When March arrived, many parents and students were going about their usual routines. Parents headed to work in traffic-filled morning commutes. Students packed up for school and spent hours with their classmates and teachers in person.
By the end of the month, this routine was upended. Most schools transitioned to a remote format. Parents who used to drive to the office adapted to working at home. Parents who were frontline workers were left to navigate inordinate stress – and limited childcare options – to perform functions that kept so many of us safe, often at a personal cost that would be unimaginable for many of us. Students of all ages grappled with new technologies and expectations as parents earned a new appreciation for the work that K–12 teachers do every day.
As we embark on a new school year amidst many of the same challenges, parents are looking for any and all support to help them navigate their children’s education and mitigate the concern that remote learning and the rise of pandemic pods, tutoring and other resources might exacerbate endemic inequities across the education landscape. I recently had the privilege of speaking with Wonderschool CEO Chris Bennett, who was thinking deeply about both the risks and opportunities associated with new forms of home-based schooling long before terms such as “social distancing” crept into our vernacular. He’s now enabling parents and educators to leverage technology developed to power the rise of high-quality, home-based childcare in order to navigate the role of parent-educator – and, with any luck, create a more equitable approach to microschooling by bridging the gap between school and home.
Michael Horn: Wonderschool was turning a lot of heads and garnering attention even before the pandemic started as one of the most innovative early education companies. I’m excited about this conversation because it fits really well into the pandemic pod trend right now and many individuals view you as a visionary. How did you get started doing this work?
Chris Bennett: I’m originally from Miami, Florida. I always did well academically and I wasn’t sure why. One of the things that stands out to me is that I attended an incredible preschool. That early foundation supported me through my educational career to become the first college graduate in my family.
My interest in entrepreneurship led me from Wharton to the Bay Area, where I kept hearing from my friends about a childcare shortage. It was a new issue to me. My sister and I had the great fortune to attend in-home childcare services available in Miami. The woman who ran that in-home program was able to eventually move her work into a commercial space. I remember seeing people constantly entering and exiting her business and benefitting from her child care.
All of this made me wonder why more people don’t start their own in-home programs. What I found is that starting an in-home program is very difficult, even for talented educators. I began to think, What if we could build an experience like Airbnb?
To make sure we understood how the entire process would work, we actually rented a home, hired a teacher, and followed all the steps to launch an in-home program. We support thousands of such centers today! The pivot to microschooling is really not a pivot for us at all: Wonderschool has been doing microschooling programs for years.
Horn: The super important thing I want to emphasize is the Airbnb insight you had and your focus on creating a seamless experience for people. As you said, it is so hard for people to start these programs on their own, but so many individuals want a more customized, smaller learning experience that is tailored to their needs.
Let’s talk about the impact that COVID has had. I also want to get into the development of microschools or learning pods. Parents have been rushing to create them, but you and your team were ahead of the curve.
Bennett: In February, I attended a Learn Capital conference where I had the chance to meet other technology entrepreneurs. I spoke to a start-up founder and he mentioned to me that something was happening in China that would eventually impact us here.
Later as I was getting on a flight to Salt Lake City, I kept thinking, “This might be the last time I fly. Someone might have COVID-19 on this flight.” I still didn’t really know what that would mean. This was a time when people weren’t really aware of it. I remember getting back to the office and talking to people in my community. Everyone said, “Just wash your hands and everything will be fine.”
At the time, people in Wuhan were already sheltering in place. I knew that if everyone ended up sheltering in place, parents wouldn’t want to put their kids in child care and that we would need to be prepared for that.
Parents report that they don’t want to send their kids to school and there’s generally a lot of fear. People have started thinking about homeschooling. They’re trying to figure out how they’ll care for their children in virtual and remote schooling. In recent press, this “pandemic pod” and “microschool” phenomenon has popped up.
Horn: You and your team came out with an announcement a few weeks ago saying, “We’re going to support people creating microschooling communities.” Can you tell me about what you and your team are facilitating for those still enrolled in school districts?
Bennett: We’re really well-positioned to support the creation of microschools. But there are really significant equity concerns. Our approach is designed to move beyond the false choice by allowing parents and children to maintain a connection with their school community and curriculum, in many cases. It’s very similar to what Wonderschool has already done for children ages zero to five.
We find individuals who can start in-home childcare programs and take them through the entire process of program creation. They get access to our community and use our technology. We even help individuals fill their programs with parents and families who might be outside of their normal neighborhood or social networks. We have years of experience in this process and are the market leaders in our field.
Horn: How does the work you are doing now, to support families and educators serving older children during the pandemic, differ from your work with younger children? How does the underlying technology have to evolve?
Bennett: We updated our signup flow and creation processes so that they are smoother and easier for people to use. We now have a group of mentors that we hire as contractors that parents and educators can engage for support.
I tracked down the other leaders of the microschool movement and added them to our platform so people can get access to knowledgeable folks as they create their programs. I started to interview people on our platform who are operating microschools with us so people can read their stories and learn more about the programs available.
Beyond technology, the policy environment is really interesting and dynamic. For microschools, licensing varies by state. Essentially, a microschool is an after-school program that lasts all day. One option is to make a Homeschooling Resource Center where children learn independently but come together for care.
If a child is going to use a new curriculum, they typically need to register as a homeschooler or potentially have their learning venue registered as a private school. When people come to Wonderschool, we support them in figuring all of this out. We can support individuals who plan to host pods both in the short run or as a long-term business.
In order to move as fast as we have, we could not build the technology for the district and state paperwork filling process. However, we can offer direct person-to-person support. We have a strong community of providers and also other parents in the microschool community who can help.
Horn: How are you thinking about all of this in terms of equity and inclusion? I know that this has been a significant topic of discussion with the rise of learning pods and microschooling. How will you ensure that the child care aspect of this is accessible to everyone?
Bennett: The risk that the rise in micro- or home-based schooling exacerbates endemic equity gaps is very real. It is and should be a major concern.
What often gets lost in the national narrative is that low- and middle-income families are also trying to figure out how to adapt, even though their stories may not have as much visibility. I’m hopeful that we can move towards applying school district, state, and federal funding to microschools so that more children can attend. I’m also hopeful that, in the coming months, we will deepen our relationships with both states and school districts in ways that allow parents – and educators – to do what’s right for their families, or from a health perspective, but also maintain close ties to their home school in ways that reduce the risk of racial or economic isolation and segregation.
As the field expands, I’m encouraged by the rise of microschools in places you might not expect. One member of our team, Jeremiah, is Native American. He runs a program in Arizona. Children can attend his school for free because they receive funding through the Charter School Network and the state’s education savings accounts. As of right now, Arizona is the only state I’m aware of that applies its funding in this way.
What often gets overlooked, especially these days, are the inherent inequities in the traditional approach to schooling, which has always struggled to make good on its promise to children who arrive at school with a multiplicity of needs, challenges, and opportunities. In some ways, the pandemic has helped to shine a light on the challenges, especially for children with learning differences.
We are, of course, far from balancing the risks and benefits of this new model yet. Still, I feel that microschools, alongside more traditional models, are a part of the long-term solution to creating more equitable, accessible options for more children. They can be customized to respond to different preferences and abilities and still ensure that everyone gets a quality experience and a rigorous education.
Horn: I can see how the adaptability is really something unique that makes this learning experience more accessible and inclusive. What’s inspiring you amidst the challenges you’ve faced?
Bennett: It’s exciting to see people build their own effective platform and use their innovation to benefit the community. One woman on our platform was previously a preschool teacher. She is able to serve a large number of children on our platform. Due to her innovative spirit, she is planning to start multiple programs that can serve even more families.
I’ve also been impressed to see the high level of collaboration in the educational technology community. When we started, we announced that we didn’t have a curriculum platform yet. Soon, leading curriculum providers reached out to us to support individuals with Wonderschool. When we all collaborate, we can better support parents and educational providers as well as students.
Horn: I remember being desperate for something like Wonderschool years ago and then you arrived, starting in the preschool space. I think it’s fantastic that you’re now branching deeper into the K–12 space.