, there’s a question. I think the initial question when I was doing the after school coding program, the question was, can you get kids to care about learning? I think there’re probably people listening to this skeptically saying,” I’ve had a 20 year 30 career in education and I can tell you definitively kids don’t want to learn so, you have to force them to and that is a viewpoint I think a lot of people have, I feel like I was able to by structuring the environment and the culture really deliberately. I think we’ve got that answer. That’s not true for a hundred percent of kids and we do have cases where they’ll come and expect to be pushed through an assembly line of some sort, those kids don’t work well, but many of them come with without any expectation.
Kelly Smith:
They’re “What is this?” And they think that you’re going to do school to them and to help them change their mind about it and reprogram a little bit about what it even means to be a learner and to engage. We’ve seen that happen over and over again with kids from all different communities. So, to be able to solve that one was one of the questions and I felt like even through our afterschool program we were able to see that could work. And so, then the next question is, will any parents actually pull their kid out of school and join a Micro school like this? I always thought with that is how easy it was for parents to say yes to this and many of them are just desperately searching their thinking, maybe I could homeschool but homeschooling takes a lot of work and what if I do it wrong and what if my kid wants to be around other kids?
Kelly Smith:
Some of them are going so far and I think some of your listeners, going so far has to say, I’m just going to start a school. I met people like that, that said, “I’m going to go on and create my own version of private school or charter school.” But there’s a huge lift to that. There’s a lot of business groundwork that has to be laid and everything from a facility to all the insurance to the curriculum getting your staff in place. So, for many people that’s too high of a hurdle and what we’ve really tried to do is take that down and say, “Look, if you love kids and you can successfully connect with them and engage with them, find 10 in your community and be a Micro school wherever you can do it, assuming it’s safe and you’re safe.” And we do have very strict safety protocols on this.
Kelly Smith:
But assuming those things are in place, you can play a huge role immediately next semester, right away you can get started and have an impact in the lives of real human beings that will compound and pay in just impact and influence over decades. Education to me is the best thing ever, because I believe so strongly in human beings.
Erin Starkey:
And that’s such a great model and you’re right because there are entrepreneurs that are certainly capable of starting from the ground and building and then there are those that just may want a little bit of a structure to start with. And so, the fact that you provide that plus it really helps you to be able to scale, to have something that you can scale and its replica applicable across the country. So, that’s a really great way to look at it. Is there anything that you can think of that you wish you would’ve known or information that you felt would’ve been helpful for you to have in the beginning that you just had to do the hard work yourself to figure it out?
Kelly Smith:
I can’t with the straight face really blame anybody here because I did a series of very random, awkward phone calls from the very beginning of having this idea and I thought, micro schools they could work this way and I started calling people. Some of them, I had some connection to, but very quickly I ran out of my personal connections this was just random people that are operating things that I looked at as successful in the education entrepreneurship space. And I just would tell them the idea and then they would give me their honest feedback. They talked about operational complexity, they talked about regulatory requirements and some of the things that the government’s going to want to see, they talked about potential political opposition to change in education, not everybody is actively excited about introducing new approaches.
Kelly Smith:
So, they pointed these things out and I just for whatever reason, I think I was so excited about the idea that it’s hard for me to hear them. And so, I don’t know on the one hand, should I have taken more seriously? If I had I probably wouldn’t have done it so, I think there’s a level of crazy that’s built into all entrepreneurs that just has to be there. I was grateful for their input and advice and at the same time I’m glad I took it on and I did learn the hard way that they were right. That there are very real challenges to building something like Prenda.
Kelly Smith:
But when I get to go out and visit the Micro schools and meet these kids and hear their stories and see what happens when they go from, I hate school, I’m disengaged, I’m a B student or whatever to, I’m learning and I want to be this for my job and I’m already spending tons of hours every day developing this skill and learning everything I can about this thing. You see that happen and it’s like well, we have to do it, we have to do it for those kids. So, that’s why I’m glad I didn’t allow anybody to talk me out of it.
Erin Starkey:
Well, and I think what you said there too, is that you just weren’t afraid to take the first step to make those awkward phone calls, you had the courage to pick up the phone and even though you didn’t know, maybe all of the language, the educational pedagogy and language behind it, you were asking the questions and even if they were weren’t the right ones, they were going to eventually lead you to the answers that you needed. So, I think that’s an important thing, because it’s easy to get caught up on the hurdles and the challenges that you face but, for most entrepreneurs that are successful, we hear the same thing, you just didn’t give up, we kept trying, we kept finding a different way to figure out a solution for the problem and just take them one at a time.
Kelly Smith:
Do you want a funny story about this?
Erin Starkey:
Absolutely. Yes.
Kelly Smith:
The code club we were using online tutorials. So, kids were going on and learning HTML or JavaScript some computer programming language and they would work at their own pace through these tutorials. So, it’s personalized because every kid is on a different thing and they’re working, mastering one thing and then move to the next concept. This is all happening on different computers. But, I realized early on that it was really important for it to happen together, those same kids could have done those same lessons at home, but they wouldn’t have done it because there’s this energy and this enthusiasm and this belonging to a tribe and a group that was really important. So, I got excited about this and I started calling it hybrid learning.
Kelly Smith:
I was, it’s a hybrid because there’s a computer and other humans in the room and I was to use that phrase and finally somebody is probably Michael Horn or one of the experts of blended learning. They were “That’s called blended learning and there’s like a whole body of research about this.” And I was “Blended learning let’s go with that.” So, I stopped calling… even later hybrid learning became something completely different, but it was just funny I knew the concept, but I didn’t have any of the foundational background.
Kelly Smith:
And so, to learn that from one of these awkward phone calls and then to become friends with the people who are the world experts in blended learning and to have them give me tips and pointers on how to do that better is just fascinating. The generosity of the communities so great. If you ask the questions people will be there to pick you up and help you and including me. So, if anybody’s listening and they’re “I sure would love to ask him this?” Call me, email me. I’m super happy to engage I love helping people that are trying to get something done and make a difference for kids.
Erin Starkey:
That’s great and definitely I want to make sure we get your information out there at the end of the podcast and I’ll put it in the notes too so it’ll be there. And just thinking of this in two different ways, because I want to make sure that if someone’s interested in learning how to be a guide, that they can contact you and find out more or you can give them information about your website where I know there’s more information there. But then just thinking about entrepreneurs in general, is there any advice that you would give to an entrepreneur about getting started that you can think of that would’ve been helpful for you to have heard?
Kelly Smith:
I did this and so it’s one of these do what I did, which feels weird to say, but I think a lot of people that I met along the way spend a lot of time planning and thinking and I think this is maybe particularly education people are susceptible to this. It has to be this, it has to be that, all these narratives and documents and spreadsheets. I believe in planning and thinking it through but also, I think as Mike Tyson, the boxer, he says “Everybody’s got a plan until they get punched in the face.” And the reality of this is the real learning is going to start when you do your very first popup or just take that action, put it together. It’s not going to feel great, you’re not going to feel ready, do it anyway. You’ll learn so much and you’ll meet people and have these connections.
Kelly Smith:
So, I was grateful that I didn’t sit on it for very long, definitely got to a point where it was “I think there’s something here” and the next semester I had kids in my house doing a Micro school and I would say, do the same thing, get it going right away. You’ll learn so much in the process.
Erin Starkey:
That’s great advice and definitely you can start small and you never know where it can go from there. And that leads perfectly into the next question which is, just thinking about where you guys are going in the future, what grade levels do you have available now and what are you thinking for the future?
Kelly Smith:
K-8. We’re actually not in a hurry to expand to high school for a variety of reason. So, for us it’s about those states. One state after another, opening up new doors. So, if you’re listening to this and you’re thinking this would be great in my state, we just need to meet the most forward thinking educators that you know. So, whether that’s at a school district or charter school or a state education agency or something like that, finding the right allies and friends in a particular place has been really critical for us. And so, our partnership model, that’s our plan is just continue to expand partnerships.
Kelly Smith:
Obviously we are spending a lot of time and energy just continuously refining the educational model, the learning experience, how everything fits together? And so, we’re working on that as well and as we’re able to do this for more and more kids, we hope to be able to just continue to be part of empowering learners. One of the most exciting works that I’ve ever seen in my life so, it’s something that I’m grateful to every day wake up and be able to participate in this.
Erin Starkey:
That’s fantastic and do you have a partner in Oklahoma right now? Because if not, definitely going to have to help you out with that.
Kelly Smith:
We have a few conversations going, but nobody official so, would love you help.
Erin Starkey:
Yes, absolutely I’d love to help you continue that and see what we can find to connect there. And then if you want to just share real quick, maybe your website or any other way that you would like for people to reach out and be able to be able to get ahold of you.
Kelly Smith:
Prenda.com, check that out and you can learn about the model. There’s a big button that says become a guide. So, if you want to start a Micro school in your community, we try to make it as easy as we can for you. Please click that and engage with us, we’ll reach out. Something we’d love to help you with.
Erin Starkey:
Perfect and if they have a specific question for you, is there a way for them to contact you on the website as well?
Kelly Smith:
My personal email Kelly@Prenda.com, so you can email me and I will do my best to respond.
Erin Starkey:
Perfect. And I’ll put all that in the show notes as well so, it’ll be there. Is there anything else that you’d want to share about your school or entrepreneurs in general that you can think of as we close out?
Kelly Smith:
Just a genuine thank you for doing this work. I’ve met people in lots of different fields and I’ve had lots of experiences, but there’s something special about people who care about education and care about these kids and just it’s an honor to like work alongside you and be part of something that’s much bigger than ourselves that can really transcend generations and do good for the world so, thank you.
Erin Starkey:
So true. I’m excited for the future of education, I think there’s some great solutions out there. Thank you for your time Kelly. I really appreciate it.
Kelly Smith:
You bet.

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