A Bridge to the Great American Divide

Rethink Partner Michael Walden opens the conference

On March 28th, on a wet and windy New York afternoon, Rethink Education hosted its Fourth Annual Summit at @BlueHillFarms. When we first launched this gathering, it was our goal to bring together limited partners, portfolio companies, and friends from the education world to share experiences and ideas. Each year we have attempted to challenge ourselves and our collaborators to deepen our thinking about the most urgent issues in education. The Fourth Summit, which we dubbed “Education: A Bridge to the Great American Divide,” focused on some of the troubling questions raised during the Presidential election season about our failure to prepare students for either work or participation in the political process.

(Thank you to Christopher Nyren for sparking up the #RethinkEdSummit hashtag!)

Following some opening remarks from Rethink’s managing partners, our programming opened with a presentation from photojournalist Matt Eich (@MattEichPhoto) covering his work on life in rural America. Matt’s compassionate, intimate, raw photographs offered us a glimpse into the lives of the rural poor, both black and white, intertwining moments of daily suffering with signs of hopefulness and the desire to improve. The collection helped set the tone for frank discussion of opportunity across communities in all of America, with particular focus on those populations between the coasts that come under the spotlight during campaign season and often recede back into media darkness shortly thereafter.

After the photo presentation, we offered several panels focusing on education’s role in creating social opportunities. Rethink Partner Michael Walden led a group discussion titled “The New Populism: Can Education Bridge the Divide?” which compared the challenges of rural and urban education. Speakers included Dr. William Hite, Superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia; Dr. Dilara Sayeed, Chief Education Officer of the Golden Apple Foundation, which recruits teachers for both rural and urban districts in Illinois; and Craig Wetzel, a technology-focused teacher at Butler Area Junior High School, which serves a rural district so thinly populated that some students spend three hours a day on school buses.

Dr. William Hite of Philadelphia Schools addresses Dr. Dilara Sayeed of Golden Apple Foundation during the panel

Christopher Grewe, founder and CEO of American Prison Data Systems (a Rethink portfolio company) led a discussion about education in the prison system, opportunities, gaps in access, and its effect on recidivism. The panel, titled “Accessing the Incarcerated,” featured speakers Martin F. Horn, Distinguished Lecturer in Corrections at John Jay College; Dr. Susan Lockwood, Director of Juvenile Education for the Indiana Department of Correction; Amy Lopez, Chief Education Administrator for the Federal Bureau of Prisons; and Anthony Ortiz, a former inmate who spoke passionately about the way in which his own educational experience while imprisoned led to his eventual exoneration. Mr. Ortiz said that when he was imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, he could read at only an eighth-grade level. To win his freedom, he had to teach himself to read and write legal documents.

Nicole Hockley, the Managing Director and Founder of Sandy Hook Promise, gave a powerful presentation titled “Rethink Your Why: Protecting Children From Violence” about her group’s efforts to learn from all communities and educate schools on gun violence prevention and early intervention with troubled students. Nicole, whose son was a victim in the Sandy Hook shooting, conveyed her organization’s goal of avoiding entanglement in the often frenzied politics of gun control: rather, they are working to teach communities how a focus on mental health advocacy and detection of warning signs can help prevent future tragedies.

Alex Rappaport, founder and CEO of Flocabulary (a Rethink portfolio company), hosted a panel discussion about the new realities of the twisted media and how we can recognize reality in the era of “fake news” and “alternative facts.” The program, titled “Critical Filters: Education, Journalism & the Media,” featured speakers John Gable, CEO and founder of Allsides, a news aggregator focused on spotlighting bias within reporting, and Sarah Kendzior, a freelance journalist.

We then heard a presentation by Michelle R. Weise on innovation in higher education. Michelle is the Executive Director of Sandbox Collaborative, the sector-transforming research and development lab of higher education pioneer Southern New Hampshire University. Michelle discussed how SNHU is rethinking every aspect of higher education, from the cost structures to the design of curricula to the measurement of outcomes. Rethink Education and SNHU recently announced a co-branded Seed Fund aimed at providing opportunities for growth to innovative young startups from early childhood through career training. We were thrilled to use the Summit as a platform to introduce this partnership.

Rethink Partner Brandon Avrutin charms the conference goers

Rethink Partner Matt Greenfield moderated a panel titled “Workforce Preparation & Skill Development” featuring Melissa Halfon, Chief Technology Officer and co-founder of Vidcode, a platform for introducing teens and tweens to coding education within the context of their digital lives, and Dr. Rahsaan Harris, CEO of the Emma L. Bowen Foundation, which helps students from underserved minorities launch careers in the media industry. The panel discussed tools and techniques for connecting the passionate interests of a new generation of students to career pathways.

To close out the panel programming, Zach Posner, Managing Director of Learning Science Platforms for McGraw-Hill Education (formerly CEO of Engrade, a Rethink portfolio company sold to McGraw-Hill), led a discussion on “Innovation in Corporate Learning.” Panelists included Gordon Fuller, Global Design & Development Leader for IBM, and Tal Goldhamer, Chief Learning Officer of Ernst & Young. The group provided an overview of the transformation of corporate learning, including on-demand micro-learning, new credentialing tools, and the on-boarding of a new type of seasonal, at-a-distance, part-time worker.

Following the panels and presentations, we shared a delightful meal. As we dined, we were treated to a marvelous and strikingly personal performance by Rosie’s Theater Kids, a stupendously talented group of teens from New York City’s public school system pursuing the arts (considering that they had recently performed for President Obama at the White House, this was quite a step down for these young singers). We were all left in genuine awe of both the performance and the poise of these students, and we thank them for sharing their time with us!

Rosie’s Theater Kids lend their voices to the festivities

Another successful Rethink Summit in the books. In case you missed it in person, we will be back again next spring! Thanks again to Blue Hill at Stone Barns for their diligent support (as well as the juicy lamb and freshly-picked tea leaves).