July 6, 2020

From Brick-and-Mortar to Virtual School: Embracing Prototyping to Scale

By Transcend

Schools and systems across the nation found themselves having to reinvent summer learning. Phalen Leadership Academies (PLA), whose racial justice and equity-focused approach to school turnaround we featured in this blog a few weeks ago, approached the reinvention of their Summer Advantage program with an R&D mindset. They decided to treat Summer Advantage as a prototype on which they would iterate with a view to scaling into a state-wide and national virtual school in the fall. Through our conversations with CEO and Founder Earl Martin Phalen, we explore PLA’s process, methods, and learnings from prototype to scale. The urgency of this work cannot be overstated. 

“Currently, schools are one of the major systems that perpetuates racial injustice. Attending a failing school almost guarantees a child will not go to college, will not get a job that pays well, and that a child will become an adult who remains living in poverty. PLA breaks this cycle by turning around chronically failing schools and opening up opportunities for children, and the 25 additional learning days we provide through Summer Advantage is one of the many ways we transform schools. Another major racial injustice is how Blacks are portrayed in the media. In addition to our racially diverse staff and curriculum content, we also work to change our children’s beliefs of who they can be so that they can realize their tremendous innate potential.”

-Earl Martin Phalen


PLA started to reach out to families when the Coronavirus crisis happened. We asked, “Are you ok,” but we also wanted to support academic growth, and to support scholars and families in a time of increased homelessness, job loss, housing insecurity, hunger, safety concerns. Our outreach research indicated that these basic needs came first. 

About four-five weeks into the crisis, we connected with our families again, and the question became ‘what will the fall look like?’ Parents said they weren’t comfortable coming back.

We said, “what if we did temperature checks, one-way hallways, closing down music rooms, staff health checks?”

But 37% of families said they still weren’t comfortable with that, for the child’s sake, for the caregiver’s sake or someone in the family’s sake. We have many grandparents taking care of our children and there are folks with a compromised health situation living in the household. Families told us they wanted to stay with PLA, but not in person. 

That’s where the idea of creating a virtual school with the elements of PLA embedded came from–from our community. We thought, let’s give it a try and applied nine weeks ago for a virtual charter in Indiana. Happily, we were approved.


Learning was in our DNA from our get-go. We’ve always had the mentality that there are so many great things happening–let’s try to build off the shoulders of those who have already done it, let’s reduce the learning pain by learning from others’ successes and potholes, and then our own successes and potholes. We learn, we define, we build & borrow, and we test and iterate–and only then do we scale. 

An Entrepreneurial Learning Culture

For example, before we launched our brick-and-mortar schools, Phalen Leadership Academies, we visited 63 other schools. We also read what works and doesn’t work. We drew from academic research, action research, and others’ lived experiences–because we don’t have time to waste; our kids needed us to be great yesterday.

We hire for problem solvers, for people who like to compete, who expect to do well when challenged and are emboldened by challenges. We are an entrepreneurial organization, so we develop that muscle in our people through our culture. Some of our hiring methods can be found here and here.

So when it came time to think about designing a virtual school, we applied the same process. We visited with founders of virtual schools who were incredibly generous and open. They shared their successes and failures which helped us avoid a lot of mistakes.


We already run a program called Summer Advantage which we knew couldn’t be the same this year. In the past it consisted of providing breakfast, morning academics, lunch, recess, enrichment, college campus visits, field trips, and our scholars generally grew by two months instead of experiencing summer learning loss. We thought this year, let’s use Summer Advantage to prototype what a virtual school could look like. 

Tech + Supports

Less than 17% of our families have an extra device and connectivity. We started with tech: Ipads up to Grade 2, Chromebooks for Grades 3-8, and Chromebooks for high school. 

Once we had devices and connectivity for all our scholars, we needed to put in some safety systems and protocols:  kill switches, tracking devices, connect the computers to a server (with trigger warnings for things like guns and inappropriate images). Parents paid a refundable fee of $25 to commit that they were going to do what they were going to sign off to do–that families could use the devices but that scholars would have priority, no negative behaviors, etc. 

Families as Learning Coaches

Then we activated our families. We helped them think of themselves as learning coaches, especially for our younger scholars. Parents/ grandparents/ guardians/ older siblings help with waking up the child and coaching them on getting on line. For the younger students, coaches needed to be present for about three hours a day–not there the whole time, but ready to support. For the older ones,  they only need to be available 1.5 – 2 hours, just to keep checking in periodically, not to be sitting next to them the entire time. A key part of being a learning coach is being available after the morning sessions end so that scholars can share and explain what they learned that day. Here’s one of our second graders describing what this learning coaching can look like with a variety of family members serving in the role:

“It’s hard to get up early, but I like Summer Advantage. My mom wakes me up 30 minutes before start time, but I am good with it because she makes me pancakes and bacon. There’s one pancake still in my desk right now, but I’m too full.  It’s a great start to my learning for the day…My big brother knows how to do times and we worked on it together after the morning time learning about addition. My brother taught me how addition and times are related.”  

-Elijah Ryle, second grader from Phalen Leadership Academy at George H. Fisher School, Indiana

We created a mini-training program to help guide families through this role of learning coach (which for the fall will be more formal with videos, etc.). The learning coach training consisted of topics including: an overview of our daily schedule; how parents/guardians could be most helpful to their children (without doing their work for them); how to log onto our learning platform; and how to contact their teacher if they ran into any challenges.

We quickly learned we had to create a help desk to families deal with three types of problems:

  1. Devices / connectivity
  2. Blackboard (our LMS) problems
  3. Any other kind of problem (running out of food, losing my house, etc.)

This help desk became a scripted process to train folks to respond to requests in English and Spanish.

A Fun Virtual Program with Black Role Models

We then faced the next design question: How do we incentivize kids and parents to sign on punctually and how do we make it fun? We had to take our traditional full-day model and pare it down to a 9 AM – 12 PM program. We used to teach both Language Arts and Math for 1.5 hours each day, but in a remote environment, we quickly realized that wasn’t fun for kids.

We began a guest speaker series every morning: a celebrity or leader of whom 60% were Black men and 40% Black women. Scholars then transition to community time where their cameras are on and they engage in fun community activities. For learning content, every day focuses on one subject. Then the day ends with clubs. Our scholars get to choose their clubs (karate, yoga, calisthenics, African drumming)–all of which make use of materials that are already in the home. For African drumming, for example, scholars are instructed to get a bowl and two spoons from the kitchen.

At first we were worried about the gender balance but then George Floyd’s murder happened. Many of our kids had watched the murder being shown over and over again on TV, which created trauma. By then we were grateful for the strong Black men being showcased in the morning speaker series.  Our speakers have included the number one NBA draft choice Markelle Fultz

Super Bowl winning defensive back Marlin Jackson and safety Ryan Mundy, Obama-appointed district judge Andrew Carter, an Emmy-winning news anchor, two Black female entrepreneurs.

2020 Summer Advantage Inspirational Guest Speakers
  • Marlin Jackson, Super Bowl XLI winning Cornerback Colts Player
  • Ryan Mundy, Super Bowl XLIII winning Safety Steelers Player
  • Drew L. Carter, Obama-Appointed U.S District Judge
  • Markelle Fultz, #1 NBA Draft Pick
  • Coach Alan Williams, NFL Defensive Backs Coach
  • Nikki Jackson, NICU Head Nurse
  • Terra Gaillard, CEO, United Community Supports of Maryland
  • Rubin Psha, III Counsel, Barnes & Thornburg LLP
  • Ione Rucker Ramison, TV Personality & Entrepreneur
  • Darrel “Das” Smith, Celebrity Chef
  • Louis Fouche, Musician on Late Night Show w/Stephen Colbert
  • Ahmed Young, IPS Chief of Staff
  • Raynelle Swilling, Hollywood Television Film writer/ Producer
  • Tye White, Actor, “Greenleaf”
  • Ronald C. Machen, U.S Attorney
  • Kathleen Joann Bradley, First Black “Price is Right” model
  • Dr. Henri Ford, President of the American Pediatric Surgical Association (APSA); Dean of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine

The 1.5 hour learning block consists of 30 minutes of live instruction: I do, we do, you do, ending with a check for understanding.  Scholars are then split into two groups, each taught by a certified teacher. Within the two groups, they’re subdivided again into two groups, where one group works with the teacher, while the other half of the students work on an adaptive learning program, and then they switch. 


  • We need to have adequate bandwidth so we can keep the human connection.
  • When the teacher’s teaching–they can’t see their scholars or they can only see four or five scholars on the side. So we decided that we would buy each teacher a separate monitor so they can see all their scholars.
  • We need to be more intentional about community time activities. We’re developing a set of pillars and expectations on what community time looks like for our scholars and our teachers. 
  • Tech can expose our scholars to leaders from around the world! We realize we can be even more expansive about Inviting in positive role models to deliver hope from around the world. We can be intentional about exposing students to a very broad range of professions and positive role models. We want to bring in lawyers and nurses and a whole lot more.
  • The ability to collect assignments immediately through our adaptive learning platform lets us meet our scholars’ needs much more effectively. 
  • We’re learning how to use breakout rooms much more intentionally.
  • We learned that some teachers who were incredible in the classroom aren’t necessarily great in virtual environments and vice versa: how can we leverage different folks’ strengths?
  • We now know that when we can return to our buildings, we need to activate the power of tele-teaching. Tele-teaching allows one teacher to provide live, synchronous  instruction to all students — half who are in the classroom and half who are remote/at home. We will use Swivl, which enables a camera to follow the teacher while s/he is teaching,  thus providing live instruction to every child. This was a massive breakthrough for us, and now we’ll have 90 inch screens in front and back of any live class so that it can also work for learners both at home and in the classroom. 
  • Some of our best teachers or their spouses have health issues, and we need to design a system to protect them. Tele-teaching allows some of our teachers to teach from home, while a teaching assistant supports students who are physically in class.
  • We learned that for some of our scholars the computer can actually be a safe space–maybe someone in the family drank too much or had a bad day–then the computer and the community that shows up  within its screen can provide support and safety.
  • We now know we have to ramp up the pre-training for our teachers and find opportunities in the virtual learning environment for stand-up meetings and quick reflection and deeper professional development.
  • Connectivity issues–they’re always there. How do we redesign to accommodate them?
  • Our Help Desk also needs additional training to be robust enough to respond to any situation. 
  • We need to expand the languages spoken by our Help Desk attendees, as we currently can accommodate those who speak English or Spanish. 
  • We realize that many people have a belief that virtual learning is a disaster; we need to help people overcome that mindset. We strongly believe that technology can be used as a tool to facilitate human connection and to deliver quality instruction
  • We underestimated the loss and damage rate for the tech when you send it home–we need to build that into our financial/planning models. 
  • We all learned that we need to have more patience.


PLA Virtual is approved state-wide for Indiana–anyone who wants to come can come. We’ve also had a lot of inquiries from districts in other states, and we’re offering ourselves as a contract service to those districts. The students stay in their home district, the teachers stay in that district, but they serve in PLA Virtual. We train them in the model and train them on how to execute the program. We have a very high quality professional development department, and they’ve converted everything to virtual training. We have new teacher onboarding and training, a leadership institute for administrators, a proprietary virtual coaching cycle, and ongoing virtual training for all staff. 

Our learning day in the fall will no longer be three hours but rather full-day. We will still have art, music, STEM, and interactive live instruction in the afternoons. Morning community time will remain, and our Morning Guest Speakers Series will now be on Fridays. And once face-to-face interaction is possible again, we have a plan to have regionally-based field trips, college campus visits and workplace shadow days for our scholars and families.


We’ve learned from our Summer Advantage prototype that In virtual learning, the motivation of learners is key. We have to be incredibly thoughtful about how we intentionally tap into the intrinsic joy of learning–it’s literally about relationships, and particularly with scholars who are significantly behind. That’s what we’re working on now: how to become ever more thoughtful about how you increase motivation.

Earl Martin Phalen is Founder & CEO, George and Veronica Phalen Leadership Academies: While at Harvard Law School, Earl founded Building Educated Leaders for Life (BELL), which grew from a local community service project tutoring and mentoring 20 children to a national non-profit educating 15,000 scholars annually. Frustrated with the quality of schools, though, Earl then founded Phalen Leadership Academies (PLA) in 2013 to help turn around underperforming schools. 


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