Exceptional teacher-entrepreneurs creating Montessori microschools to meet the needs of their community.
Pitch us on your solution
Problem: We are facing an early childhood workforce crisis: lacking access to living wages, early childhood educators are leaving. As a result, a supply-demand mismatch has emerged. This lack of available supply is driving up the cost of available early childhood education and making it inaccessible to low and moderate income families.
Wildflower has designed a scaleable platform to empower teacher-entrepreneurs to launch and lead microschools, creating more access to early childhood education. Educators join as teacher-entrepreneurs. They spend 10 months in an accelerator cohort. Schools are launched with access in mind: ~33% of students pay in full, ~33% pay half, and ~33% pay nothing. Wildflower has built a technology infrastructure that enables teachers to conduct school management and student assessment work themselves. By empowering teachers with management of their schools, they report higher job satisfaction and are able to be paid a sustainable wage, retaining them in the field.
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What is the problem you are solving?
The majority of education investment begins at age 5, despite clear evidence that the most rapid brain development occurs in the first few years of life. As a result, children are lacking access to quality early childhood education.
In the US, 51% of people live in a child care desert, in which there are 3x as many children as there are licensed childcare spots. The impact of quality early childhood education are well documented: it off-sets the sustained toxic stress associated with living in poverty, builds essential cognitive and social emotional skills, and enhances school readiness. Additionally, family impacts are significant: access to consistent, quality childcare enables parents to maintain job stability and overall economic security.
While the need for quality early childhood education continues to grow, the shortage of early childhood educators is at crisis level. Marcy Whitebook of the UC-Berkeley Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, noted: “Child care workers in the US make less than parking lot attendants and dog-walkers. The economics of early childhood in the United States are quite broken.”
Without a change in the system, the gap between the need for early childhood education and accessibility will continue to widen.
Who are you serving?
Wildflower focuses on three constituencies:
Students & families: Wildflower has synthesized what the research demonstrates about early childhood learning and development into a model to deliver these best practices. Wildflower schools leverage child-centered Montessori practices, empowered teachers-entrepreneurs, small microschools, neighborhood integration, intentional diversity, beautiful environments, and data-driven instruction. Schools are organized in three year age cohorts: birth to 2.9 years (infant/toddler) and 2.9 -6 years (primary). Quality early childhood education is made available to middle income families at 25-50% less than comparable private schools, and to low-income families utilizing existing child-care subsidies.
Early Childhood Educators: Exceptional early childhood educators are provided with the opportunity to launch and lead their own school. As a result, they are freed of the bureaucratic burden that many teachers cite as being a source of burnout; they are supported on a career track that encourages professional growth; and they are able to earn a sustainable wage without leaving the classroom.
Communities: Wildflower Schools are built by and for local communities, under the leadership of local teacher-entrepreneurs. Nested in neighborhoods, the schools aligned with many community redevelopment priorities: urban renewal, livable and walkable communities, and voluntary integration.
What is your solution?
Wildflower Schools has built a strong technological infrastructure and operating model to empower early childhood educators to become teacher-entrepreneurs in their communities and create access to early childhood education opportunities.
Exceptional teachers are recruited to Wildflower in the summer. They spend the next 10-12 months in a teacher-entrepreneur accelerator program, ending with the launch of a microschool serving ~24 students in their community. Each teacher-entrepreneur builds an advisory board composed of parents, community members, and other educators.
During the accelerator program, teacher-entrepreneurs work closely with Wildflower Operations coaches to gain access to direct education and scaffolding on topics that may be unfamiliar, such as: financial modeling, reach estate, family recruitment and school licensing.
As a result of being intentionally led by teacher entrepreneurs and an advisory board of families, each Wildflower school is unique, but share common elements:
Montessori Methodology: Wildflower schools are built on the strong foundation of Montessori’s observations about childhood development. A substantial body of research demonstrates authentic Montessori to be one of the very few educational models that makes a lasting impact on young children in ways that matter over the long term. A 2003 meta-analysis of 29 school models found Montessori to be among the top five in terms of student outcomes (Borman 2003). More recently, the largest study yet conducted of authentic Montessori practice in a high-needs public school setting found that Montessori education greatly reduced the achievement hap across the preschool years (Lillard 2017).
Rigorous Assessment: One particular area of innovation is Wildflower’s development of new technology to support teacher observation by embedding sensors in the Montessori environment to track the choices the children make about what to work on, their level of concentration, and their progress over time. Because Montessori methods rely on superhuman observational powers of the teacher to observe and record data, we see these technologies as the key to a new type of synthesis of data-driven and child-centered educational strategies.
Administrative technology stack: We provide all teachers with utilities that significantly reduce administrative burdens, such as admissions and finance, allowing teachers to handle school management tasks that usually require additional staff.
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Where is your solution team headquartered?Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
Our solution's stage of development:
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New business model or process
Describe what makes your solution innovative.
Wildflower is an ecosystem of decentralized, open source Montessori schools, serving children in one-room, multi-age environments, aligned with the Montessori three-year age bands. A growing body of rigorous research shows that authentic Montessori leads to long-term positive impacts on academic and socioemotional objectives as well as closing achievement gaps between low-income children and their wealthier peers. From this foundation we build out several innovations:
1. Wildflower schools are teacher-led, with teachers managing administration. We support Teacher Leaders as they create and lead independently licensed, one-room schools with intentionally diverse student bodies.
2. Our model scales organically based on demand from families and teachers. By providing a platform for harnessing organic energy, Wildflower represents a new way to accelerate growth.
3. Our technology utilities support Teacher Leaders in student observation and school administration. We're building formative assessment into the physical environment and and building network-wide systems to help teachers simplify administrative tasks.
The result is conceptually consistent schools that are child-centered with active roles for parents and a commitment to research and innovation. Crucially, our schools are the right size to avoid obstacles to scaling such as shortages of facilities and administrative leadership talent.
Describe the core technology that your solution utilizes.
There are two critical technologies that serve as the backbone of Wildflower’s model:
* Administrative platform: One of the core challenges that Wildflower solves is placing classroom teachers at the center of the decision-making infrastructure for their schools. This has a host of benefits. However, to make it possible for teachers to lead their own schools, a technology was required to streamline and systematize required management tasks, allowing teachers to administer their schools in ~10 hours per week. Wildflower developed this technological infrastructure to enable the rapid expansion of a large of number of teacher-led microschools.
* Assessment Technology: Wildflower has developed new technology to support teacher observation by embedding sensors into the Montessori environment to track the choices children make about what to work on, their level of concentration, and their progress and challenges over time. Because Montessori methods rely on the superhuman observational powers of the teacher to observe and record data, we see these technologies as the key to a new type of synthesis of data-driven and child-centered educational strategies.
By combining the best of child-driven learning and data-driven instruction, we are building systems and tools to capture data on student activities and progress from the physical environment.
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Why do you expect your solution to address the problem?
Wildflower has created an innovative platform that allows teachers to create and run their own one-room, intentionally-diverse, authentic Montessori schools as social entrepreneurs, and overcomes many of the barriers to scaling quality early childhood education. We do this through the development of new technologies that support micro-school administration, new methods of accessing public funding, and a distinctive culture and set of processes.
While other scalable platforms exist in support of teacher-entrepreneurs, Wildflower is unique among them for its strong Montessori pedagogy and the balance we strike between teacher-autonomy and shared commitment to quality.
With respect to more traditional educational settings, our Montessori approaches continue to be innovative - despite a century of evidence demonstrating the power of the approach.
Wildflower’s overall disruptive potential is realized when our principles are woven together with a network structure of mutual accountability, support, and self-governance. Our decentralized system upholds quality through information transparency and mutual accountability among small pods of schools and a rigorous licensing system. The foundation of our ability to grow is demand from entrepreneurs and families and our model is designed to grow exponentially, and exponential growth would lead to many, many Wildflowers over the coming decades with ripple effects across the early childhood ecosystem.
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In which countries do you currently operate?
In which countries will you be operating within the next year?
How many people are you currently serving with your solution? How many will you be serving in one year? How about in five years?
Wildflower was founded with just one school in 2014 by MIT faculty member, computer scientist, and parent, Sep Kamvar. In 2016, Sep brought on Matthew Kramer, previous Co-CEO of Teach for America, to help build the infrastructure to scale beyond a few schools in Cambridge and expand Wildflower to several thousand schools across the country and across the globe.
We started the 2018-2019 school year as a network of 14 micro Montessori schools led by teachers, together serving 189 children under six. As of June 2019 that number stands at 23 microschools serving ~300 children. Looking ahead, in the 2021-22 school year we anticipate the network growing to 50 schools and in 2022-2023 we anticipate 75 Wildflower schools serving ~1,000 children.
The infrastructure that we have put in place for training, peer-to-peer coaching, administrative, financial, and regulatory support is part of what has enabled our rapid growth. In addition, Wildflower has developed a business model that utilizes braided funding streams to create schools that are intentionally diverse while decreasing the cost of providing the high-quality early childhood education that every child deserves. Additionally, with each new Wildflower school comes the opportunity for teacher-entrepreneurs to be empowered and inspired. With a 95% teacher retention rates, Wildflower is also addressing the critical challenge of retaining high quality educators in the early childhood field.
What are your goals within the next year and within the next five years?
Wildflower maintains a dual approach to making a transformational impact.
First, Wildflower operates as an open source organization. We freely share organizational learnings, technology, and supports with others who are interested in building organizations and schools. We seek to broadly encourage more access to high quality early education for all children.
Second, Wildflower's de-centralized model is designed to scale organically based on demand from families and teacher-entrepreneurs. We have found that the schools themselves are our biggest draw. If it is executed well, a new Wildflower school in a community makes it easier to start other Wildflower schools. This will increase both the demand for and supply of other Wildflower schools in that community. On the demand side, people may walk by and want to enroll their child in a beautiful school in a shopfront or parents from a Wildflower school may organize to initiate another Wildflower school for older siblings. On the supply side, local Wildflower teacher-entrepreneurs that have started a school can help support new teacher-entrepreneurs in launching. For similar reasons, each city where Wildflower schools start make it easier for nearby cities to start Wildflower schools.
This property – of each school making it easier to start more schools – defines an exponential growth process. If each Wildflower school leads to another Wildflower school being started every two years, the total number of schools will double biennially. After 20 years, there would be over 1000 Wildflower schools; after 30 years there would be over 30,0001 .
What are the barriers that currently exist for you to accomplish your goals for the next year and for the next five years?
The first challenge that Wildflower has identified, is the fact that the organization currently relies on philanthropy in the launch of new schools and new regions. Economies of scale arise for Wildflower schools as the network grows in a region. However, the upfront capital needed for the initial schools relative to the small number of students initially served can be daunting for prospective funders. As Wildflower is intentionally designed to enable organic growth, and there is no reason why we would be limited to any given number of schools. We are looking to develop clearer ways for prospective funders to understand that their initial investment in the growth of the local network can unlock exponential impact over time. We are eager to leverage our time in MIT Solve to refining this message as we seek to bring in additional partners who will be critical to the growth of the network.
A second challenge area is in the area of our ongoing technology development. We recognize that technology is a critical element of the support of our current and future teacher-entrepreneurs. In order for teachers to also serve as the administrators of their microschoosl, they need to have access to technology resources that automate and significantly reduce the time required to be spent on administrative tasks. However, this technological development expense does not fit neatly into many current philanthropic frameworks. This lack of available capital has slowed our growth in hiring engineers to continue to develop this technology infrastructure.
How are you planning to overcome these barriers?
Beyond the start-up and training phase, each Wildflower school is self-sustaining on a braided funding model that includes a mix of student tuition fees and child care subsidies. As we continue to build scale in communities and across the country, Wildflower’s financial model becomes self-sustaining. The Wildflower Foundation’s long-term revenue model is to charge each school a network fee which we project will be approximately 4% of school revenue. When we reach a reasonable level of scale in a community, such as 30 schools, the network fees we will generate ~$400,000, half of which will cover the operating cost of regional support and half of which will contribute toward the costs of the center. Once we have ~1,000 schools across the country, the national component of network fees will add up to almost $7 million per year, enough to cover the costs of the central Foundation (which we are designing to scale efficiently through the use of technology).
To address the current technological challenge, we are funding the buildout of our initial platform through philanthropy and expect to fund new technology development initiatives in the future through project-specific grant funding or a technology earned-revenue stream.
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How many people work on your solution team?
We have built a strong team with deep background in core issue areas to accomplish our goals. The Wildflower Foundation currently employs 30 staff, many of whom share roles across the Foundation and in Wildflower schools. Our staff’s knowledge comes from a wide variety of experiences, including managing national education nonprofits, early childhood education, Montessori education, scaling social ventures, software engineering, sensor technologies, and more.
For how many years have you been working on your solution?
Why are you and your team best-placed to deliver this solution?
We have a strong team, with good chemistry and particularly relevant talents to our work.
Scaling social ventures: Matt Kramer, our CEO, led Teach For America as it’s Chief Program Officer, then President, then co-CEO, for over a decade of rapid growth including a 10x increase in fundraising, 4x increase in alumni and 2.5x increase in corps size; before that, he was a partner at McKinsey & Co. serving a mix of educational and financial institutions. Our senior team also includes Cam Leonard leading school supports (previous role: head of Talent Recruitment for Teach For America) and Gannet Tseggai leading marketing, communications and development (previous role: communications director for Domestic Policy Council in the Obama Administration).
Technology: Sep Kamvar, our founder and board member, sold his first company, Kaltix, to Google and became Google’s head of personalization. After retiring from Google, he became a professor of computer science at Stanford and then the head of the Social Computing group in the MIT Media Lab. Our lead technologist, Dan Grigsby, has successfully built and sold three tech startups over the last 20 years.
Montessori: Virginia McHugh, our lead Montessori coach, served as the head of Association Montessori International – USA (the U.S. arm of the organization that Maria Montessori created to carry on her work) for almost 30 years. Angeline Lillard, our Research Director, also serves as the chair of the Early Development Lab at the University of Virginia and is the leading voice on Montessori research in the world
With what organizations are you currently partnering, if any? How are you working with them?
We have developed strategic partnerships with The MIT Media Lab, Transparent Classroom, and the University of Virginia’s Early Development Lab. Our main research collaboration is with the University of Virginia Early Development Lab, led by Angeline Lillard, a leading Montessori researcher and author of Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius. Prof. Lillard’s research group is having human volunteers code the data for the the multi-camera classroom video we've developed for the various inferences we are trying to produce, using protocols that they have already developed. For example, which materials did each student engage with, for how long, with what degree of concentration, etc.. We can then directly compare these human inferences with the inferences produced by our system.
Additionally, in each of our regional hubs, Wildflower forms unique local partnerships with early childhood education organizations, state education agencies, and community organizations.
What is your business model?
The Wildflower business model is designed to create a decentralized network of self-sustaining microschools that open as a result of demand from parents and teacher-entrepreneurs and are uniquely positioned to meet the needs of their local communities.
Schools are started by pairs of teacher-entrepreneurs who pursue the 10-month School Start-up Journey with Wildflower. These teacher-entrepreneurs typically undertake this 10-months of planning and start-up in conjunction with maintaining full-time careers. Once teacher-entrepreneurs have completed the 10-month process of School Start-up, they then apply for a combination of grant funding and 7-year, ultra low-interest loan funding from the Wildflower Foundation. This start-up grant and loan financing typically totals $200,000, which funds expenses such as renovation costs to prepare a shopfront space to be suitable for a school and the purchase of initial classroom infrastructure.
A Wildflower School in a metropolitan area costs ~$350,000 annually to run for 25 students, the bulk of which goes to teacher salaries and rent. This is a total cost of $14,000 per student, well below the charter and district funding in the community. Wildflower Schools are diverse by design, meaning each school seeks to have approximately ⅓ of students who are paying full tuition, ⅓ of students of are middle income and paying a midrange amount of tuition, and ⅓ of the students who are low-income and who are utilizing childcare vouchers to pay for their tuition. Individual WIldflower Schools become self-sustaining organizations within the first three years of opening.
What is your path to financial sustainability?
As the supportive backbone of the Wildflower network of schools, The Wildflower Foundation will charge each school a modest fee (~4% of revenue) to support Foundation efforts such as technology and utilities development and offering shared tools for use across the network.
Until the Foundation reaches financial sustainability, we require philanthropic support and have been very pleased to see the positive way that people are responding to our work. Since the Foundation incorporated in 2016, we have raised over $10 million, however some of our nontraditional efforts such as our sensor technology development initiatives don’t fit in most conventional grantmaking programs. Funding from the Early Childhood Innovation Prize would allow us to continue to prototype and take the necessary time to gain feedback from our Teacher Leaders as we build tools to enhance their entrepreneurship and lighten their administrative burden.
Wildflowers Schools themselves can grow in many different environments and can be independent, public charter, public district, or partnerships with institutions such as churches, affordable housing, universities, and more. We are agnostic to school governance model and seek to maximize the possibilities of serving families where they live and work. Beyond the startup and training phases (when schools are supported by startup loans from the Foundation), each Wildflower is designed to be self-sustaining on public funding or a blend of tuition and direct-to-family voucher funding. Our currently established schools have already demonstrated their feasibility, and many have already reached financial sustainability.
Why are you applying to Solve?
Wildflower has reached an inflection point in our growth and the opportunity to work with MIT Solve would be particularly impactful in moving the organization to our next phase of growth. There are three areas inwhich we believe MIT Solve would be impactful:
Teacher-entrepreneurs are essential to the success of the Wildflower model. As we have continued to have more teacher-entrepreneurs work through the School Start-up Journey, we have recognized the need to further refine the process and to build out supports to will enable their entrepreneurship. Given MIT’s strong entrepreneurial ecosystem, in both research and practice, we believe this is an area where SOLVE could provide significant support.
The shopfront school model is an essential element of Wildflower. However, as we have continued to scale, we have realized that there is a very specific skill set and related real estate relationships that we need to develop as an organization in order to ensure that real estate is not a hindrance to our teacher-entrepreneurs. With MIT’s strong real estate program and status as a leader in real estate education, we believe that this is an area where SOLVE could be supportive.
As we continue to develop our technology platform, access to funding partners who are well versed in the power of technology to enable scale and to empower social entrepreneurs is going to be an essential element of success. We believe that working with SOLVE may help us to refine our focus and our funding prospectus for this audience.
What types of connections and partnerships would be most catalytic for your solution?
If you selected Other, please explain here.
We would find value in expertise across multiple dimensions of our work, including distributed networks and franchising and nonprofit capital structure for school loans. On the technology side, we are facing a classic design challenge whereby we have engineers who can imagine a world of possibilities in how we might capture data, but not necessarily what will be useful for the Montessori teacher, and -- on the flip side -- we are designing for Montessori teachers who have a better grasp on what’s useful, but don’t know the world of possibility of what we can engineer. We’ve been working through this challenge over the past year, with many promising results. Specifically, we could use help around data visualization so that we can make our rich data collection usable and easily understandable for both our teachers and our partners. Finally, we are very interested in connecting with real estate partners to create a more scalable and consistent approach to identifying and securing shopfront real estate in multiple geographies.
With what organizations would you like to partner, and how would you like to partner with them?
There are a number of specific organizations that we would like to partner with to accelerate our impact:
Given our strong focus on enabling teacher-entrepreneurs to launch and lead their own schools, we believe there is an opportunity to collaborate with national leaders in supporting small businesses, including: Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses, Amex Open, and the Small Business Administration. These collaborations may take the form of entrepreneurial education resources, loan financing supports, or access to vendor networks.
With shop front real estate playing a significant role in the work that we do, we have a high degree of interest in partnering with Community Development Corporations and Housing Authorities in the communities in which Wildflower schools operates. Additionally, we are seeking partnerships with national real estate owners and real estate owner associations.
Give the importance of developing a strong technological platform in supporting the ongoing scaling work of Wildflower, we are seeking partnerships with investors and investor networks with a particular interest in supporting not for profit organizations in leveraging technology to enable scale. Specifically, as an organization that is grounded in a robust advice process, we also would be interested in partnering with SOLVE to leverage the public comment platform utilized for SOLVE applications, in the context of Wildflower.
If you would like to apply for the Innovation for Women Prize, describe how you and your team will utilize the prize to advance your solution.
Wildflower would like to be considered for the Innovation for Women Prize. While starting a Wildflower school is not specifically limited to women, to date the majority of teacher-entrepreneurs have been women. For many of our teacher-entrepreneurs starting schools to address the needs of early childhood education in their communities, the opportunity to found and lead a school has a significant impact for them and for their families. Too many of our most exceptional early childhood educators leave early childhood because they are unable to secure a position that pays a living wage. However, within a Wildflower school, teachers are able to receive a living wage to support themselves and their families. The second reason these exceptional professionals often leave early childhood education is a lack of agency in determining how best to serve young people. By serving as both classroom teacher and school administrator, Wildflower teacher-entrepreneurs are able to work closely in partnership with families to craft a learning environment that meets the needs of the children in their care.
If selected for the Innovation for Women Prize, Wildflower would utilize the prize funding to support the organization’s Fellowship program. The Fellowship program is intentionally designed to support teacher-leaders of the global majority in their work through the School Start-up Journey and the launch of their schools.
- Lindsay Hyde Partner, Wildflower Schools