What Can Educators Learn from CollegeU?

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.

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5 responses to “What Can Educators Learn from CollegeU?

  1. re: ” 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”

    Would we ask the same questions of private schools and also hold them accountable the same way?

  2. “Would we ask the same questions of private schools”? This is a tiresome question. We don’t even know if this is a “private” or “public” school — given its list of “partners” it’s more likely the former — but isn’t that lack of transparency the whole point of this post? Of course we should know; transparency and accountability should be demanded of any educational institution.

    Larry, your skepticism may be well earned when it comes to some of the “for profit” private schools out there that take the money and run. But there are many excellent private schools out there also, that by their innovation and success stories keep the public educational bureaucracy on their toes. I think that basic dynamic applies whether you’re talking about a century-old private prep school or a charter school in downtown DC established three years ago. The bottom line has to be, are the kids that graduate actually competent in the skills the school says they have mastered, and, was that achieved at a reasonable cost to the parents. That’s what Jim asked, here.

    If the private competition shines an unfavorable light on the public system, stealing its best students as they “walk” for the sake of a decent education now, not vague promises of “someday,” in classes that challenge the brighter students rather than warehousing them in overcrowded, undisciplined pens where lowest-common-denominator teaching is the rule, maybe the public system will demand the funds and leadership to respond positively. No, I’m not blaming the public school teachers or even their administrators for what they often have to deal with, and we certainly should not let the private schools (any more than public) off the hook for transparency and results accountability — but we need both.

  3. Okay. Fair Point, but I was asking why holding this particular to a particular level of transparency was any different than we’d hold ANY such educational concern – including other “not-public” schools?

    Jim was asking some penetrating questions – and I was asking if we also ask those same questions of other schools?

    I do not recall commentary here in BR – “demanding” transparency and accountability for other-than-public schools so why this one?

    To be clear, I’m no defender of public schools – no matter what. I actually do think they do a terrible job with low income/free-reduced/at risk kids and if other school models can do it more successfully – I’m all for it but when we talk “cost-effective” in that light – let’s have a real apples-to-apples standard. I’m not sure exactly what “cost-effective” actually means. Are we defining it to be what it costs to education “regular” kids and it’s not “cost effective” to spend more on harder-to-educate kids?

    How much SHOULD IT COST to educate those harder-to-educate at-risk kids? Is there an accepted number so that we can say more than that number is not “cost effective”.

    In short – are we all over the map on this?

  4. The story is a good one and the natural tendency is to advocate its wider use. But, after celebrating the successes, Jim is right; there are some deeper questions to ask. The issue of whether we ask those questions of private schools is not relevant in this case.

    The underlying questions are:
    1. How did this program accomplish something that the conventional, public education system was not able to?
    2.What is its success rate? We were told about five successes; what about students who started, but dropped out of this program, as well? How many of those are there?
    3. What is the scale?
    4. How feasible would it be to replicate the program for a larger population of students?

    • Good questions. It would also be interesting to see how many of the program’s resources are used in the classroom versus overhead, both in schools and administrators.

      Fairfax County tries to dodge this question by focusing on the number of school-based employees. Of course, there needs to be more than classroom teachers. Schools need counselors, nurses, extra reading or math teachers as well as a principal and an assistant or two. But every effort should be made to identify and eliminate positions that do not directly provide instruction or support for that instruction.

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