“I spent the first half of my career mistakenly thinking I knew exactly how to improve schools,” said Matt Candler, CEO and Co-Founder of 4.0 Schools.
I was struck by his humility and willingness to admit past mistakes, but Candler’s attitude is a reflection of 4.0 Schools’ overarching philosophy. 4.0 Schools, which celebrated its third anniversary in December, is an early-stage education incubator with the unique vision of bringing educators, technologists and entrepreneurs together to encourage collaboration and new ideas. Candler and the rest of the team believe that educators need to admit that the current system isn’t working and start looking for unlikely solutions.
Candler is an experienced education professional who attended the Kellogg School of Management, launched a series of charter schools in the southeast, and served as Vice President of School Development for the Kipp Foundation as well as COO of the New York City Center for Charter School Excellence. He came to New Orleans just after Hurricane Katrina to join New Schools for New Orleans as their first CEO.
A little over three years ago, Candler founded 4.0 Schools. “New Orleans wasn’t thinking about the future. We were only thinking about recovery,” Candler said when I asked him what differentiated 4.0 Schools from his previous work. “4.0 Schools is all about the future of good education.”
In addition to his role at 4.0 Schools, Candler currently serves as the Chairman of the State Charter School Association.
Putting Educators, Technologists, and Entrepreneurs in the Same Room
The idea for 4.0 schools was born out of Candler’s observations of the New Orleans tech and entrepreneur communities. “Coders, involved in hardware and software design know how to iterate and test ideas,” Candler said. “I wanted educators to embrace that outlook.”
He observed the way that technologists got together regularly, discussed ideas, and supported one another. Candler built a similar support network for educators, called ‘Closing the NOLA Gap,’ allowing them to share ideas and techniques, and encourage innovation. Candler wants to advocate for New Orleans as the new education hub, in the same way that entrepreneurs are touting the city as a tech hub.
“There is this widespread belief among educators that you can never take risks in education because you might screw up a child’s life,” Candler said. “But if we don’t take risks, we will never know what could be. And that may be the biggest risk of all.”
Candler’s 4.0 schools is a safe place to propose crazy, uncertain ideas. Like the tech community, 4.0 Schools celebrates a culture of constantly testing new ideas and adapting when they do not work.
What Ideas Has 4.0. Schools Supported Thus Far?
When I asked Candler about 4.0 Schools’ success in its first three years, he immediately mentioned Josh Denson, who came to 4.0 schools with the concept for Bricolage Academy. Bricolage means “created from collected or found objects.”
Denson told Candler that once he had his own children, he realized that some of the models he had been trumpeting for most of his life were not flexible enough for his kids. He decided to create a school that provided that flexibility.
In order to gauge parental interest in his model and to learn about children’s needs he may have overlooked, Josh set up a ‘pop-up’ version of Bricolage Academy. “It was kind of a food truck without the truck,” Candler said. Josh attended community events like Wednesdays at the Square and Jazz in Armstrong Park, set up a table with toys and games from Bricolage, and had conversations with parents about what they and their children need from school.
“He didn’t want to just drop in some school model that didn’t work for the community,” Candler said. “Like 4.0 Schools itself, he wants to lead a national dialogue about what school can be.” But starting new schools is not 4.0 Schools sole focus, so Candler told me about some other successful projects.
“In our first year, we focused on supporting people who wanted to start new schools,” Candler said. ‘As someone who has been starting schools my whole life, I couldn’t quite imagine other ways to improve education.” But with the help of Chapman Snowden, a New Orleans entrepreneur, 4.0 schools gradually expanded its focus to include ideas for improving existing schools.
Snowden is the creator of Kinobi, a platform based off of Microsoft’s Kinect, which allows teachers to share ideas, practice them, and critique one another in real time. In February of 2012, shortly after founding Kinobi, Snowden won one of the top three spots at Start-Up Weekend in New York City. In fact, entrepreneurs from 4.0 Schools have swept the top three spots at Start-Up Weekend for the past three years.
The Future of Education
“As things stand now, parents hope against hope that their children get into one of the very few good schools in New Orleans,” Candler said. “Instead, we want parents to be overwhelmed by multiple great options for all types of children.”