In a country that aspires to equality of opportunity as its very foundation, an alarming number of children lack equal access to an excellent education. A child’s race, socioeconomic status, and zip code are currently far greater predictors of his or her ultimate quality of life than their talent, drive, or capacity to learn.
This pattern is magnified in the South, where students must navigate particularly deep repercussions of entrenched, systemic, and historic inequity. Children in the South have the lowest odds of transitioning from the bottom fifth of the income distribution to the top, and Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana are ranked in the bottom four states for ACT results nationwide.
RePublic Schools was founded to change this trend, with a mission to reimagine public education for scholars in the South. RePublic operates high-performing public charter schools and will leverage the success of those schools to change the educational trajectory of all students in the South.
The story of RePublic Schools began in 2011 when two schools—Liberty Collegiate Academy and Nashville Prep—opened their doors to their founding classes of 5th graders. After several years of independently leading excellent middle schools to full growth, the leaders of Nashville Prep and Liberty Collegiate joined forces to found RePublic Schools to extend their impact beyond the walls of the existing schools. The foundation of this unity is a shared educational model that has yielded exceptional outcomes for scholars at both schools.
Building on this strong foundation, RePublic has set in motion an ambitious plan of growth and expansion. By 2023-24, RePublic will grow to 15 schools and serve 7,484 students per year. This includes RePublic’s first high school, which will open in Nashville this summer, and Reimagine Prep, Mississippi’s first public charter school.
But as ambitious as this plan is, we must be even bolder.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently released their Big Bet For the Future. Their letter outlines predictions for, and investments in, four key areas: health, farming, banking, and education.
At RePublic, we are following their lead — outlining where we will propel dramatic progress in the next 15 years in education in the South and beyond.
Over the next 15 years, historic impediments to equality will be dismantled by the emerging digitally literate. Our schools will be the catalyst for this colossal change.
Driven by Moore’s Law and its corollaries, exponential growth in integrated circuit computing power, storage capacity, data transmission, energy efficiency, and download speed have revolutionized every conceivable industry over the past few decades. Authors Brynjolfsson and McAfee captured this unprecedented pace of change:
So, computing power is increasing at an unprecedented rate. What is happening to the productivity of our workplace? Surprisingly, it’s pretty stagnant:
The reason for this disconnect between computing power and workforce productivity? The average worker is a passive consumer of technology and doesn’t truly understand the tools she/he is using on a daily basis. Our tools are getting smarter, but our workers aren’t.
This knowledge and skills gap starts with our education systems. The curriculum in schools — even our best schools — has failed to adapt to this changing world. Most students spend the majority of their day with a paper, pen, and an outdated textbook — leaving them unprepared even for a 1995 workplace and completely out of touch with a career in 2015 or, more importantly, 2025. Many of our schools aren’t even teaching kids to be skilled consumers of critical, basic technologies (such as Excel, Word, Photoshop, Final Cut), let alone creators of new solutions.
We believe change must start with coding education. As Marc Andreessen says,
Computer science has become a critical component of almost all professions.
The medical, military, financial, retail, manufacturing, and arts industries are all in need of qualified computer science students. But those students don’t currently exist.
Beyond economics, there are epistemological and ethical reasons for more robust and widespread software education. Coding at its essence is a series of instructions for a computer. It’s important for all students to know how these instructions work because they must have a mental model for how the world works. Beyond awareness, students must also view software as a tool to solve problems. Software solutions will be critical to making Africa agriculturally self-sustaining, Indians in poverty capable of securing property and loans, and corrupt governments more accountable.
Software education is becoming a critical conversation in almost every school district in America, but we must move with more urgency and make sacrifices and investments in infrastructure to catch up with the pace of change outside of our schools.
Computer Science Lessons provides lessons and resources for students, families, and teachers in traditional, charter, and private schools. Our computer science instructional team built an instructional and learning platform, which is currently used by our middle schools and a handful of traditional district schools. This platform includes interactive tutorials, lesson materials, project exemplars and rubrics, lesson videos, and a tool for teachers to share best practices. The platform will grow to include resources for all middle and high school grades, including AP Computer Science. Given the proliferation of high speed internet access and smartphones, this platform will not only be available to students in our partner schools in the South, but will be available to students anywhere in the world.
Scholars in the 9th and 10th grades will take AP Computer Science. RePublic’s coding curriculum in the 11th, and 12th grade will look much more similar to college programs. Scholars will be able to select specialized tracks based on their own interests. There are four tracks scholars can choose from: website and graphic design, application and game development, information technologies and data analysis, and engineering.
Thomas Cato was born in Jackson, Mississippi. Coming out of humble beginnings, Tom entered the data processing business in the late 1960’s. He spent 40 years in the industry, working with everything from punch cards to the world wide web. He was a pioneer in the healthcare computer field and retired as CIO of one of the world's largest healthcare companies, HCA. As a memorial to his life and legacy, RePublic has committed to building a Computer Science Center in every city we operate to make sure that every child, no matter what school they attend, has a chance to become a computer scientist. Our first center opens in Nashville in August of 2015 aptly named The Thomas Cato Computer Science Center. The Center will have full size state of the art classrooms that will be used during the school day by RePublic High School’s computer science department.
The facility also has several smaller rooms for groups to break up and work in and for independent projects or study. Lastly, given the focus on community ties with local businesses and programmers, the Center will have a conference room where community partners can meet during the day. This includes virtually connecting scholars with startups and nonprofits around the world. Scholars might help build a website for a family run business in New Guinea, or create an app to track drinking water in Ghana. The Center will also have constant programming and opportunities for high school students across the community after school and over the weekends.
Most of the nation’s 3.7 million teachers, like professionals in most fields, don’t know how to code. And the rare college student who graduates with the ability to create software can command extreme salaries from the private sector. Given this reality, our country cannot rely upon higher education to solve this problem by training coding teachers.
We’ve found that it’s easier to teach a strong teacher to code than it is to teach a strong coder to teach. That’s why RePublic trains novice teachers (from our schools and the district) to code alongside students. The two planks to our training model are (1) our instructional platform (described above) and (2) our in-person computer science teacher trainings. For the latter, we run a month-long summer training for coding teachers. Through this training, teachers learn the basics of coding and design lessons for the first unit of instruction. These trainings, which continues throughout the school year in weekly sessions, are open to all charter, district, and private school teachers. Our inaugural class of coding teachers are flourishing — bringing cutting edge instruction and content to the most underserved.
Most newsrooms, retail stores, and corporate headquarters are dramatically different today than they were just 10 years ago. Yet our classrooms and central offices are nearly indistinguishable from their predecessors 50 years ago. Software may be eating the world, but schools have resisted changes that have revolutionized most other industries.
If you talk to any CEO of an education startup, they will express frustration that the people who procure educational resources and technology for school districts have little incentive to innovate and superficial contact with teachers, parents, and kids who would benefit from new technology. The few bureaucrats who are willing to untangle the Gordian Knot of regulation either lack the nimble purchasing authority to make meaningful change or the tools and resources to effectively train educators to implement new technology, measure impact, and adapt to data. The Los Angeles iPad debacle is one (colossal) example of what can go wrong with adoption and training — even when a district is able to overcome threshold resource and procurement challenges.
But even the most regulated industries are beginning to succumb to the software wave. Our institutions can only hold out for so long before parents, kids, and other stakeholders demand change. That’s why Andreessen predicts that previously impermeable industries like education, healthcare, and financial services are the industries most ripe for software revolutions.
We believe that the unique bureaucratic obstacles in education have, and will continue to, sink many worthy for-profit companies. It takes too long to go from strong idea to profitable idea. Accordingly, the industry will continue to be dominated by innovative non-profits such as Khan Academy, Coursera, and EdX. Following this trend, RePublic is building an in-house non-profit software company with the mission of dissemination and student achievement over profit. Led by RePublic’s Chief Information Officer, Ryan York, this company will build innovative solutions to education’s most obstinate challenges, a sampling of which are described below.
Most urban school districts are struggling to disseminate exemplary curriculum and effective practices. If there’s a Lebron James of teaching in one class, that teacher’s class materials and video often don’t spread fast or far. At RePublic, we’ve seen this challenge within our relatively small institution. For example, we estimate that we are wasting over $12,000 a week (ball-parked at $20 an hour) in teacher time creating redundant class materials. This inefficiency has corollaries across all aspects of curriculum and instruction. Accordingly, we are building off lessons learned in our innovative work with computer science — creating a universal platform which will eventually house all curriculum, data, classroom video, and teacher reflections in one place.
Educators will collaborate to tinker with lesson plans, share research, and leave reflections for posterity. Before, after, and during class, students can access course notes, supplemental material, and class video. These students will also receive personalized support and extension work through a playlist-style interface that draws upon and improves upon a wave of innovation that’s taken place over the past three years. Parents will also have access to course materials and data, proving an unprecedented window into their child’s educational experience.
We will pilot this platform with our inaugural high school class, who start 9th grade in the summer of 2015. We will expand to our middle schools in 2016 and our (eventual) elementary school(s) in 2017.
One of the many advantages to training teachers to code is that those teachers become empowered to use software to solve problems at the school level. In contrast to many software companies, our engineers are on the front lines of practice. In a short time, our coding educators have already built a series of transformational tools. To highlight two examples.
15 hours / week writing redundant class materials
40 teachers / week writing redundant class materials
600 hours, roughly $12,000 / week wasted
15 hours / week writing redundant class materials
40 teachers / week writing redundant class materials
600 hours, roughly $12,000 / week wasted
We developed a program that efficiently sorts students by standard, day, and teacher for ease of tutoring. Teachers simply choose which standards/objectives they will cover for the week, the school’s administrator sets academic priorities and space constraints (or optimal group sizes), and the program generates rosters for each grade level. Teachers then know the scholars they are working with all need help on the same standard. This program also eliminates the risk of multiple teachers pulling the same student on the same day. This program is currently being piloted at in one of our middle schools, with plans to offer it to all three of our middle schools in late March.
Capturing teacher and leader feedback in an organized way that can be referenced and tracked over time can be challenging. Many schools drown in an ocean of excel spreadsheets and word documents that disappear after a given observation/evaluation cycle — forfeiting an opportunity to spot longitudinal trends and perform deep analysis. As a solution, we created an observation web application. This web app enables any peer or administrator to give feedback aligned to a consistent rubric that can instantly be viewed and measured by the teacher or observer.
At RePublic, the next three years will see a quantum leap from 1950’s style classrooms to 21st century learning environments. Applying the principles from Eric Ries’ book Lean Startup, we are applying a “build, measure, learn” cycle to every innovation that moves us forward. And every solution will be available either free or at cost to public education institutions.
In this era of hyper-politicization and polarization of education policy and practice, partnerships between parents and educators will drive authentic change. That’s why RePublic Schools is growing a movement of families to drive grassroots demand for better schools.
Our theory of change is based on the neighborhood as the locus of transformation. Accordingly, RePublic is nurturing Neighborhood Teams based on a parent-to-parent organizing model. Drawing on best practices from community organizing, this model will enhance the academic experience of students and empower parents to stand up for excellent educational options.
In reflecting on the experience of anti and pro-reform groups, we’ve observed an overemphasis on mobilization at the expense of grassroots organizing and empowerment. Many reformers place undue emphasis on the single instance of parents rallying at the Capitol or City Hall — and direct too few resources to cultivating capacity in and community amongst parents over time.
RePublic’s parents are routinely the dominant presence in local school board meetings, legislative “Days on the Hill,” social media, and community events. In 2015 alone, RePublic parents in Nashville have made nearly 150 contacts with local policymakers and civic leaders through letter-writing, in-person dialogue, and appearance at public meetings. This year in Nashville, two RePublic parents, in their personal capacities, ran for seats on the MNPS School Board. One unseated the Chair of the Board and the other came within a small margin of winning.
At RePublic, our parents are planting oak trees, not marigolds. Parents across all existing schools in Nashville meet regularly to build the skills, knowledge, muscle memory, and support systems necessary to use their voices as levers for change - within RePublic’s schools, in the broader Nashville community, and, eventually, throughout the South. Our parents train to be informed and active citizens, who are both aware of the state of education in our cities, and empowered to shape this reality. Inspired by the idea that they can achieve more for RePublic’s children when they act as a collective unit, our parents know that they are a part of a bigger movement to ensure all kids in our regions have access to high-quality schools.
Parent empowerment is the connective tissue that links RePublic’s vital organs. In their first four years of operation, Nashville Prep and Liberty Collegiate relentlessly pursued an underserved student body through a grassroots student recruitment strategy. Before opening for the first year, our founding teams visited with parents in North and East Nashville. Those parents said they were concerned about safety, worried that their students were behind grade level, and unable to discover what was going on in their child’s classroom. Our team took this feedback and built a robust system of parent communication that establishes authentic partnerships with parents. This two-way communication will form the foundation of RePublic’s parent empowerment model moving forward.
Once the school year begins, communication between staff members and families takes a number of forms. Students receive a weekly report (which will be daily starting next year) that describes in detail their behavior, attendance, academic performance, and homework completion. Parents will receive a call from their students’ advisor at least once every two weeks. All students receive their teachers’ phone numbers and are encouraged to reach out for homework help as often as needed. Additionally, in our first year, and starting next year again, every family received a home visit from a school staff member before the school year concluded. During those home visits, RePublic staff solicit feedback from parents - primarily around their vision of an ideal school environment, and the ways in which they would like to be involved in their child’s education. This feedback then becomes a critical piece in defining how our schools can best serve students and families in the communities in which we operate.
RePublic believes that schools can transform neighborhoods and communities. Tens of thousands of conversations with parents in the cities we serve have surfaced several consistent themes. Parents and scholars have reported that they often don’t have the resources to successfully navigate the world outside of school. Scholars have limited access, in many cases, to technology, productive places to study, libraries, and extracurricular activities.
RePublic Schools will implement Neighborhood Teams where parents will serve as community-based leaders to enhance the support structures around students. The vision for Neighborhood Teams comes from Jeremy Bird’s neighborhood organizing during Obama’s 2008 Presidential campaign. His strategy transformed grassroots politics, and the teams he formed during the campaign endured past the election itself. RePublic’s co-founder and Managing Partner is uniquely poised to lead this initiative, as he worked and trained under Bird on the Obama ’08 campaign in numerous states.
Neighborhood Team Leaders will collaborate with other parents in their community to establish safe and quiet places for students to do homework and study. A Neighborhood Team Leader may help other families in his or her neighborhood apply to a RePublic school, organize carpools for events, and work on other projects that would help students and families excel in a RePublic school. These systems will provide supports for families and students outside the walls of the school building, and mitigate for barriers that have historically kept our students from excelling. This plan is well underway in Mississippi, where we will pilot this model as we prepare open the first charter school in the state. RePublic’s Community Organizer is hard at work building Neighborhood Teams that will create a support network and community among families leading up to Reimagine Prep’s launch in August.
RePublic’s sustained grassroots organizing efforts will have enormous repercussions for our students. As our parents continue to build capacity and engage in the public sphere around education reform, they - and by extension, their children - will see firsthand that they have enormous power and potential to change the conversation at a systemic level.
In order to make good on our Bet on the Future, RePublic is searching for philanthropic investments in three key areas: school launch, software team, and capital costs.
RePublic has ambitious plans for growth through 2018 and beyond. As an operator of public charter schools, the most significant source of RePublic’s revenue is public funds on a per-pupil basis from the federal, state, and local government. At full growth, individual RePublic schools are sustainable on government funds alone. However, RePublic uses philanthropy to cover direct and indirect costs of growth, including new school startup costs and Central Office and Regional Office support for schools. It is only with the support and investment of the philanthropic community that RePublic Schools is able to launch enduring institutions that will successfully transform the lives of thousands of children every year in the most underserved parts of this country.
The figures below outline RePublic’s revenues and expenses in the average Nashville middle school. Each school reaches a point of financial sustainability on public dollars after four years of operation.
The operating budget for each new school varies depending on the number of students enrolled and grade levels served. Each new school will begin to operate at a surplus between its 4th and 7th year of existence, when it has operated at capacity for up to four years. Start-up deficits are mainly driven by the fact that RePublic’s new schools enroll one additional grade level each year, and therefore take several years to reach economies of scale. For example, each school has a required set of administrative positions (such as the Principal and the Dean of Students) regardless of the number of students enrolled. Additionally, each school requires initial capital investments such as IT infrastructure, computers, furniture, equipment and facility renovations.
For RePublic to build a team to disseminate free or at-cost open source software solutions for public schools, we must augment our existing team. This team will create rigorous content that spans multiple grade levels, build a web platform to host all resources and materials we create, develop purposeful teacher trainings, and facilitate these trainings in RePublic schools and in partner schools and districts.
For those interested in learning more, we have a strategic plan around this area that includes every software and coding-related position that RePublic seeks to create in the next few years. Philanthropic investments would allow us to accelerate the expansion of our curriculum, and leverage the tools and resources we create to empower other schools and districts to teach kids to code across the country.
RePublic has committed to building a computer science center in every city we operate in, to ensure every child, no matter what school they attend, has can use computer science to enhance their career and chosen industry.
Our first center will open in Nashville in August of 2015 and will be aptly named The Thomas Cato Computer Science Center (explained in greater detail above). RePublic will open a similar center in every city we work in. We are looking for partners to help us launch these centers and to ensure they have proper facilities, state-of-the-art technology, and well-sourced and talented staff.
The Return on Investment (ROI) for RePublic’s Bet on the Future rivals that of any philanthropic educational investment. Without a RePublic school, the average public school scholar is at significant risk of not graduating high school and has even smaller odds of graduating from a four-year college. The average American without a bachelor’s degree makes approximately $35,000 per year, compared to $102,000 per year for students who graduate with a computer science background. This equates to over $2.8 million of additional earned income in the lifetime of a single RePublic scholar.
And this doesn’t include the students from outside of our schools who will be served by our open source coding curriculum, training, and software.