What Can Educators Learn from ChallengeU?

ChallengeU, says it’s website, can “put success in the palm of your hand.”

It’s a heart-warming story: Thanks to the intervention of the nonprofit ChallengeU program, four former high school dropouts from the Petersburg school system received their high school diplomas in a ceremony Wednesday. (A fifth diploma earner could not participate.)

“The event was much the same as a traditional graduation ceremony, complete with speeches and a walk across the stage to receive their diplomas,”  said the Times-Dispatch editorial page today. “The euphoria in the room was electric. All four students say they hope to continue with higher education.”

It’s always good news when at-risk kids manage to turn their lives around, complete their high school educations and get a shot at climbing out of poverty. As the ChallengeU website notes, in Virginia 8,000 kids dropped out of high school last year. Coaxing these kids back into the educational pipeline is one of society’s great challenges.

ChallengeU takes on hard cases with some success, as evidenced by the graduation of those four Petersburg kids. But the program is highly unconventional — the kids learn online — and it is resource intensive. The question arises: Does ChallengeU provide an educational model that can be replicated, in whole or in part, in the public school system? Does the ChallengeU model warrant greater support from the philanthropic sector? Conversely, do the high school diplomas reflect real learning? Are the program’s successes worth the resources expended? Unfortunately, ChallengeU’s website provides no metrics, so those questions are difficult to answer.

Here’s what ChallengeU tells us:

ChallengeU has designed a distinctive and compelling instructional program that blends the best of online instruction with comprehensive social nurturance and personalized design for each student. Our research-based approach is designed upon the comprehensive data on the national dropout crisis exemplified in the Gates Foundation and Pew Charitable Trust, tailored to the needs of over 8,000 students who stepped away from Virginia high schools last year.

At no cost to the student or the school system, ChallengeU delivers courses by cell phone, and it provides the cell phones, the unlimited data plans, and other devices such as calculators or Chromebooks necessary students need to connect. The learning program evaluates students individually and places them on “individualized pathways” geared to the state’s Standards of Learning.

Our content is not merely aligned with the SOLs but it is written by experienced online teachers who have a history of success working with our student clients. Our content writers have a background teaching economically disadvantaged and disengaged populations, and they hold a proven record of success on the SOL with these very students. Our content writers take difficult content and break it down into bite–sized, achievable lessons with drills, an abundance of explanations, graphics, illustrations, and short instructional videos, as well as strategically placed interactive encouragement. We incorporate contemporary language that offers immediate relevance to these previously disengaged students, and we create a positive peer culture community.

ChallengeU provides one-on-one support thanks to low teacher-student ratios from Virginia-licensed instructors. And it nurtures its students through “success coaches” and provides “wraparound” access to government programs and community resources.

Some aspects of the program make eminent sense: Each kid is unique. Each kid has special strengths and weaknesses. It makes no sense to march kids through 12 grades in lockstep. In an ideal world, students progress at their own pace, and master prerequisite skills before moving on to a more advanced level. In an ideal world, no one gets a social promotion, everyone learns what they need to learn, and a high school diploma is an emblem of genuine accomplishment.

It is encouraging also to see that ChallengeU is using technology for what amounts to distance learning. Between its online component and its individualized pathways, the program offers a radically different educational model than public schools, or even conventional private schools.

Unfortunately, Richmond-based ChallengeU doesn’t make its budget public, tell us how many kids enroll in the program, or reveal how many kids succeed each year. The “Our Team” page lists two members of executive leadership, one administrative assistant, four content developers, one math specialist, three recruiters and success coaches, and three teachers. That’s a 14-person staff. If the program graduates nine or ten students per year, it’s not remotely economical. If it graduates a couple hundred students per year — students who would have dropped out otherwise — it’s a success. The group publishes no such metrics.

The website lists more than 50 “partners,” including churches, community organizations, community colleges, and career schools. But the website does not say where ChallengeU gets its money, nor does it have a 990 form available online. Conceptually, ChallengeU looks incredibly promising. But the lack of transparency is not encouraging.