Friday, August 20, 2021

NH: Prenda Just Hit The Jackpot. Who Are They?

 New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu just gave Prenda a whopping $6 million cut of the granite state's pandemic school relief. It's a relatively small slice (the full pile of money is $156 million), but it's notably a larger per-pupil amount than the state gives in normal "adequate aid." So who is Prenda, and what is the money for, exactly?

Prenda is a company riding the new microschools wave. Microschools are the next evolutionary strep in homeschooling. Says the Micro Schools Network website, "Imagine the old one-room schoolhouse. Now bring it into the modern era." Or imagine you're homeschooling, and a couple of neighbors ask if you'd take on their children as well. Or to look at it another way, imagine back to the beginning of a public system, only this time, your system would only include the students and families you wanted to include.

Microschools like to emphasize their modern awesomeness. From the Micro Schools Network site: While no two micro schools are identical, most share several common traits: a small student population, an innovative curriculum, place-based and experiential learning, the use of cutting-edge technology, and an emphasis on mastering or understanding material. The education that micro schools provide is highly personalized."

The microschools movement seems marked by a lot of educational amateur columbussing--the breathless announcement of "discoveries" plenty of people already knew. Again, from the network's website:

Teachers typically guide students’ curiosity rather than lecture at them. Instead of utilizing a fixed curriculum, they integrate subjects that students are passionate about into daily lesson plans and account for each student’s unique strengths, learning style, and existing knowledge.

Because nobody who works professionally in education ever thought of any of those things. Or you can check out a video from Prenda founder/CEO Kelly Smith in which he may tell you ecitedly about how cool it was running his own microschool and seeing students become lively and excited about something they had learned. The microschool movement seems to be very much excited about its discovery of the wheel.

Microschools have plenty of fans. Tom Vander Ark, a techo-reform cheerleader who's been making a living at it for quite a while--he thinks microschools are a Next Big Thing. Betsy DeVos has been sending microschools some love. And Prenda itself got a healthy shot of investment money from a newish Koch-Walton initiative called VELA Education Fund. Headed up by Meredith Olson (a VP at Koch's Stand Together) and Beth Seling (with background in the charter school biz), the board of VELA is rounded out by reps from Stand Together and the Walton Foundation. VELA "invests in family-focused education innovations."

Prenda provides "inspiring adults the tools and structure needed to support the young learners in their lives." A Prenda pod does not include a teacher, but instead uses a "guide." And Prenda reassures you that "caring about people and being passionate about learning are more important than transcripts, certificates and pedagogy." You don't need any of that fancy professional educator stuff. Just a guide with her heart in the right place.

This comes through in all of Kelly Smith's appearances--he comes across as a warm fuzzy kind of guy. What he's not is an education guy. BYU degree in Physics, then MIT for Plasmas and Fusion. He's worked for energy companies doing grid platform management and building analytics. In 2013 he founded Code Clubs of Arizona. He started Prenda in 2016, then in 2018 launched a the first pod "with seven neighborhood kids." He discovered that teaching children is cool. Boom. New business.

I could pull miles of miles of quotes from the Prenda website that are indistinguishable from any actual school (students should see themselves as learners, build confidence and skills, nurture love of learning and creativity, etc). Every human is a natural born learner. They do blended learning (aka, time in front of screens). They do collaborative learning! Personalization! Also, did you know it's hard to teach people who don't want to learn?

Prenda enrolls students in "partner schools," but Prenda and the guide in the pod do the actual educating; it's setup a little reminiscent of the homeschooling charter schools of California, which turned out to be a huge scam. Prior to landing the huge New Hampshire gig, Prenda's reach was not all that amazing. Some charter and online schools--one per state in Louisiana, Utah, Colorado and Kansas. Three "partners" in Arizona, their home base. In Arizona, they attracted the attention of the attorney general with a very lucrative deal with EdKey, operators of the Sequoia online school--Sequoia enrolled the students, Prenda "taught" them (with the aid of guides), and then the two companies split the $8,000 per pupil revenue. 

Prenda has said it wants to be the Uber of education, but that really only makes sense if Uber were a service where the state paid the company and then you drove (or "guided") yourself to your destination. Prenda does exist in a grey area that allows it to escape virtually all oversight. In Arizona, they don't need a charter, don't have to get their curriculum approved, and are not subject to any kind of oversight or audits.

There's no explanation out there of why Sununu decided to spend $6 million on Prenda of all things. Their administration claimed that the microschools "are particularly helpful to students who have experienced learning loss and will thrive with more individualized attention," but when the individual attention comes from a guide with no educational training (but lots of caring) and a computer program, it's unclear how helpful it will be. Last fall they had 400 pods of roughly ten each in action; there's virtually no information about how well these things actually work.

And yet, New Hampshire is handing over a sweet $6 mill in federal dollars. Said Rep Mel Myler (D), member of the House Committee on Education:

Chris Sununu's decision to use federal funds to advance his anti-public school agenda and help a shady for-profit organization, rather than providing public schools the resources they need to prepare for the next phase of the pandemic, could have serious consequences for our teachers and students.

Good luck to the children of New Hampshire.


  1. Prenda is in Colorado, some are authorized by reformer led EdreEnvisioned BOCES. This BOCES was set up as digital BOCES authorizing online schools using K-12 inc. they are expanding into many more “innovative” platforms.

  2. Yes, like really, really caring about the law and protecting people is way more important than years of schooling and passing the bar exam is for choosing a lawyer.