What visionary leaders at ASU Prep Academy, ASU Prep Digital have to say about the future of education

ASU Prep Academy and ASU Prep Digital serves 3,500 students in kindergarten through 12th grade through in-person learning at four Arizona campuses and supports 7,500 K-12 students worldwide through full-time digital education.

Editor’s note: You can listen to Step Up For Students president Doug Tuthill interviewing Julie Young, founder and former CEO of Florida Virtual School who is now deeply engaged with digital education at Arizona State University, here and here.

The nation’s leading education disruptors – proactive individuals who are thinking beyond traditional boundaries – have rallied in recent months around a universal prediction: Families in a post-pandemic world will increasingly be looking for freedom from a once-size-fits-all, single delivery method of education, along with a greater emphasis on blended education, technology, and digital citizenship.

Teachers, many who learned remote instruction on the fly at the start of the pandemic, have taken notice and are upgrading their skills to become more agile as hybrid models become mainstream.

“The choice movement has forced schools to up their game because parents now have so many choices,” said Julie Young, vice president of education outreach and student services for Arizona State University and managing director of ASU Prep Academy and ASU Prep Digital. “If schools don’t meet those students where they are, they have so many options to go elsewhere.”

Young and three members of her staff spoke with reimaginED about their organization’s progress during the past year and discussed emerging trends as the nation continues its transition from pandemic crisis to normalcy.

Bottom line, “normalcy” will look nothing like 2019. Families and educators both are demanding options, which ASU has provided plenty of during the past year. Among ASU’s accomplishments, itemized in a recent video:

  • 3,500 students in kindergarten through 12th grade served through in-person learning at four Arizona campuses
  • 7,500 students in K-12 full-time digital education worldwide
  • 52,000 students served in partnership with other schools across the United States
  • A 98% graduation rate, with 99% enrolling at a college or university
  • Partnerships with 100 Arizona schools and 80 outside the state
  • 14,000 teachers trained in 1,300 schools in Arizona Virtual Teaching Institute
  • Seven new next-generation courses to be offered in 2022
  • A partnership with Google to ensure all course are accessible at low bandwidths

Jill Rogier, the organization’s digital head of school, said retention numbers are top of mind for ASU leaders.

“We’re really pleased a lot of parents came to us during the pandemic, and they’re staying or they’re leaving and then coming back,” Rogier said.

The digital school, which began in 2017 as a high school, last year added grades K through 8 in response to pandemic demand. The on-campus and online schools also partner with Arizona State University to offer early college courses.

Additionally, ASU is partnering with parents who want to continue with learning pods, a trend that came on the scene at the height of the pandemic when many campuses across the nation shut down. Rogier received a lot of requests for pods, mainly from parents of students in lower grades, so ASU worked to facilitate a pilot.

“They want that sense of community,” she said. “The parents want to collaborate and get their kids together. It’s really becoming more than just a pilot.”

Hybrid services, where students spend a couple of days each week on campus and a couple of days online, also remain popular, a trend that is expected to continue.

“I think parents don’t want their kids home all the time, but they like them home sometimes,” said Amy McGrath, chief operating officer for ASU Prep and deputy vice president of ASU educational outreach.

Young agreed. “The hybrid model was the one that parents seized upon,” she said. “I think schools are going to lose kids hand over fist if they don’t have strong hybrid models to offer their families.”

As blended education becomes the norm, a K-20 model that includes college will be the wave of the future, the team agrees. ASU is working with Arizona State to incorporate the college experience by allowing high school students to spend a few days a week taking college classes on the university campus as well as offering on-demand courses for college credit.

“We’re hoping to be a rival of AP,” Young said.

Another trend Young identified is the infusion of digital citizenship in all instruction.

“What we’re seeing in schools in terms of misuse and poor behavior with technology and cybersecurity, I think it’s very much top of mind, she said.

The demand for services has come not only from families. Teachers are also recognizing the need to upskill as blended learning becomes more mainstream.

“The demand level has been pretty intense,” McGrath said. “Immediately, we had 800 teachers that heard about it through the Department of Education’s announcement. We set up a landing page and we kept getting hit over and over with teachers saying, ‘We need help.’”

ASU opened evening and weekend workshops to meet the demand.

“We don’t even really have to market,” McGrath said. “Teachers are just spreading the word.”

ASU is now bringing in alums of the program to do the training.

“We’re trying to take ourselves out of it and be a rich place for teachers to share learning and best practices,” she said. “It’s continued to be very dense and robust, and we’ve got some really great stories about teachers who have felt invigorated again.”

One trend that ASU Digital Prep school leaders hope doesn’t last is the tendency for some educators and administrators to sort themselves into tribes that advocate all-or-nothing approaches to education, with one side pushing all in-person instruction and the other all digital.

“They’re risking alienating parents in the long run,” said Kay Johnson, director of strategic communication for ASU Prep Digital. “We as education leaders and innovators need to push people to stop ‘either this or that’ and adopt ‘both-and’ ways of thinking and how we can have a win-win, because we can.

“One size does not fit all.”