Aug 30, 2019 | Atlanta, GA
If you remember being in high school, you might remember the drudgery of tests, the long hours of doing homework, and spending 8 hours per day sitting in a chair while mindlessly listening to lectures.
For many people, it wasn’t an enjoyable experience. Teens are disengaged in the classroom, the school environment discourages risk-taking and stifles creativity, and parents believe that schools are focusing too much on standardized testing and not enough on subjects students actually find useful or interesting.
That’s why these Georgia Tech grads/students --Garrett Smiley, Wesley Samples, and Indra Sofian-- have launched a different kind of high school: Sora Schools, an online, project-based high school where students get to explore their interests and get exposure to future careers and fields of study.
Students in the school get to decide what they want to learn. In turn, they work with an interdisciplinary team of educators to craft an individualized learning plan based on their interests. The curriculum is largely project-based, with students working on anything from learning how to build a video game to writing their own novel.
“Most high schools today are out of touch with what people actually want or need to learn,” says Smiley, co-founder of Sora Schools and a computer science student at Georgia Tech. “Even when I was in high school, I always thought about how school could be redesigned from the ground up. So when I met Indra and Wesley at Georgia Tech and we came up with the idea for Sora, I jumped at the opportunity.”
Along with an innovative learning model, Smiley says what has enabled Sora to succeed is the technology available for education today.
“Right now, many people have access to the best educational resources in the world through the Internet for little to no cost,” says Smiley. “You can access world-class resources like MIT course material through MIT OpenCourseWare and K-12 educational content through platforms such as Khan Academy and YouTube. Beyond that, software like Zoom and Slack allow us to communicate over great distances much more easily, quickly, and in higher fidelity than at any point in history. At Sora, we’re even working to implement an algorithm that automatically tracks what students know and instantly matches confused students with student experts all at the click of a button. A school like ours wouldn’t have been possible even 5 years ago.”
Students at Sora work together remotely. Daily morning meetings are conducted over Zoom video calls, as well as the meetings with their learning experts and counselors. Students log their projects and work through a documentation software called Notion. Projects can span multiple months and incorporate different academic standards in the classic subjects of math, science, history, English, and foreign languages.
But the curriculum at Sora isn’t just focused on traditional academic topics. It also encompasses financial literacy, ethics, soft skills, and other subjects important to life after school. Students are encouraged to take on internships and work opportunities as part of their education. The program also includes access for students to the Sora Mentor Network, a group of professionals from a variety of fields and backgrounds that serve to inspire and guide students in their professional aspirations.
“The purpose of the program at Sora is to accelerate students to reach their potential,” says Smiley. “We want students to really explore their interests in school. Once they’ve locked in on something they really love, we’ll put every resource we have behind them to help them achieve their goals. They’ll be prepared for college, the start of their career, or whatever else they set out to do once they graduate.”
The team behind Sora Schools includes Smiley and Georgia Tech business administration graduates Indra Sofian, and Wesley Samples.
They recently completed CREATE-X’s Startup Launch, a Georgia Tech startup incubator training more than 40 teams through their Startup Launch Program this summer. The 140 founders on the teams include GT students, alumni, current local business owners, and other university students.
“Even though we had already started Sora prior to Startup Launch, we still found the program enormously helpful,” says Smiley. “The mentorship from our batch coaches was especially valuable. It was through discussions with them in office hours that we made some critical changes in our company’s product and model. Beyond that, we appreciated the community that Startup Launch brought to us--having others going through similar journeys alongside you is strengthening.”
In the future, Sora Schools plans to continue growing their student body and establishing partnerships with startups and businesses for work opportunities such as internships for students