Today’s schools commonly emphasize standardized tests, grades and scoring, and memorization of facts that they may not need or may soon forget. Studies have suggested that creativity amongst K-12th grade students is declining, and higher educators have even called out today’s education system as one that is “stifling the creative soul of our children.”
On the other hand, three entrepreneurial Georgia Tech recent grads/students saw that employers wanted to hire those with creativity, risk-taking, and problem-solving skills.
Indra Sofian, Garrett Smiley, and Wesley Samples — all of whom have founded revenue-generating, successful startups — are re-thinking education with a new high school alternative called Sora, where students can decide what and how they want to learn. Sora students won’t sit in class or listen to lectures. Instead, they’ll be building video games, working in internships at real companies, conducting science experiments, starting their own businesses — whatever they think will set them on the career path they want to pursue.
When a student enters Sora, they work with the staff to develop a learning plan based on their profile, their interests, and their aspirations.
Classified as a private high school, Sora is pursuing a two-year accreditation process and will follow an accredited homeschool curriculum. Students will have to pass a standardized test in their third year and will graduate with a valid high school diploma.
The three founders plan to handle all the administrative tasks that come along with running a school, and hire industry experts in five core subject areas: science, engineering, arts/humanities, design and English. Their tuition plan changes up the traditional school model as well — Sora families will pay on a monthly basis ($1200 per month, with a discount for a year-long commitment), alleviating the potential financial burdens of private school on the family.
Hear from Sofian as he shares more with Hype about why they are putting their efforts towards education and who they’re looking to fill their first class of 2019.
What is Sora?
Sora is a high school alternative for students ages 13 to 18. Students follow their interests and explore while gaining skills and experience. On day one, students meet with our staff to develop learning plans based on their profile, their interests, and their aspirations. They continue to work with our staff throughout their time at Sora, continuously adjusting their plans and what they want to learn or accomplish. Over time, they build up skills in different areas like math and reading comprehension at their own pace.
Unlike traditional schools, learning isn’t only defined by reading textbooks and taking tests. A student interested in journalism can intern at a local paper, start her own blog, take writing classes, write a paper on the importance of a free press, and anything else that could be relevant to the subject. If they don’t have any particularly strong interests, parents don’t need to worry–students will be continuously exposed to new opportunities, fields and career paths through staff, field trips, speakers, classes, and projects.
Ultimately, our vision is to be the platform for education and bring out the potential in every child in the world.
How’d you get this idea?
We’re all traditional education misfits in some way. Garrett started a charity building water infrastructure in developing countries when he was 13 because he got bored of school. Wesley considered dropping out of school several times and never felt like he was learning anything useful. I personally learned more through my clubs, internships, service work, and independent than I ever did sitting in class.
We all met while we were venture partners at Contrary Capital at Georgia Tech. At first we thought about problems in schools and what we could build to improve them, but after a while we realized that there were way too many problems with existing schools and that trying to change them would have been nearly impossible. So, we stripped out all of our assumptions about traditional schooling and tried to imagine an ideal learning environment. From that, Sora was born.
Please describe the market impact of your product.
Schools haven’t changed in decades. Everyone knows that something is wrong with school, but they usually think schools need better teachers, better equipment, and things like that. No one ever really stops to think about why school is the way it is and imagine what it could be. We want to change the culture so that kids actually like going to school.
We’ve received a great deal of interest in Sora. Most of it is from current high school and college students who wish they could have gone to a school like Sora. Right now we’re focusing on families who don’t exactly think traditionally: the parents are entrepreneurs, the kids are home-schooled, or the kids go to an alternative K-8 school.
How are you measuring success for your students?
Students are required to take a standardized test their 3rd year of the program per accreditation rules. Throughout, we will be assessing soft and hard skills that students choose to learn and are implicitly learned through the program. We are able to measure EQ growth and skillfulness with anything they set out to do.
Who will be working with the students?
We are doing our best to balance real experience with teaching ability when it comes to our staff. For the first school we are hiring industry experts within 5 core subject areas (science, engineering, arts/humanities, design, English) with a meta-cognitive ability to teach the skills that they have learned. When a student has a question with their work, these staff members will collectively have a diverse enough background to be able to directly answer the question or connect the student with a resource or mentor to get that question answered.
In addition to these 5 staff members, the 3 of us will be providing additional support as well as handling administrative tasks. The founding team wants to be as close to the product as possible so we will work directly with the students as well.
What’s your revenue model?
At the moment, it’s just tuition. Unlike most schools, we collect tuition monthly to ease the burden on families and smooth recurring revenue for ourselves. However, there are a lot of interesting opportunities for growth and revenue beyond that. We want to have sponsored projects, where students work on projects for partnered organizations, build and sell educational technology that we use for our school, and work with recruiters on sourcing potential hires in the future.
Eventually, we want to replace tuition altogether with other revenue streams so that we can make quality education affordable to everyone.
What are your advantages over other schools?
To a high school student, I’d say that we’re better because they get to learn whatever they want and have fun while doing it, our staff just guide and support them, and the entire school is just full of people the same age working on cool projects. To a parent, I’d say that your child gets to express their creativity and independence in an environment unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. They’ll get to work on projects with the potential for real impact and gain experience and skills.
On top of that, everything Sora has, from the faculty to the design of the building, is meant to personalize education for your child and help them succeed. Not many schools can say that.
What are you focused on right now?
Right now we’re trying to enroll the class of 2019 at Sora for our initial class of high school-aged students. If you’re a parent that’s looking for a much better educational experience for your child, a parent that believes that your child doesn’t fit in with traditional school, or someone who knows a family that would be interested in enrolling at Sora, contact us.
We’re also planning on starting fundraising for our seed round within a month or two. Once we do that and build our first school, we’ll eventually look to expand to other cities across the country and bring our vision of changing education for the better to life.
Garrett Smiley conducted the interview for this article; Holly Beilin contributed to development.