Interviews with Innovators in Private Education - The Objective Standard

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The following are the first in a series of interviews in The Objective Standard with owners or managers of innovative private educational organizations, large and small, including private schools, tutoring companies, and online education providers. The purpose of these interviews is to show the diverse array of private-sector organizations dedicated to providing excellence in education and to indicate how the private market for education meets the real needs of parents and students.

We begin with owners or managers of LePort Schools, Advance Confidently, Academic Earth, Nurturing Wisdom, and Grammar Revolution. (If you’d like to recommend an organization for a future interview, please send a note to [email protected])

LePort Schools, Ray Girn, chief executive officer

TOS: What is LePort Schools?

Ray Girn: LePort Schools is a network of private schools, including preschools, based in Orange County, California. As of fall 2012, we have six campuses, serving nearly nine hundred students from infants through eighth grade. For early education, we follow the Montessori method and run what we believe is the highest-quality Montessori system in the United States. For older children, we use our own in-house curriculum and pedagogy, which we’ve developed and refined over the course of a decade. The program marries advanced academic content, presented in a logical sequence, with practical, essential life skills.

LePort was founded in 2000 by Dr. Peter LePort, a surgeon with a flourishing private practice in Orange County. Dr. LePort became interested in education through his own children and wanted to start a school that would address the many educational issues and needs he encountered while raising them.

TOS: What is LePort’s mission?

RG: The mission of LePort Schools is to help children gain what we call “Knowledge for Life” and thereby to be happy children today and successful adults tomorrow. From a business perspective, we seek ultimately to become the largest private provider of child-care and K–12 educational services in the world.

Knowledge for Life has double meaning. First, it refers to knowledge that is for the purpose of living. The knowledge students gain at LePort is practical—it enables them to understand the world and thrive in life. When students graduate from our schools, they are confident and at home in the world, they appreciate the power of knowledge, and they are able to pursue long-term goals with discipline.

Second, Knowledge for Life means that our students retain what they learn for the rest of their lives. They do not cram facts into short-term memory just long enough to pass a test. They learn in a natural, ordered way that enables them to integrate new knowledge with existing knowledge, a process that is essential to both retention and motivation. Because learning is not a painful process foisted upon them, but an enjoyable process they engage in eagerly, LePort students retain what they learn.

We think all schools should embrace the ideal of Knowledge for Life; and, toward that end, we aim to become a leader among the pioneering few at the vanguard of a coming educational revolution. We want eventually to extend through high school, to open school systems across the country, and to impact the national and international debate about education.

TOS: How would you summarize LePort’s philosophy of education?

RG: LePort’s philosophy of education integrates the better elements or intentions of two traditional approaches, classical and progressive; adds to this an emphasis on practical, life-serving knowledge; and thus arrives at our philosophy of Knowledge for Life.

Classical educators, to their credit, place great emphasis on learning advanced academic content. Many of them appreciate the power of abstract knowledge on human life. However, they often teach in a way that is not engaging for children, such as requiring rote memorization rather than true, integrative learning. Progressive educators, on the other hand, want learning to be experience oriented and engaging; they seek to foster creative thinking and independence, and they claim to develop the whole child. But they tend to downplay or ignore the vital ingredient of content. In our view, both of these approaches fail because neither melds essential content with essential method.

LePort, in contrast, fuses vital content with engaging method. Our program is a core-knowledge program in that it imparts the body of abstract knowledge a child needs for successful adult living. Yet, it’s also an experience-oriented program in that it involves a learning process that is engaging, self-driven, and respectful of a child’s cognitive and motivational needs.

For the younger students—infants, toddlers, “primary” (children ages three to six), and lower elementary—our philosophy centers around and extends the principles developed by Dr. Maria Montessori for early child education. Through extensive work with and observation of young children over the course of many decades, Dr. Montessori induced principles for how best to guide them increasingly to gain independence and engage in a process of self-initiated discovery about the world. These principles include: Children can only learn through making the self-initiated choice to do so, learning is for the purpose of gaining independence (the ability to think, act, and pursue values in the world), learning should be a joyous and natural process that accords with the child’s biological development, and education should be individualized to each particular child.

At the deepest level, our curriculum and pedagogy are influenced by philosopher Ayn Rand’s work in epistemology, including her theory of concept formation and the hierarchy of knowledge. Rand held that all conceptual knowledge is based in sensory perception; that children learn by integrating what they perceive into abstract ideas and principles, which they then integrate into more-abstract ideas, and so on; and that educators, if they are to impart real knowledge to children, must respect this logical order of dependence and teach subjects accordingly. These principles dovetail perfectly with Dr. Montessori’s principles; and, combined, they form the base of our philosophy of education.

How do we implement this philosophy? Let me tell you about a few key aspects to the process. First, we have developed and implemented a carefully crafted curriculum that sequences crucial content in a way that makes it flow naturally and logically from earlier-learned content. This keeps everything tied to reality in the child’s mind, which both fosters retention and keeps the whole process engaging. Second, we focus on the student as an individual, and we customize curricula and programs for each individual student as necessary. If a child is insufficiently challenged in his normal math class, we customize his program or move him up to the next grade’s math class. Third, we are maniacal about motivating students properly and sufficiently; we aim always to cultivate curiosity rather than rely on alleged shortcuts such as stickers or points or grades or other external motivators. And, finally, what pulls all this together are the high-caliber teachers we hire, individuals who combine a mastery of their particular subjects with a coach-like approach to mentoring and modeling proper thinking, good organizational skills, and a pro-effort attitude.

TOS: How would you summarize LePort’s curricula and offerings?

RG: Currently, our primary business is running the highest-quality schools available for children from infancy through eighth grade.

For the youngest students through lower elementary—infants through approximately eight-year-olds—as I indicated earlier, we employ the Montessori method, and her method entails its own curriculum. In conjunction with her philosophy, Dr. Montessori developed an enormous range of concrete, manipulative materials that enable and motivate a child to learn independently, exercise his senses, develop motor control, and grasp and apply concepts and principles in fields ranging from math and science to reading and writing to organizational skills.

Our upper elementary and junior high school programs are not traditional Montessori programs, but we do extend some of the deeper Montessori principles to the upper grades. These principles manifest in different forms as children become more conceptual and abstract in their thinking. Our curriculum here is extremely rich and focuses on math, science, geography, history, literature, and language arts (writing, grammar, vocabulary, and spelling).

As students enter adolescence, they also need coaching on how to deal with new emotional and social contexts, how to remain organized as life becomes more complex, and how to plan further and further into the future. Rather than treating these needs separately, we adopt the Montessori approach of integrating them with the child’s academic needs. Here we see the purpose of education broaden as the child’s needs broaden; thus school is not only about academics, but also about transitioning from being a child to being a young adult and gaining the broad spectrum of skills necessary for successful adult life.

In addition to our standard curriculum, we offer many supplemental programs such as tutoring (for our own students), summer programs, extracurricular activities, “Mommy & Me” classes, parent education, and more. Because they augment and further our mission, we plan to expand such programs over time.

Having invested a great deal in the development of our curriculum, a central long-term goal is for LePort to become a key content provider to the pioneers who are now creating exciting new delivery systems for educational content. Some really great work is going on in educational technology, work that makes possible a level of customization that could not have been dreamed of fifty years ago. I believe, though, that these advances will be wasted if they simply impart the same old stale content. New technology can be an incredible tool if it makes possible the spread of properly conceived curriculum and pedagogy; otherwise, all of those technological developments will have a minimal fundamental impact on education.

Finally, LePort is establishing a rigorous teacher-training program, which we aim eventually to bring to teachers outside of LePort. This program helps inspired individuals develop and hone their abilities to understand and communicate content, to evaluate and connect with individual children, and to grow professionally.

TOS: How can people learn more about LePort Schools?

RG: I encourage everyone to check out our website (www.LeportSchools.com), Facebook page (Facebook.com/LePortSchools), newsletters, blog posts, and YouTube videos. Get on our e-mail mailing lists. If you’re a parent in Orange County, California, contact our schools for a tour and schedule a time to observe in our classrooms.

If you’re a prospective parent in another part of the country and would like to know how you can bring a LePort school to your area, or if you are interested in investing in the organization as a shareholder, e-mail us at [email protected] to find out what opportunities may exist.

If you’re interesting in investing in LePort, or funding joint projects in curriculum, educational consulting, or technology, e-mail us at [email protected] We have investor materials we’d love to share with individuals who share our vision and have the means to support it.

Finally, if you’d like to help bring a LePort education to children who otherwise could not afford it, consider contributing to our financial aid program at www.SupportLePort.com.

Advance Confidently, Jennifer Barnett, owner and tutor

TOS: What is Advance Confidently?

Jennifer Barnett: Advance Confidently is my academic coaching business offering home schooling, traditional tutoring, and consulting for both parents and schools. I work locally in Southern California and nationally over Skype. Although I have worked in a variety of roles in education (a consultant for a private middle school, a summer school teacher for a private high school, and an assistant professor at Haverford College), my focus remains on one-on-one and small group instruction.

TOS: What is AC’s mission?

JB: Ultimately, I’d like to put my line of work out of business by educating enough parents about the standards they should demand from their local schools, public or private, and thus eliminating the need for tutors. But that could take a while. In the meantime, my shorter-term mission is to prepare students to be engaged, active learners in any environment. Oftentimes that means helping them work independently through material that is being poorly taught in a subpar school.

TOS: How would you summarize your philosophy of education?

JB: There is truly no substitute for individualized guidance when a student is working through challenging curriculum and striving to reach his or her full potential. A proper instructor can determine holes in a student’s education, explain new topics clearly, and set a pace that is challenging, yet rewarding. Additionally, a teacher needs to be able to bring education into the child’s real-life, everyday experiences. Whether the child is learning about metaphors in literature or variables in math, the lesson needs to be grounded in the concrete experiences that give rise to the concept in the first place. Only through this type of presentation will the child be motivated to learn the material in a way that lasts not only until the test, but for the rest of the child’s life.

TOS: How would you summarize your services and offerings?

JB: I strive to support both parents and students as they navigate the rather murky waters of today’s education system, and for me that means two things: home schooling and traditional after-school tutoring. I have seen the damage done by public schools and, frankly, also by private schools that need only be better than the local public schools in order to be “successful.” Students come out confused and unmotivated; parents are told that their son or daughter is simply not trying hard enough. Given the pain, frustration, and conflicts that arise from such situations, parents often turn to outside academic help.

For those who choose to home school their children, I provide vital guidance in answering key questions such as: Where do you begin in choosing your course topics and materials? How do you ensure that you are teaching material that is appropriate for your child’s needs? In what way can field trips and enrichment projects add to the wonder and fun of the school year? I also design and teach original, customized curriculum for individual students and small co-ops. For traditional tutoring clients, I work with the students’ set curriculum, explaining topics that might have been brushed over in school and introducing related topics that give students the background and foundation they need to really understand a subject from the ground up. I also help parents become better advocates for their children by educating the parents on what they should look for and insist on at their children’s schools.

I am also happy to announce that I now offer Montessori consultations. After working with older students for the past decade, I recently returned to school to complete my Montessori certification. I have had a wonderful time this past year helping families of young children set up their home environment in a way that encourages exploration, concentration, and independence.

TOS: How can people learn more about your tutoring?

JB: I invite anyone to learn more about me and my services at AdvanceConfidently.com.

Academic Earth, Vernon Wharff, product manager

TOS: What is Academic Earth?

Vernon Wharff: Academic Earth is best described as the Hulu for education. We provide free video course lectures from the world’s top universities on almost every subject imaginable, including standardized test prep such as the SAT and LSAT as well as K–12 subject areas.

TOS: What is AE’s mission?

VW: Academic Earth’s goal is to give everyone on earth access to a world-class education.

TOS: How would you summarize Academic Earth’s philosophy of education?

VW: As more and more high-quality educational content becomes available online for free, we ask ourselves, what are the real barriers to achieving a world-class education? At Academic Earth, we are working to identify these barriers and find innovative ways to use technology to increase the ease of learning. We are building a user-friendly educational system that will give Internet users around the world the ability to easily find, interact with, and learn from full video courses and lectures from the world’s leading scholars. Our goal is to bring the best content together in one place and create an environment in which that content is remarkably easy to use and user contributions make existing content increasingly valuable.

TOS: How would you summarize Academic Earth’s products and offerings?

VW: We provide a platform that makes it easy to watch a university lecture or tutoring video from some of the world’s best teachers for free. We also allow our visitors to connect with universities that offer online and campus-based degree programs. Although you cannot take our free, online courses for college credit, you may apply to these partner institutions in order to enroll in their degree programs.

TOS: How can people learn more about Academic Earth?

VW: People can begin their free online education at www.AcademicEarth.org. We also run an informative blog on the state of online education at www.AcademicEarth.org/blog.

Nurturing Wisdom, Pari Schacht, president

TOS: What is Nurturing Wisdom?

Pari Schacht: Nurturing Wisdom is a private education company I started in 2005 with just me. Today, we have more than one hundred tutors who tutor students in their homes in Chicago and San Francisco. This August, we opened our first school, The Nurturing Wisdom Academy, a private middle school in Hinsdale, Illinois, focused on individualized education.

TOS: What is Nurturing Wisdom’s mission?

PS: Our mission is to create the moments in which students will love learning the most. We believe that if learning is tailored to the student, then it’s fun and successful. That doesn’t mean it’s easy.

TOS: How would you summarize Nurturing Wisdom’s philosophy of education?

PS: Education should be improving every year. Our children should have a better education than we did. Instead, we are experiencing the opposite: The quality of our education has deteriorated over time. The American education system was developed in 1918, and its goal was to produce obedient factory workers and citizens on a mass scale. Students were grouped by age and taught the same subject at the same time at the same pace regardless of their ability. Learning is naturally exciting, but our standardized school system has turned it into something students dread.

In their natural state, children are bright, excited, and inquisitive learners. Children deserve an education designed to foster, rather than suffocate, these traits. At Nurturing Wisdom, we help our students rediscover the joy in learning while challenging them to reach their true potential.

Many teachers in traditional classrooms try to make learning “fun” by using incentives such as prizes or games. While games can be fun, if learning is structured correctly it’s genuinely fun on its own. The fun of learning comes from customization. When students are asked to focus on something that is challenging enough to be interesting but never so challenging that it’s overwhelming, they are in a place we call the zone of proximal development. Learning is easy and exciting in this place.

TOS: How would you summarize Nurturing Wisdom’s offerings?

PS: We tutor students at every grade level and in every subject. Our youngest student is three years old. We tutor students who are struggling or students who are advanced and need to be challenged. We also prepare students for standardized tests such as the ISEE, ACT, SAT, and other tests required for getting into selective high schools and colleges.

Nurturing Wisdom Academy is a private school for students in grades five–eight. In the fall of 2013, we’ll be expanding to include grades three and four. Some of the features of our school: no homework, time for independent projects and passions, and customized education. Our school goes year-round, and we’re still accepting new students. The response to the opening of Nurturing Wisdom Academy has been very positive and supportive.

TOS: How can people learn more about Nurturing Wisdom?

PS: The best way to learn more about Nurturing Wisdom is to check out our website and our blog at www.NurturingWisdom.com. If you’re interested in working for NW, then I encourage you to look at the “Join Our Team” section. We are a growing company, and we’re always looking to hire quality people to meet the demand for our services.

Grammar Revolution, Elizabeth O’Brian, owner and instructor

TOS: What is Grammar Revolution?

Elizabeth O’Brian: Grammar Revolution is an education company dedicated to reviving grammar instruction. We provide grammar materials to classroom teachers, home schoolers, and anyone else who wants to learn or teach grammar.

We use the powerful tool of sentence diagramming in each step of instruction; we teach concepts in a specific, logical order; and we use simple, straightforward language in our lessons.

Our website currently receives an average of ten thousand visits per day; and we’ve helped hundreds of teachers, students, and professionals become competent, confident users of English.

TOS: What is GR’s mission?

EO: Grammar Revolution’s mission is to make grammar fun, easy, and popular. It can be, and it should be. All of my childhood experiences with grammar left me hating and dreading the subject. I didn’t understand grammar. It bored me and made me feel unintelligent. My opinion of grammar changed when a college professor of mine used sentence diagrams and started at the subject’s most basic level. I fell in love with sentence diagramming. After graduating, I taught grammar for several years at VanDamme Academy, a private K–8 school in Orange County, California, and saw firsthand that kids can love grammar.

In spreading a love of grammar, Grammar Revolution also promotes communication skills and confidence. I often hear from customers who say that learning grammar has made them more confident about the way they speak and write. Skeptics can be converted into grammar lovers relatively quickly because the knowledge is so basic, powerful, and practical.

Although the current state of grammar instruction in most schools is feeble, the subject has a rich history, and Grammar Revolution is on a mission to revive it and make it stronger than ever.

TOS: How would you summarize Grammar Revolution’s philosophy of education?

EO: Education should give a child the knowledge and skill he’ll need in order to become a productive, independent, and happy human being. Before a person can take full control of his own life, he needs to understand the world he lives in, and he needs to be able to think. He needs to be able to deal with the world—an ever-changing world—and to see beyond the small details, the momentary, and the conventional. He must learn to guide his life using a big-picture, abstract approach.

If the goal of education is to develop the student’s ability to think and thrive, how then is that goal reached? What must teachers do to reach that goal? They need to teach students certain facts about the world and in a certain way.

In order to encourage real understanding of a subject and interest in it, the teacher must present facts the student can understand. It’s obvious that a lesson in quantum mechanics would be inappropriate for a class of first graders and would put them to sleep. But that happens all the time in education, just to a lesser degree. Students who don’t have the tools to think about a subject won’t think about it. A happy, successful person is typically one who is intellectually curious and who continues to grow. Thinking is a habit of the curious, and it can be encouraged or discouraged. When the focus of education is on ensuring student understanding, students learn to seek understanding. They learn to ask the right questions. They learn to think.

The world is full of all sorts of interesting and important facts, and there are all sorts of valuable and wonderful skills that one might want to spend time developing. But only a few subjects constitute what any and every successful education requires: history, literature, math, science, language arts (including grammar), and the ability to think and write. Once a student is taught the essentials, he will be better equipped to discover more facts and develop more interests and skills.

Language is our tool of thought and communication. And because grammar is the science of language, it is a subject of critical importance. The clarity and precision of the discussion of every other subject depends upon our grasp of grammar. Studying grammar enables one to read grammatically complex work and to write effectively.

TOS: How would you summarize GR’s products and offerings?

EO: Given how powerful and important grammar is, the content of the subject is surprisingly limited and easy to learn. It’s not like other core subjects (math, history, science, literature), which require years of study and dozens of textbooks. Grammar can be mastered before high school. Motivated adults can master it in weeks. The subject does have theoretical fine points that grammarians and linguists can spend years studying, but a solid understanding of how words and sentences work is always within easy reach. Children and adults learn through the same processes, so our materials work equally well for both. Of course, adults will progress much more quickly because they have several advantages, including more experience with language and concepts.

All of our books and programs are suitable for fourth graders through adults. These include:

Get Smart: Making Grammar Fun and Easy Through Sentence Diagramming (Beginner Level)

Do you want to learn grammar the easy way? This online course contains in-depth lessons, sentence diagramming exercises, quizzes, and videos that will turn you into a grammar pro. Whether you’re a teacher, a student, a writer, an editor, a businessman, a parent, or just a person who loves learning, these easy-to-follow lessons and diagrams will engage you and make you a more confident speaker and writer.

Sentence Diagramming Exercises: An Introduction to Sentence Diagramming
(Beginner Level)

If you already have some experience with grammar, these step-by-step exercises will teach you how to diagram the eight parts of speech, independent clauses, dependent clauses, verb phrases, prepositional phrases, gerunds, infinitives, participles, and more. This book includes short, simple lessons and lots of diagramming exercises so you can learn the basics. When you’re done with these exercises, you’ll possess a powerful tool for using and understanding language. You’ll be able to write with clarity, and you’ll actually enjoy grammar.

Sentence Diagramming Reference Manual: How to Diagram Anything (All Levels)

This alphabetized reference book includes short, simple explanations and easy-to-use sentence diagrams of everything you’ll ever want to diagram. It’s the kind of resource you’ll reach for when you’re learning grammar and when you’re a pro who needs a refresher.

Stay Smart: 188 Advanced Sentence Diagramming Exercises (Advanced Level)

Do you already know how to diagram sentences? If you’re looking for a fun, easy way to maintain everything you have learned, Stay Smart is for you. You’ll find more than 188 interesting sentences to diagram as well as extensive review material. Everything you need to stay smart and have fun with grammar is in this book.

Tutoring & Speaking Engagements (All Levels)

We offer one-on-one tutoring for people who like more individualized instruction. We also run teacher training workshops and present courses at schools and conferences.

TOS: How can people learn more about Grammar Revolution?

EO: The best way to learn more is by visiting our website at www.English-Grammar-Revolution.com. From there, you can sign up for our biweekly newsletter, join our Facebook page, subscribe to our Twitter feed, purchase any of our programs, and learn more about grammar and sentence diagramming. Visit us and join the revolution!

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