What Is NGLC?
Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) is a respected education think tank that makes financial investments in K-12 and higher education schools that it believes have high potential to change education for the better. From the NGLC website: "Next Generation Learning Challenges accelerates educational innovation through applied technology to dramatically improve college readiness and completion in the United States." They refer to the award winners as "Breakthrough Schools."
When we first heard about NGLC, we were immediately drawn to the idea of applying for a "Wave IV Launch Grant," which was worth $150,000 upfront (paid in May 2014, well before Method would open in August). There was also the potential of being awarded an additional $300,000 in matching funds. Starting a new charter school with an extra $450,000? It was worth looking into.
Perhaps more important than the financial award was the buzz that the recognition would provide. Being labeled as a "breakthrough school" would, as you might imagine, lead to substantial media coverage and local excitement, which would hopefully lead to higher enrollments out of the gate - always a good thing for a brand new school looking for early stage solvency. Plus, from a marketing perspective who doesn't like this type of earned media?
To be sure, we were very excited and optimistic. We began to think of all the cool things the award would allow us to do. And because we didn't like to fail at anything, we didn't consider that an option.
We worked tirelessly for months on our application, all while working full-time in demanding roles outside of Method. My job in particular was very time-consuming and inflexible, leading to lots of late night and weekend work. On November 26th, 2013, we submitted our application. It represented months of research, writing, refining and presentation building. We actually modified the Method model in some cases because we wanted to align to what we felt NGLC was looking for (more on that below). We were very proud of our work, and if I can be bold...it was pretty good.
On January 7th, 2014 we received notification that we were a finalist for the national Wave IV grant. Understandably we were ecstatic. A reward for countless hours of hard work no doubt. But in true Method and entrepreneurial fashion we immediately went to work making the revisions that were recommended in our finalist letter. The revisions were minor, but we spent many, many hours making other enhancements to show how "breakthrough" Method really was. In addition to the minor revisions requested, there were several new forms and reports that needed to be completed now that we were finalists. On January 21, 2014, we submitted our final NGLC Wave IV Grant application.
Sidenote (Lesson Learned): never let an external group or force play too large a role in shaping your vision. In retrospect, we did that with NGLC and it's taken time to redirect back to what our customers really need and want. Method was planned, sketched and tweaked long before we'd even heard of Next Generation Learning Challenges.
Hurry Up and Wait (And Build Like Crazy)
Now the waiting game began. Because the financial award was substantial, and was to be paid in May, it was difficult to ignore the possibilities. While sound financial best practices told us to move forward assuming we wouldn't get the funding, that level of funding would allow us to buy more computers, build a better center, and hire more experienced staff. Most of these decisions had to be made before we would know the outcome of the grant.
Over the next few months, we built Method. We worked long hours polishing and nailing down the details of our model, including daily and weekly teacher schedules, schools days and times, merging online and offline curriculum, and coming up with project ideas to intergate. We interviewed many, many educators and extended some employment offers. We procured two learning center sites (Why 2? I'll detail that in another post), and worked on marketing Method, including building our website among other things. We also completed and returned countless state-mandated reports and worked to procure funding independent from anything NGLC could (would?) provide. It was a busy time. A great time.
And then it came. On April 7th, 2014, we received an email from NGLC. Here it is in its entirety:
On behalf of Next Generation Learning Challenges, thank you again for submitting a Wave IV Launch proposal.
Final proposals were reviewed by a challenge panel of subject matter experts and subsequently by the Next Generation Learning Challenges executive committee. In the end, your proposal was not selected for funding. Please see the attached letter for further details.
Once again, our deepest thanks to you and your colleagues for applying to Wave IV. We hope that you find other resources and that you do succeed, ultimately, in bringing the services you envision to the students you plan to serve.
Along with the email we received an attachment, which was a two-page pdf document. Here's an image of the second page in the attachment (the first was just a thanks for applying and some requisite positive thoughts to soften the blow):
The Decision Letter
I'll briefly address the concerns above because they're important points for our customers (and prospective ones) to understand. We respect the opinions of the grant panelists and in some cases made minor modifications as a result of those opinions.
- Our model was definitely built with organizational efficiency in mind. We’ve seen many promising schools fail because of poor operational models – in spite of some really exciting education models. Our ratios and school size was built based on our own experience and substantial analysis. In short, we’re live now and it’s working very well, in spite of some glitches which are to be expected from a brand new school.
- Having students stay at home for part of the week is a requirement from the State of California for our type of school, and there are numerous examples of schools operating this way with students progressing remarkably well. We believe expecting students to be in the classroom all day every day is old thinking. It’s a focus on inputs rather than outputs.
We make no apologies about trying to be different. There’s room for all kinds of different approaches, and it’s important our prospective customers know what makes us different. All successful companies should be able to identify their "Unique Selling Proposition." Ours is that we do away with old-fashioned factory-based education by merging real world projects, high-end adaptive curriculum, and extra small classes taught by forward-thinking education pros. Basically, a private school education with a public school price. But what's our secret sauce? Our teachers, no doubt.
So that was it. After months of work, waiting, more work, and more waiting, it was final - we weren't going to be awarded an NGLC grant. In addition to less financial resources to start up Method during critical months, we wouldn't be getting exposure that we felt would help lead us to higher enrollments on opening day. This is important, because in Southern California there are more charter schools than any other region in the US - by far - and having a well-respected third party vouching for us would have been an extraordinary boost. And if this seems like a stretch, search online for current Wave IV schools. Many of them were being mentioned in high-traffic ed blogs and were receiving media mentions as "innovators" and "breakthrough schools" long before opening their doors and serving a single student.
In fairness, we believe NGLC is a great organization doing critical things for public education in our country. We need more organizations like it. But what you won’t find on their website are the countless schools who weren’t awarded grants – for one reason or another – who are currently delivering breakthrough solutions in reality. Because NGLC “Launch” grants are awarded before schools even open, it’s impossible to know which schools – with or without grant awards – will actually develop into solutions that make a difference for families and education in general. That’s what makes the grants an investment – there’s no guarantee of a positive return.
What We Did Next
Well, in true Method fashion we did what we always do. Grabbed some Starbucks and went to work. And honestly we've never looked back. While we absolutely remembered some of the panel responses in an effort to genuinely improve our model, we haven't had the time or desire to spend much time looking in the rear view mirror since. In fact, I can only recall one other time after April 7th that the term NGLC was even mentioned, and that was when we (very) briefly entertained the idea of submitting a grant proposal for our 2015 expansion into Los Angeles.
The question could be asked: if you haven't even thought of NGLC since denied denied the grant, why write about it now? It's simple. We learned some valuable lessons from the experience that we continue to benefit from.
What We Learned
What's the point? Well, there are several. Lessons really. Here are a few:
- First, building a charter school takes a lot of work. It takes thousands of hours of hard work, on a volunteer basis, to build a good school. And from our experience with Method, it's been completely worth it.
- Failure is inevitable in everything. But failure's shelf-life is pretty short when you have a vision and work hard to see it through. Look at failure as an inevitable setback on your way to eventual success.
- Learn from these temporary setbacks. Learn what is there to be learned, but never internalize negative feedback as anything other than that. We haven't...and won't.
- Don't let external influences play an unwarranted role in building your vision. Learning from others (such as NGLC panelists in this case) is essential, but don't compromise too much or sell out for a short-term reward.
Thanks to all of those who chose and continue to choose Method Schools. That's the award we actually want. We consider each and every one of you to be a founding member of our movement to provide a powerful private school experience to Southern California students at a public school price (free). Thanks again!