WeWork’s grand plan to disrupt schools assumes kids want to be startup founders

WeWork, a co-working company valued at $20 billion, started by creating hip co-working spaces to allow entrepreneurs to flourish in a community setting. Now, it’s trying to transfer that philosophy to education, opening a “conscious, entrepreneurial” private elementary school inside its Chelsea, New York City headquarters in September 2018. It will be called WeGrow.

“In my book, there’s no reason why children in elementary schools can’t be launching their own businesses”, Rebekah Neuman, a WeWork co-founder, told Bloomberg. Kids should develop their passions and act on them early, she said, instead of waiting to be “disruptive” later in life.

Neumann and her husband Adam, also a WeWork co-founder, have five kids: their inspiration for WeGrow came in part from scouring the east and west coasts for a school for their children, and coming up short. “We couldn’t find the school that we felt would nurture growth, her spirit as well as her mind”, Neumann was quoted as saying. And so, like many entrepreneurs before them, they decided to start one. “We hope to reimagine the very idea of a classroom as elementary school age children begin to identify their callings and apprentice under employees and members already living that dream”, she wrote in a blog post.

 “There’s no reason why children in elementary schools can’t be launching their own businesses.” A pilot program of seven students is currently running inside a Chabad school in New York City, including the Neumann’s eldest, who is in first grade. The school will embrace experiential (hands-on) learning, so kids will spend at least one day a week on a $15 million farm in Pound Ridge the Neumann’s recently bought. (The kids recently brought back vegetables and started a farm stand to sell them.)

The still-developing curriculum will “meet or beat” state or federal standards, and incorporate mindfulness, yoga, meditation, farming, and farm-to-table cooking, Neumann has said. Technology will be a tool, but not replace the brilliance of teachers, an educational advisor told Quartz (the person has not yet finalized their contract with the school). WeGrow will be private and probably start as a for-profit venture, but may become not-for-profit eventually. It will likely be part of the growing WeWork empire, alongside the housing venture WeLive and gym/spa concept Rise by We, but it may also become a separate operation, the advisor said.

Free to be. (WeWork)

What will differentiate WeGrow from other private, progressive schools, which for a century have focused on experiential learning, celebrating the individual and generally subscribing to the notion that kids can do much more than educators expect of them, is two things. First, WeGrow can tap the expertise of WeWorkers, who rent offices and desks at 52 locations around the world, to act as mentors to cultivate kids’ passions. Second, the school can also serve the WeWork community, so parents can work just a few floors away from their kids. When parents travel, kids can come along and plug into the network of WeGrow schools.

“This is an organization that understands space”, said the educational consultant. “To be able to have schools in other cities, we are well situated to do that; there are strengths here that no one else has.”

WeGrow will be open to anyone who wants to apply (and pay). Tuition is yet to be undecided.

How disruptive is this?

The WeWork duo are not the first to spot a hole in today’s education system. In 2006, the Blue Man Group, an alternative theater troupe, with their wives started the Blue School, pledging to “reimagine education for a changing world” and create a school that kids “don’t have to recover from.” In 2010, a team of seasoned educators, bolstered by $100 million in private equity funding, started Avenues: The World School to teach children who are “architects of lives that transcend the ordinary.”

More recently, Silicon Valley has embraced the need to disrupt education. AltSchool was founded in 2013, with the mission of helping “every child reach their potential.” A year later, the Khan Lab School, built off of the pioneering online Khan Academy, eliminated grades and traditional subjects, running for 365 days of the year on a 9-to-5 work schedule. The school “empowers students to take ownership of their learning”, it says.

 Embedded in each startup is the belief that children are far more unique than schools recognize. Embedded in each startup is the belief that children are far more unique than schools recognize, or at least act upon. There is genius to be tapped and it takes entrepreneurs-working with educators-to harness it. (Also, it takes a boatload of money.)

“These children come into the world, they are very evolved, they are very special. They’re spiritual”, Neumann told Fast Company. “They’re all natural entrepreneurs, natural humanitarians, and then it seems like we squash it all out of them in the education system. Then we ask them to be disruptive and find it again after college.” Her comments echo those of Ken Robinson, whose famous Ted Talk-with some 48 million views and counting-explained how schools and education systems kill children’s creativity. (Robinson sits on the board of the Blue School.)

Here’s what the WeGrow pilot looks like, according to Neumann in Fast Company:

“There’s an 8-year-old child who was working with our brand team, designing shirts and collateral for our farm stand”, she says. “We notice that she has an aptitude for design and a true passion. So instead of just noticing that and then going back to the classroom and strictly teaching geometry, we’re like, ‘Wow, this kid is great. She loves this.’ There’s a member in WeWork who she can apprentice under. That whole art of apprentice-mentor is a lost art and a really critical one to the development of humanity.”

The future is bright

Launched in 2010, WeWork aimed no to just offer fancy co-working space, but to redefine work. Its many mottos talk about fostering a purpose-driven existence that blends work and play, family and community. On top of the “co-living” and gym offshoots, the company recently bought a coding school.

WeGrow’s goal is to have 65 students next fall-with about 10 each in a three-year-old and a four-year-old class and 15 each grouped as kindergarten/first grade, second/third grade, and fourth grade. Its vision of a school where parents are close-they could even have lunch together-is unique, a bit like Patagonia’s efforts to create on-site child care to support working parents and create a sense of community.

But schools are also about helping kids build their own world, rather than co-existing in their parents’ one. The tremendous focus on the individual at WeGrow and other startups seems to to miss a key aspect of schooling, which is its leveling effect: a period when parents and children alike discover what is common and collective among us, in addition to what is truly unique about each child.

 WeGrow talks about educating people “from birth to death.” WeWork’s educational aspirations seem limitless. In addition to putting schools in WeWork buildings around the world, it wants to expand into higher and continuing education, as well as train other teachers. WeGrow talks about educating people “from birth to death.”

But schools are hard. The AltSchool, whose ambitions were limited to K-12 education, thought it could disrupt the content and delivery of education. After it raised $175 million from Mark Zuckerberg and other venture capitalists, CEO Max Ventilla-a former Google executive-said he expected to triple or quadruple the number of locations over the next few years, to roughly 20 schools, while pricing itself below other private options (about $40,000 per kid per year in Manhattan). Pricing turned out to be tricky, and education hard to disrupt: AltSchool announced last week that it would close one of its schools and shift its model to focus on selling its personalized learning technology to other schools (the remaining schools will now be called Lab Schools).

WeWork is aware of the pitfalls of over-ambitious growth projections: it planned to have almost three dozen WeLive locations by the end of this year, according to a 2014 investor presentation published by BuzzFeed. It currently has two.

WeGrow’s educational advisor was quick to say that the company does not share the hubris sometimes associated with Silicon Valley. “There’s a perception that Silicon Valley is hubris-laden, that we know the only way. We are not trying to do that. It’s the idea of learning together and being iterative an starting small”, the advisor said.

“If there a thing that’s difficult, its education.”

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