Learning everywhere ups chances for learning somewhere


Earlier this month, the New Hampshire State Board of Education adopted rules for a program that could eventually allow community organizations to offer programs that grant high school course credit.

As you might imagine, no small amount of controversy ensued.

The state’s public school advocacy organizations oppose the initiative, while the New Hampshire Business and Industry Association, the Boys and Girls Club, FIRST Robotics, New England College, the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center and the Aviation Museum of New Hampshire support it.

This initiative is not without precedent. New Hampshire policymakers in 2018 created a pathway called “Learn Everywhere” that would allow organizations other than schools to provide educational programs resulting in high-school credit in public schools. Here is how the New Hampshire Department of Education explained the program:

Today, the State Board of Education (“SBOE”) is the credentialing oversight board for teachers and schools. The SBOE credentials teachers in New Hampshire to be able to teach in our public schools. The SBOE also authorizes schools in New Hampshire to be able to provide an opportunity for a comprehensive adequate education. Learn Everywhere simply unbundles education and says, rather than authorize only entire schools, the state will authorize educational programs to offer part of comprehensive adequate education. If the SBOE credentials teachers, and if the SBOE credentials schools, why not also simply credential a course or a program as well?

A long list of questions has probably already popped into your head regarding just how this is going to work: Who can offer Learn Anywhere programs? How do we know the students are learning? How will this program impact school funding?

The New Hampshire Department of Education addresses those questions here, but the short answers are: Programs accepted by the State Board of Education can offer Learn Anywhere programs; evaluation is key to the application process but is likely to vary by program; and the program will have no impact on school funding.

It will be fascinating to see how the New Hampshire experience unfolds. It’s important to note, however, that the United States has trended in the direction of multi-vendor education for many decades without mechanisms to grant credit. This chart from the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project is food for thought:

Source: Brookings Institution

So, my guess is that high-income parents are not shelling out $8,000-plus per year to be frivolous. This is a voluntary exchange, so they obviously value the enrichment services. If you have the sinking feeling that a gigantic equity issue is staring deep into your terrified soul, it’s only because you do in fact have a gigantic equity issue staring deep into your terrified soul. This is a huge and inevitable debate for policy and philanthropy.

The question, How do we know students are learning anything in Learn Everywhere programs?” raises a fundamental question: How do we know students are learning anything in traditional high school classes?

Mind you, I’m not claiming that kids don’t learn things in traditional high school classes. One of the fundamental reasons state policymakers created standardized accountability exams is because grades weren’t to be trusted – valedictorians getting put into remedial coursework, etc. Right about now, standardized testing is getting on the American public’s last nerve.

The New Hampshire State Board of Education should have an interesting time sorting through that, but this is an interesting project to keep an eye on. A wise man once said that not all schooling is education, and not all education is schooling. The Learn Everywhere program has the potential to formally recognize that fact. The devil is in the details, but color me interested in how this unfolds.

Special needs scholarship helps student stand on his own

Mitchell and Kamden Kuhn spent two years on a waiting list to adopt a child. The couple saw it as their mission to adopt a child in need from a developing country.

Editor’s note: This month, redefinED is revisiting stories that shine a light on extraordinary students. Today’s spotlight, first published in August 2016, tells the story of an orphaned, medically challenged child whose life was transformed by loving foster parents and a Gardiner Scholarship for students with special needs .

For nearly three years, starting before his third birthday, Malachi lived in an orphanage in Adama, in central Ethiopia. Born with spina bifida, a birth defect that causes leg weakness and limits mobility, he had to crawl across the orphanage’s concrete floors.

The orphans shared clothes from a communal closet and he rarely wore shoes causing his feet to become covered with callouses. At night he slept in a crib in a shared room with five other orphans. They ate communal meals prepared by their caretakers over a wood-burning fireplace. With his doctor more than an hour away in Addis Ababa, the capital, he rarely had access to much-needed medical attention.

His caregivers did their best with what little resources they had, but Malachi was only surviving. It seemed impossible that he would one day stand on his own — much less walk, or go to school.

All of that changed last year, when Malachi arrived in Florida where he now lives with two adoptive parents, and, with the help of a revolutionary scholarship program, has begun pursuing an education.

Kamden Kuhn and her husband, Mitchell, decided to adopt a child before they were  married eight years ago. Their faith inspired them to seek out a child in need from a developing country.

“God has rewarded us,” she said. “We can attempt to show love in a similar way.”

The Kuhns spent the next two years on a waiting list for a healthy infant. As they waited, they realized they’d drifted from their mission to adopt a child in need.

Each month the adoption agency sent them a “waiting child list” full of older children who were struggling to find homes. One month, they received a description of a four-year old boy with spina bifida named Malachi.

The Kuhns talked to parents with children with special needs to learn about educational opportunities, insurance and medical care. One family friend told them about the Gardiner Scholarship, a state education savings account program for children with special needs. (Step Up for Students, which publishes this blog and pays my salary, helps manage the accounts of students on the Gardiner Scholarship program.)

After three years of searching, two trips to Ethiopia, mountains of paperwork and $42,000 in expenses, the Kuhns brought Malachi home to Ruskin, Fla. on Sept. 21, 2015.

They applied for the Gardiner Scholarship and enrolled him in Ruskin Christian School. Kamden Kuhn said the nearby public school was good, but she didn’t want her son pulled out of class time for therapy. She wanted Malachi to have the same amount of class time as the other students. The Kuhns used funds left over after paying his tuition to purchase after-school physical, occupational and behavioral therapy.

His mother said the therapists provided instruction and therapy through play.

“I’m not the best educator for my son,” Kuhn said. “But this allows me to shop around for the best educators and best therapists. I can decide what is best, because I know him best.”

Malachi needs a stable, predictable environment where he can thrive. His parents and the teachers at the school worked together as a team.

“He made so much progress in the first nine months,” Kuhn recalled. He quickly started to learn to speak English and to stand upright with the aid of a walker. Now stronger than ever, he uses a forearm cane to walk.

“Ms. Stacy helped me learn to walk, and Ms. Colleen helped me get in control,” Malachi said of his physical and occupational therapists. In a telephone interview, he said phonics is his favorite subject because he loves learning letters and how to put them together to make words.

One day, according to his mother, his class was learning about firefighters. As the children went into a field and pretended to battle make-believe blazes, Malachi’s walker got stuck. A teaching assistant (Ms. Shelly) carried him out to the other children, allowing him to join in the fun. He still recalls that day fondly.

“I like Ms. Nichter because she helps me, and I like Ms. Shelly because she carried me,” he said of his teachers.

Malachi has access to care and support that would have been unthinkable at a cash-strapped orphanage in one of the poorest countries in the world. Ethiopia’s per-capita gross domestic product ranks 208 out of 229 countries, according to the CIA. Still, it has a long history and is now home to one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. His parents say they hope he’ll learn more about his home country and take pride in his roots.

Now six years old, he is starting his second year on the Gardiner Scholarship at a new school, Holy Trinity Lutheran, after his family moved north to Tampa.

The Kuhns recently visited his new school to meet the teachers.

“I’m really excited,” he said about his new school.

“He’s been saying this nonstop all week,” his mom added.

Raising a child with special needs isn’t easy. In fact, “it’s way, way harder than we ever thought it would be,” said Kuhn. “But we are confronting the challenge, knowing the blessing that he is.”

Spina bifida can limit people’s physical mobility, but with proper support care they can often excel in school, participate in other activities, and lead full lives. Malachi has realized that anything is possible. Not content with just walking, he now dreams of soaring when he grows up. Asked about his future career goals, he said: “I want to drive an airplane!”

Venture Incubator project aims to grow new private schools, leaders

Bill Olsen, director of The Drexel Fund’s Founders Program, announces a new partnership with Step Up For Students that will prepare Florida entrepreneurs to launch private schools to serve low-income students. The announcement came Friday at the Step Up For Students Gardiner & FTC Conference at Victory Christian Academy in Lakeland.

LAKELAND, Fla. – In announcing Friday the creation of the Florida Education Venture Incubator, Bill Olsen posed an inviting question to about 850 private school educators:

Have you ever thought about starting a new private school to serve low-income students?

Olsen, director of The Drexel Fund’s Founders Program, was speaking on Day 2 of the Step Up For Students Gardiner & FTC Conference at Victory Christian Academy here. The two-day conference, organized by the state’s largest scholarship funding organization, drew its audience from educators whose schools participate in state scholarship and voucher programs serving roughly 140,000 students.

The Venture Incubator project is a partnership between The Drexel Fund, a philanthropic venture fund, and Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog. Its intent is to spur education entrepreneurs to create more high-quality private schools in the state.   

“With demand for scholarships surging in Florida, there’s a huge need for more seats in high-quality private schools,” said Step Up For Students president Doug Tuthill, whose nonprofit anticipates awarding more than 140,000 scholarships in the 2019-20 school year. “Drexel wants to combine money that they are providing with technical support to make sure people have what they need to use startup funds effectively.”

Founded in 2015, The Drexel Fund’s goal is to finance the expansion of successful private school models serving low-income students and to seed new ones. While there have been many applicants, the organization realized few were ready to start schools.

“We’re finding three or four people a year who are ready to go 12 months from now, but we’re missing 100 every year who have really good ideas,” said Courtney Collins-Shapiro, a partner at Drexel, who along with Olsen, will lead startup sessions for interested individuals in Miami, Orlando, Tampa Bay, West Palm Beach and Jacksonville in September and October.

Olsen said he’s hoping many of the passionate, talented Floridians who aren’t ready to start a school will  register for a startup session, where they will learn how to set a budget, attract high-quality teachers and recruit students.

Collins-Shapiro said that Florida is the best place in the country to launch a private school for low-income students, adding that one of the incubator’s goals is to work with 80 participants over the next four years.

“We’re here to spark innovation, to find the people across the state who have great ideas, who have talent and skill and the entrepreneurial spirit,” she said. “There’s a lot of positive energy across the state, whether it’s the Department of Ed, the Legislature, the governor, and Step Up being a huge partner.”

Tuthill called the conference “the perfect venue” to announce the incubator.

“It’s the largest gathering of private school educators in the country,” he said. “A lot of these educators are interested in expanding their schools, and they have friends and colleagues who are interested in starting schools.”

Olsen agreed, saying that attending the conference has bolstered his enthusiasm for working with the state’s future education leaders.

“The conference has been incredible,” he said. “People are so enthusiastic and so committed to serving students. Florida is just an amazing place for entrepreneurs, people who want to do something bold and beautiful and important for kids.”

Jeb Bush’s A+ Plan anniversary: 20 years to the day

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush signed into law on June 21, 1999, the A+ Plan for education at Raa Middle School in Tallahassee. The comprehensive reform plan called for greater school and teacher accountability, changing the landscape of education statewide.

“I think we’re in for a renaissance in public education.”

With these words, Gov. Jeb Bush signed into law on June 21, 1999, a bill that set in motion his vision for the future of education in Florida.

The A+ Plan, which had been Bush’s top campaign promise when he ran for governor, aimed to toughen standards for teachers, students and schools. It called for the state to assign letter grades to all schools, end social promotion and institute statewide testing in grades 3 through 10.

The plan’s philosophical underpinnings ran deep.

According to testimony Bush delivered before the U.S. House of Representatives three months after the bill-signing, its foundation rested on three fundamental principles: meaningful and undiluted accountability that would allocate different consequences for success and failure; zero tolerance for the latter, which Bush acknowledged could be “extremely difficult and painful”; and the belief that Florida’s education system must be child-centered, not system-centered, or even school-centered.

The most controversial provision of the plan allowed students in failing public schools to obtain vouchers that would pay tuition and fees at participating private schools, including nonsectarian and religious institutions. It was this provision that set off a firestorm of controversy from voucher opponents that resulted in a lawsuit filed on behalf of the Florida Coalition for Public Education, which consisted of 17 organizations including the NAACP, the Florida PTA and the League of Women Voters.

Twenty years later, critics still argue the merits of vouchers. Some continue to argue the merits of the A+ Plan itself. But it’s hard to argue with the fact that, largely as a result of the plan, Florida’s families today enjoy access to one of the country’s most robust sets of education options, including public school choice, public charter schools, virtual learning and homeschooling. Many also have access to private school scholarships for low- and middle-income families, students with disabilities and bullied students.

In an opinion piece published Wednesday in USA Today, Bush reflected on these options, as well as on the upswing in student performance since 1999. He credited the positive turnaround to Florida’s willingness to continue to adopt bold and innovative education policies and expressed optimism that even more success can come in the next 20 years – as long as the state continues to “keep pushing the envelope until each and every child gets the great education they deserve.”

To read a series of stories authored by redefinED contributors commemorating the 20th anniversary of the A+ Plan, click here.

‘Historic’ private school conference kicks off in Lakeland

Elementary school teacher Michael Bonner, now a nationally recognized education spokesman, delivers the keynote address at the Step Up For Students Gardiner and Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Conference in Lakeland.

Lakeland, Fla. – More than 850 private school educators packed Victory Christian Academy this morning for a two-day conference featuring national speakers and workshops on teaching, learning and student assessment in Florida.

The conference, organized by the state’s largest scholarship funding organization, draws its audience from educators whose schools participate in state scholarship and voucher programs serving roughly 140,000 students. As such, Doug Tuthill, president of that organization, Step Up For Students, called the event “historic.”

“Our Office of Student Learning has worked incredibly hard to put this together,” Tuthill said. “Educators from every corner of the state have come together to learn how to better serve their students.”

Scheduled topics at the “Step Up For Students Gardiner & Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Conference” include how to use data to drive instruction, teaching silent reading fluency, and transitioning students from high school to college. Additional sessions will include classroom management, social and emotional learning, and how to create an equity-focused school. 

In a keynote address, elementary school teacher Michael Bonner, now a nationally recognized education spokesman, explained how he uses the power of self-reflection and creative thinking at a high-poverty elementary school in North Carolina, stressing that “poverty is not a learning disability.”

“It takes a special teacher (to educate impoverished students) and those teachers are here today,” Bonner said. “I held my students to high expectations, because they’re going into a society where there are stereotypes and implicit biases, and I refuse to let them fall victim. Every student deserves a great education by design.”

Carol Macedonia, vice president of Step Up’s Office of Student Learning, said during opening remarks that the size of the audience demonstrated educators’ passion for teaching children using the effective methods available.

“Our hope is that the experiences you will share these next two days will in some small way help with making those difficult educational decisions, aid you as you zero in on a much-needed key school improvement initiative or perhaps nudge you to make an organizational or philosophical course correction to ensure that the underserved – those students who struggle to learn – are given every possible opportunity and support they need to thrive,” Macedonia said.

Stacy Angier, principal of Abundant Life Christian Academy in Margate, came to the conference with six other educators from her school to learn how to more effectively teach students and keep teachers motivated.

“It should be a great time to learn professional growth strategies and build relationships with other school leaders, as well as the Step Up team,” Angier said.

JaDean Stricker, principal at Jubilee Christian Academy, traveled to Lakeland from Pensacola eager to learn more about cognitive training, which provides strategies for helping students who struggle with hindrances to learning.

“It’s a vital tool that is helping a lot of schools these days,” Stricker said. “Anything that helps you reach those kids you struggle the most to reach is worthwhile.”

National speakers in addition to Bonner scheduled to appear include Katie Swingle, mother of a son diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, who will speak about the value of school choice, and in particular, positive ways the Gardiner Scholarship can assist families of special needs students. 

Rebekah Phillips, author, illustrator and founder of Pawz Publishing, also will appear.

The common denominator among conference attendees is their participation in the nation’s largest school choice program. More than 1,800 private schools this past year served 140,000 students in four different programs: the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for economically disadvantaged students, the Gardiner and McKay scholarships for students with special needs, and the Hope Scholarship for public school students who have been bullied.

Step Up president Tuthill noted that more educators applied for a seat at the conference than the host school could accommodate.

“We’re already making plans for a bigger and better conference next year,” he said.

To view the full conference agenda, click here.