Education Futures Podcast 17: Bringing Hope to Students with Jamie Maloney of Dream Academy

by Jul 20, 2020

“One of the worst things I’ve ever seen is a 13-year-old [who is] hopeless. They’ve given up. And 99% of the time it’s because they didn’t get the support. They just get pushed aside or pushed along, and they get frustrated and drop out. At Dream Academy, we want to do something different.”

In this episode, TEL Education CEO Rob Reynolds talks with Jamie Maloney, President of Dream Academy, about bringing hope back to students. They discuss how important it is to provide consistent support to students throughout their academic career and not to get stuck in a cycle of the “this is how it’s always been done.”

A Conversation with Jamie Maloney, President of Dream Academy

Full Transcript

Full Transcript

Rob Reynolds: Greetings, everyone. Rob Reynolds here with TEL Education. And I’m really happy to be joined today by Jamie Maloney, the president of Dream Academy in Florida. And I will try to give you any information about that. We’re going to let Jamie share all about Dream Academy, about his vision for education and helping students. But we’re so delighted to have you, Jamie, and I can’t wait to get into the conversation and hear some of your great ideas.

Jamie Maloney: Thanks, Rob. I’m really excited to join you today.

Rob Reynolds: Jamie, I always like to begin, for our audience, with kind of a more personal vision of the person I’m talking to and someone like you, about their own personal journey in not just education, but in life and how you got here and how you ended up at Dream Academy and doing the great things you’re doing. So do you mind kind of just giving us a sense of kind of what that journey has been like for you?

Jamie Maloney: Sure. It’s been an interesting road so far. I’m an MBA. I’m a business guy. I spent 20 years in business focusing on project management for the most part of my career, and decided I wanted to do something a little different and give back a little bit. So I left my business career, went into teaching that was interesting, to say the least, at a public school. And I’ve realized that I really didn’t fit in with the business mentality. So what I did is I left the teaching career and decided to do something on my own. I’m more of an entrepreneur myself, anyway. I’ve always had that mindset. So I decided to help the kids that were being left out in the school system. And that’s what brought me to Dream Academy. I started about three years ago, and it’s really taken off that it’s beaten my expectations.

Rob Reynolds: Oh, that’s terrific. So as you made that transition, Jamie, what did you find to be, maybe, the biggest eye-openers, could be the biggest challenges going from business, getting into the public school, et cetera? What things just really stood out to you?

Jamie Maloney: Well, going into the public school system… I remember when I was a kid, teachers used to be a lot more than just teachers. They were the ones you went to for any type of life help. They were a safe place. They were almost your guidance counselor, your life coach and everything that you needed to succeed. What’s happened over the last 25 years is it seems that the politicians and the bureaucrats have gotten too involved in education, and teachers are so limited now in the public school system on what they can and cannot do. And that caught me by surprise. I wasn’t ready for that. And-

Rob Reynolds: Yeah. You get out of business going into this, and you’re going to start transforming lives as a teacher and have that… We’re back to those old movies where we would see that. And all of a sudden your role has been limited, and what you can do is actually pretty narrow.

Jamie Maloney: Yes. I was actually told, at one point, by an administrator that my job was just to teach. It was to present the curriculum and that’s it, and then there were other people to handle anything else that was going on. Where what I found is I built relationships with the students. And they come to me for a lot of things, but I was told I need to defer all of that. My job is just to teach.

Rob Reynolds: Wow.

Jamie Maloney: And I’ve always been wanting to push boundaries, so I did. And that ended up more conflict with administration, so I decided, “You know what? This isn’t for me. I need to do something bigger and better.”

Rob Reynolds: Wow. Just wow. Yeah. And that’s a challenge all on its own. So when you left and you really started thinking about Dream Academy and what that was going to become, and you wanted a different model, what were your priorities?

Jamie Maloney: I wanted to reach the kids that just didn’t fit in. But it seems at public school, at least my experiences with it, is that they’re forced to teach to the middle, to the average. Because I had one class, 30 kids. Two of them couldn’t read. They just couldn’t read. I taught sixth grade and two of them couldn’t read. And then I had other kids that were excelling, that were some of the smartest kids, some of the most academically gifted kids I ever hit or I’ve ever met. And with that range, you’re almost forced to teach in the middle. What happens when you’re teaching in the middle is the two ends, the really exceptional kids, and the kids that need more help and need more guidance get left out. So I wanted to create something that caught these kids. And I did some research. And at the time, our graduation rate in the county I was in was 78%, which meant 32 out of every 100, which graduating classes were about 200 to 250. That was 60 to 70 kids that just didn’t graduate each year. And to me, that’s a problem.

Rob Reynolds: Yeah. No, that’s a big problem. I always tell people and it’s part of our mission at TEL to provide equitable access to college-level learning. And I tell people the problem we’re really trying to solve, and obviously you are, too, is the problem of hopelessness. Because if you’re one of those 60 some odd kids that don’t go forward, your chance of ever moving forward after that are really slim. You’re going to just go out, get the minimum wage job, do whatever. And you’re going to struggle because you’re barely going to have enough money to have an apartment. You can’t raise the family you want to. You can’t achieve your dreams. You don’t see any upward mobility ever in your life. And at that point, over the years, you become increasingly hopeless. As you and I both know, hopeless people make really bad decisions in life. They have nothing to lose, so they’ll do all kinds of things. And that undermines our society as a whole. So we’ve got to find ways to give everyone a chance to move up. And obviously, that’s what you’re all about, which is really exciting.

Rob Reynolds: So tell me more about Dream Academy. And as you started that, kind of what it is meant to look like? How it works? Let’s get into some of the nuts and bolts of Dream Academy.

Jamie Maloney: Right. Going back to the hopelessness real quick, is one of the worst things I’ve ever seen is a 12-year-old or 13-year-old hopeless. Their future’s done. They’ve given up. And 99% of the time, it’s because they didn’t get the support. A lot of these kids come from broken homes, come from economically challenged homes, and they look to the school to help them. And they just get pushed aside or pushed along, and they get frustrated and then they end up dropping out. So what we tried to do is take a completely different approach at Dream Academy, where we’ll bring a kid in, we’ll assign them a mentor, a learning coach that works with them individually for their entire school career. So at sixth grade, they get somebody teamed up with them and that person follows them all the way through until graduation.

Rob Reynolds: [crosstalk 00:08:11] I like that.

Jamie Maloney: Yeah. We’ve been able to really change attitudes from kids that are hopeless. I think that’s a really good description because that’s exactly what it is. They just lose hope. And we’re able to get them back in, get them caught up, because we’re finding a lot of them have math and reading deficiencies. So we have all the tools in place, especially reading, to get them on grade level or above grade level, so then they start seeing more success in school. And then success breeds success. So as soon as they start doing well, they start getting excited. They lose the hopelessness and actually see a future for themselves. And that’s been our primary goal, is to give these kids hope again. And-

Rob Reynolds: Oh, man. That is amazing, Jamie. And I want to jump in just a second because I love that model of the teacher traveling with that student. And it kind of makes me think, we all talk about instilling this desire for lifelong learning in students at every level. Well, you think about it, that can be kind of hard if a student… And you think about a traditional system, a student has five or six teachers all the time, and then there are five or six new teachers. I think the lack of continuity that happens in the learning life. And so we just kind of live year to year and it’s okay, and then “It’s over. Thank goodness.” But what you’re doing creates this sense of continuity for these kids, that they have this expectation of growth and that relationship and that constant growth that they can take with them even after they leave. I just love that model. I think there are so many powerful things about it.

Jamie Maloney: Yeah. One of the things, going back to kids coming from broken homes, a lot of times it’s not even intentional that a single mother or a single father doesn’t provide the support. They just may not have the time because they’re working two jobs trying to make ends meet, and they’re not there for their kids. So we try and fill that gap as well as the educational side, as well as career planning and how to live an adult life once you get out of school. So our whole mission is to get these kids from where they are today to where they want to be, what their wildest dreams are, and we find the path to do that. And that’s why we got involved with TEL, with the YC Academy, because that gives us a college option, that gives a great springboard for the advanced kids, the kids who want to go to college, get a real leg up.

Rob Reynolds: Yeah. I am so excited to be working with you as TEL working with the Dream Academy. This is what we’re about. And we’re so aligned that we establish the possibility of hope. We start cultivating it. And then we give them avenues for that to continue to grow. And once they get through there, they can be self-sustaining throughout their life. And really, I just love that. So what grades do you serve at Dreaming Academy?

Jamie Maloney: We are K-12, so we’ll get the younger kids. Because we found that a lot of our older kids had younger siblings. We’re already having similar challenges in elementary school. So we started our K-5 program in January. And that’s been our fastest growing part of our program right now, because we’re able to get in and we’re able to teach these kids and focus on the fundamentals. Our elementary program isn’t about everything. It’s about reading and it’s about math. Your two core skills that you need to succeed as you go through your education. We do pepper in the social studies. We pepper in the history, the science, the experimental, but our real focus for the younger kids, especially, is teaching them to read and read effectively and be comfortable with reading and understanding what they’re reading.

Rob Reynolds: Yeah. No, that’s so important. I think about one of the markets, one of the segments that we get inquiries from a lot for our courses are athletes. “Ryan, trying to recover credit. Do something.” And one of the first things we ask… Because to do our courses, you have to have a good reading level. And now you see, you have to be confident reader. And it’s unfortunate, but we have to ask, “Okay,” if the coach calls, “What is their reading level? How can they do that?”. And to your point, we do get the response, sometimes, “Well, they’re pretty weak in that.” And it’s like, how does that happen? How can we allow kids… And how can we tout our schools if we have kids who are now in college or on their way and they can’t read well? What were we doing for 12 years? It’s hard for me to grasp, but I know that it happens. I know all the research around it, but it’s still flabbergasting to me.

Jamie Maloney: Right. That’s probably our biggest challenge. That was my biggest surprise going into public education. I mean, I had two sixth graders that literally could not read. And through the year, I taught world history. And through the year, I just took them aside and taught them to read. This was six, seven years ago, and they still contact me and thank me and say “You made the biggest difference in my life, because once I learned that reading was okay, everything else came so much easier. And I was able to succeed.” And unfortunately what seems to happen in a lot of public schools… And I don’t want to bash the public schools. I think they’re necessarily important component of the education system. But what happens is these kids fall through the cracks and they just get pushed along. And all of a sudden, they’re in tenth grade and they can’t read a book.

Rob Reynolds: Right.

Jamie Maloney: And that’s a huge challenge.

Rob Reynolds: Yeah. And to your point, this is not singling out any one type of school, public, private, et cetera. It’s endemic across our educational system. And that includes all players.

Jamie Maloney: Right.

Rob Reynolds: Because we can find students anywhere who were deficient and got pushed along for whatever reason and were allowed to keep going, and we didn’t give them those basic skills. And that’s what we have to solve, and, obviously, that’s what Dream Academy is about. So I know that you’ve got to have tremendous, as your growth has exceeded your expectations. You’ve got to have tremendous word-of-mouth from parents and even probably older siblings, et cetera, to say, “Hey, this is working. You need to get involved with this.”

Jamie Maloney: Right. That’s been our biggest growth factor. I mean, we haven’t done any marketing, any advertising up until the last month or so. We’ve grown from 17 students to, now, we’re at 125. And it’s been all word of mouth.

Rob Reynolds: Wow. So I know you have a lot of conversations with parents. So what do you hear from them? What gets them excited? What are, maybe, their concerns not about Dream Academy, but in general? And what is that interaction like? And what do you hear from them?

Jamie Maloney: Oh, what’s interesting is there’s a common theme. Their children are just frustrated with school and they’re struggling. And everybody likes to think their kid’s gifted and can do a lot of things. Everybody has pride in their own children. And what we find is it’s just frustration that they’re not getting the support. They’re not getting the extra time. They’re not getting the help that they really need at the school to succeed at whatever school they are. And we get a lot of kids from other private schools, as well. And we kind of flipped the script there, and we go back to the fundamentals. We assess them on their reading. First thing we do is assess them on reading and math. And then we develop a personalized program to get them the grade level.

Jamie Maloney: And that’s become a huge win for us and for the kids, because they’re able to fill all the gaps that they had from wherever they join us. If they’re in high school, they may be great at some aspects, but in other aspects, they just missed it. And they may have missed it in fifth grade, and they’re still confused. So we go back and we fill in all those gaps before we get them moving on moving forward.

Rob Reynolds: No, that’s incredible. So what role, if any, do you expect parents or families to play in that progression?

Jamie Maloney: We try to rely on parents to help motivate, get the kids there, get the kids excited about working. Some situations just aren’t conducive to that, so we take on that role. That’s where we come in with the learning coaches. So we pair up with the kids, and we try and take as much as we can or what the parents need from us to be able to get the kids to where they need to go. So, I mean, there’s varying levels of participation. And a lot of it has to do with their own personal lives outside of school. But our ideal parent is the one that’s there with the kids all the time, helping them along, coaching them along, motivating them. But in today’s world, it’s just not a reality all the time. So we try and fill in whatever gap. We try and rely on the parents for as much as we can. But we also assess their own family situations and the dynamics that are going on there.

Jamie Maloney: So, like I said, we fill in the gaps. We don’t have a lot of expectations per se. We don’t have rules that parents need to do it. We take it all on if we have to. But we try and encourage the parents. We try and teach the parents, as well, “Here’s how you can better motivate your kids.” We have a mental health counselor on staff that’s able to go in, that does family counseling. So we’re able to do that if there’s problems at home or if they just need more motivational factors. Or even the parents, we try and connect with resources that are out there, that can help them. So we try and be a full-service staff for the family to go forward, so they can build the right dynamic for the kids to succeed.

Rob Reynolds: Wow. I love that approach and it kind of makes me think of the debates that are going on in different communities, cities, et cetera, about what schools are doing to get back to open in the fall. I listened in on our local school boards meeting yesterday about the plan for opening our schools up. And I was thinking about, and of course, one of the issues for parents that it shouldn’t be surprising, but under COVID-19 is most of these households that we have in the US are not prepared to have their students at home. And they are, all of a sudden, “Okay. We both work. What are we doing?”. And it’s causing an enormous amount of stress on those family units.

Rob Reynolds: What’s interesting with your model is you’re generally often dealing with families that have already struggled in many ways. And so your typical family, it sounds like it’s already had a lot of struggles with parents having to check out, dealing with some other issues. And now you’re coming and do that. So your model works really well, because with the student with your coaches and your learning coaches in this kind of individualized approach, you’re really able to take on that burden that a lot of families, typically, wouldn’t even be dealing with this stuff now or feeling right now.

Jamie Maloney: Right. And what’s been interesting about this whole COVID-19 situation is, I think, it took everybody by surprise. I mean, that goes without saying. Everybody was shocked and there was an adjustment period there. But we really didn’t miss a beat, because we’re set up to use technology, to leverage technology as much as possible. And I think that comes a lot from my background in the project management world. I did a lot of technology projects, a lot of implementations of different systems, so I saw the power of technology.

Jamie Maloney: So right away, coming to the school, our kids are issued Chromebooks, so they have their own laptop. All of our curriculums, accessible online, so they can do everything. We have all of the tools, the video conference. We’ve got all the tools to monitor and to watch what the kids are doing, to help them along. So when we did have to shut down for a little bit, we were able to just continue what we were doing, just in a slightly different format. And what we do is instead of having a school, I like to call it a learning center, and that becomes the… Now, it can be a daycare for the younger kids, and it becomes a social environment for the older kids. And we pepper in academics around all of that. So [inaudible 00:21:59] both of that will also help parents deal with a lot of their struggles that they have.

Jamie Maloney: Coming up into this year, things are still so fluid. The public schools are coming up with all these plans to go forward. And they’re not really meeting parent needs. And what we’re trying to do is we’re working with our parents and saying, “Okay. What do you need from us to do?” And we’re going to tailor our approach to that. If it’s individualized, if it’s a couple kids at a time, we’ll work through it. We have a location where we’re able to expand very rapidly. There’s a lot of space available. So whatever needs to be done, we can do to support our parents and our families.

Rob Reynolds: No, I know they appreciate that. I really admire it. It’s a customized school solution that is so necessary right now. Unfortunately, a lot of the traditional school models aren’t quite set up for that or thought in those ways. They aren’t even designed mentally for that. And that’s really tough, but that’s exactly the kind of thing that parents, I think, need and I know they appreciate. And I think, one of the things we’re seeing that COVID is doing is it is causing people to rethink not necessarily education, I think I would suggest everybody’s going there, but what we use schools for and the building model. What are these buildings for? Traditionally, we all sit in a classroom, even we do that. But what is happening? We’ve seen at the universities. So where should students be? How should we use virtual versus on-campus, et cetera? And it sounds like you’re really at the forefront of helping design that for people and model it.

Jamie Maloney: Right. And what it’s looking like this year, what our model’s going to be this year is the kids are going to come in when they need help, and they’re going to stay away when they don’t need help. If they’re able to go move along, they’re going to check in with their learning coaches regularly, but they don’t necessarily need to come into the building. But if they need that one-on-one help, then we have some students that are going to be there every day that need that interaction. We also have some parents that need us to watch their kids for the day, so we’re making that available to our parents.

Jamie Maloney: But we’re also giving them the option where you don’t have to come to school every day. You can come every Wednesday, if you want, or you can pick a day, or you can come for a couple hours or whatever it needs. If you’re getting stuck on something, come in. We’ll work with you one-on-one or in a small group setting. And if you don’t need to be here or you don’t want to be here, just continue working remotely. And we’ll keep up with you. And we’ll talk to you. And we’ll video chat you. And we’ll monitor and we’ll share screens with you, and do whatever we need to do to help you progress.

Rob Reynolds: No, that’s great. So as you look out at the broader landscape, and you’ve been a part of it in multiple ways, and now you’re able to, in addition to running Dream Academy, look out at what everybody else is doing and how they’re responding to COVID and just everything’s going in education a day, what gives you hope, just on the broader landscape? A lot of people, obviously, have concerns. They’re negative. But what kind of hope do you see out there?

Jamie Maloney: Well, I had to have a conversation with the head of the School Choice department of our Department of Education in Florida. And we had a real brief conversation, but I think we both came to the conclusion that this isn’t a scary time. This is a time of opportunity. We can make some real lasting changes in our education system if we do this right. There’s a lot of sense of doing things, “We have to do things the same way, because that’s how that’s always been done.” And there’s a camp that thinks that way. And then there’s the rest of us that see, “You know what? Now is an opportunity to make some real change. And let’s do some innovative teaching strategies.” And the Department of Education actually coined this term, is now we’re allowed to do more innovation, because we have to. We have to figure those things out.

Jamie Maloney: And so some of the rules such as seat time, you need to have, in Florida, 955 hours of seat time in the public schools. And that also applies to scholarship students or state voucher students and the private sector. And what they’re doing is they’re saying, “Well, how does that 955 hours really need to work? Do they need to be seated in class for their timeframe? Or can we do some innovative things that’ll still accomplish our goal, but not necessarily be so rigid or be so structured where you don’t have any leeway to get creative?” And so I think a lot of people are looking at those opportunities right now, and that’s what I’m excited about. I’m excited about being able to innovate more and be able to bring more solutions to the table in the world of education. And five years from now, I’m hoping education looks a lot different than it does now. And we need to have the guts to be able to do that.

Jamie Maloney: And some of the challenges that I see are right now, there… And again, I don’t want to slam any specific area, but there’s teachers’ unions that are saying, “Well, we need to do things the same way we’ve always done them.” And I get it, and I understand they’re protecting teacher jobs. They’re protecting these people’s lifestyles. But at the same time, there’s a whole other camp that says, “You know what? The old model doesn’t necessarily work, and we don’t need to keep the old model.”

Jamie Maloney: So I’m hoping five years from now, we have choices. I think the traditional model works great for a lot of people, but then there’s all the ones on the edges that don’t fit that model, that aren’t being serviced right now. And I think we’re able to create programs that are going to be able to service those kids great. And those dropout rates are going to drop. From 80% graduation, it’s going to go up to 90 something. And that should be a goal for everybody in the education field, is to get all these kids through school, so they have hope for the future. As to your point, if they don’t graduate high school, there’s nothing going forward for them, unless they become an entrepreneur, which is going to be very difficult without the educational background. There’s really no options for them out there.

Rob Reynolds: Yeah. No, that’s right and that’s inspiring, because I agree with you. I think, it was like we were trying to farm a piece of land that had just rock hard soil and we didn’t have fancy tools. But what’s happened is because of work of people like you at Dream Academy and others that are looking at different options, different models, alternative models, and COVID that’s caused this disruption, that soil has been loosened up. And we can do new things and grow new crops and try and innovate in ways that we haven’t and have new opportunities.

Rob Reynolds: And I think that’s exactly what we’re going to see. I don’t see, for example, schools going completely back to what they did. I mean, now that, like here in our city, they’re giving parents a choice of you can do traditional on-site, you can do fully virtual or you can do a hybrid model. I don’t necessarily see them going back in 2021 and saying, “Okay. Now, we’re all going to have to be back here.” I think they’re introducing some models that are probably going to stick to some degree or other. And they’re going to have to stay with it, because they’re going to find that a lot of parents kind of like it.

Jamie Maloney: Right.

Rob Reynolds: “We expect you to do that for us again next year.” And-

Jamie Maloney: Right.

Rob Reynolds: … even to the point of enrollment, this is kind of radical. Right? But all of our enrollments here in Norman, Oklahoma this year are online. So that whole thing that’s always traditionally have been of parents going up to the school and doing that, that’s gone there. Everybody’s going to enroll online. Well, I know that sounds silly, but it’s a huge innovation and it’s a disruptor, because that creates new ways of doing things for people. And it’s going to have lasting effects.

Jamie Maloney: Right. You can’t give people something then take it away. And that’s what I’m counting on. That’s what I’m counting on for our growth, is there’s all these options out there. We need to continue. We need to make this the norm, not the exception.

Rob Reynolds: Yeah. No, I totally agree. Okay, Jamie, so as we’re wrapping up, let’s get back to Dream Academy. You’ve had this vision. You’ve got this going. It’s growing. Obviously, word of mouth is strong. Parents and families are really behind this. As you look down the road now as an entrepreneur and as someone now who’s going to keep that vision growing five, 10 years, what’s your dream? Where do you see this going?

Jamie Maloney: Well, one of the coolest things that we’ve been able to do, and this is thanks to TEL and our partnership with TEL, is we’re able to create a three-year high school program. We don’t have kids going four years. We have kids going three years going through YC Academy. They get their selves up to grade level and the reading and the math. They take their basic courses at the high school, and then they move on to college. So I’m looking forward to creating more programs like that.

Jamie Maloney: We’re working on a career-focused one that has internships, that has apprenticeships, that we’re going to turn out kids that are AC technicians or apprentice electricians. And we’re trying to condense this into what is really a three-year program. The kids can take four or five years to do it if they need to, if we need to get them up to speed. But we have this opportunity to streamline the education process, as well. And so what we’re able to do is get these kids that have struggling families at home into the workforce faster, as well. So I’m looking forward to the next five years of that becoming a regular process where we’re able to essentially put kids into our machine and produce successful, viable lifestyles going forward for these kids. And that’s on our focus.

Rob Reynolds: That’s wonderful. Yeah. That’s wonderful. I think we’re all in this. We want to help our students flourish personally and professionally, and you’ve got a great program, a great plan for doing that. It’s really exciting. I can’t wait until I make it out to you, or vice versa, and we’re together in person and explore some of these things in greater depth. But I really appreciate you taking the time today to share with our audience some of the things you’re doing and your ideas, because I know it’ll be inspiring to other people, whether they’re educators, parents, students, et cetera. Because it’s important that people know that it’s not just all crisis out here. There are models where people are really making things happen regardless of COVID or any other crisis and helping students move forward and really helping them achieve their dreams. Jamie, I thank you so much for joining us today.

Jamie Maloney: I appreciate you for having me. I mean, I’m excited. I’m excited for what the future is going to bring.

Rob Reynolds: Me, too. Thanks for joining us, everyone. We appreciate it.

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