When LaTasha Adams brought her toddler to the playground one day, the two of them began chatting in full sentences. Another parent was shocked—wasn’t her daughter just a couple of years old? How was she so articulate?
Adams, a college professor, sensed an opportunity. She wanted to help other parents teach their own kids language and reading skills from an early age. So she founded Dominion Literacy, a nonprofit that offers parents free workshops on building literacy among preschoolers.
When the COVID-19 outbreak began, Dominion had to shift its instruction online. That hasn’t slowed Adams down. With the help of a new fund, she’s planning to expand.
The VELA Education Fund was created this summer by the Walton Family Foundation and the Charles Koch Institute. “Vela” means “light” or “sail” in Spanish, so the name is meant to signify “adventure and exploration.” As a resource for organizations that help families educate their children in innovative ways, it is aimed at organizations that are both experimental and effective. “We’re looking for direct access to parents and entrepreneurs,” explains Marc Sternberg at Walton. The fund was launched with $5 million in total seed funding from the two donors.
VELA’s support for Dominion Literacy is passed through 4.0 Schools, an education-reform incubator that has supported Dominion since the beginning. “We see our mission as to move resources closer to community leaders, young people, families, and educators who have ideas for what the future of school could look like,” says Hassan Hassan, leader of 4.0. His group will be investing $300,000 of VELA funds in 20 to 30 groups this fall, “thinking of immediate needs that might not be met by existing school models,” Hassan says.
In addition to its core audience of preschoolers, Dominion Literacy will use its grant to provide extracurricular literacy coaching to elementary-age children through sixth grade. Adams will organize “parent pods” so mothers and fathers can meet each month to share strategies and create “a learning community” together.
It may launch at an opportune time, but VELA wasn’t created in response to COVID-19. “This started well before,” explains Sternberg, “as did the trends of parent demand for a different experience for kids.” With schools closed by the pandemic, the need for educational innovation has become even greater.
Meredith Olson, in charge of K-12 Strategy at Charles Koch’s Stand Together, says the fund may eventually expand to support groups focused on specific elements of education, or specific regions. The common requirement will be that grantees work closely with families to determine their real needs. “Before COVID, at max 5 percent of students were receiving education in an unconventional way,” she says. “Now nearly all students are receiving education outside of traditional classrooms.”
In a recent poll, more than half of all parents said they would prefer school be cancelled until the spring rather than enduring a jury rig of endless Zoom calls and patchwork in-person instruction. So it’s easy to see why the appetite for alternatives to conventional schooling is so strong right now.
The National Parents Union, one of VELA’s other partners, is a group of parents and education advocates from all 50 states that aims to provide resources to families to creatively address their educational needs. Keri Rodrigues, founder of the NPU, has been participating in a homeschool pod with her own kids. “This is a bizarre moment,” she says. “Parents were told they were too stupid to pick a school for their kids, and that they shouldn’t have choices or options. Flash forward a year, now the choices are all ours.” NPU is fielding funding requests for homeschool pods, parent-support networks, and other initiatives.
As the search for fresh educational choices expands, more students will find themselves with options that would have seemed unlikely just a few months ago. “What we’ve seen in crises in the past, and now in this global pandemic, is that families are forced to innovate to become learning designers really overnight. Some families had resources to do that, and many did not,” explains Hassan. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated efforts “to move resources closer to these families,” and put donors on the side of mothers and fathers hoping to customize a path to knowledge for their children.