Philanthropy Roundtable recently sat down with Justin Dent, founding executive director of Outschool.org. Dent and his team are on a mission to ensure that every child, regardless of their economic circumstances, can access an education that allows them to pursue – and be inspired by – their interests. The organization, which is the nonprofit, charitable offshoot of the ed tech company, offers a wide variety of small-group classes and outside-the-box teaching methods. Their work highlights the power of entrepreneurship, linking the nation’s best teachers with students and families most in need of new education options.
The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You lead Outschool.org, the independent nonprofit partner of Outschool, an online marketplace with over 140,000 live, virtual classes. Tell us about the difference between Outschool and Outschool.org, your mission and how the nonprofit came to be.
Dent: Outschool is an online learning marketplace founded in 2016 that offers 140,000 live, virtual classes on every topic imaginable by over 10,000 educators. More than one million children worldwide use the platform for learning and enrichment. Outschool.org was founded in March 2020. Our goal was to ensure learners could have access to Outschool classes, regardless of their families’ ability to pay. Our early priorities were focused on COVID-19 relief for low-income learners, who were disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
Now, we’re focused on ensuring those same learners and their families can access the promise of personalized learning. We’ve developed expertise in helping families and communities overcome financial and information barriers so they can access and design personalized learning programs for their children. Our mission is to provide learners who experience racial and economic marginalization with opportunity and agency to nurture a lifelong love of learning.
Q: Over the last three years, Outschool.org has served over 32,000 students and provided more than $4 million in free classes. Where do you see this reach making the biggest impact?
Dent: Every parent wants to be able to show their child the world and nurture their interests. Unfortunately, for many families that’s a necessity that’s out of reach. Research shows that interest-based learning has a tremendous impact on developing children’s motivation, hope and sense of well-being. Yet, while marginalized parents express a desire to provide their children with out-of-school learning, their children are three times less likely to participate. This gap is a major source of inequity within PK-12 education and our work allows us to make significant progress toward closing this gap.
Second, because of our work in closing the out-of-school participation gap, we’re able to put parents in the driver’s seat of their children’s education. The opportunity to assemble learning experiences for children has always existed for the wealthy but poorer communities have often been told to remain satisfied with the education made available to them. In contrast, our approach trusts families and prioritizes caregivers’ knowledge of their children, values their aspirations and allows them the agency to choose educational options. Our navigation support helps unlock this potential. For example, in a pilot of one of our programs, Outbridge, 80% of families stated Outschool.org “always or often” helped them find resources they need.
Q: Outschool.org is managed as a charitable initiative through the Edward Charles Foundation (ECF). Tell us about this philanthropic partnership and why you chose to structure your work in this way.
Dent: Outschool.org’s relationship with ECF allows us to ensure we are in compliance with all 501(c)(3) standards and financial oversight independent of Outschool.com. ECF offers low-cost financial support such as accounting that enabled us to stand up Outschool.org quickly during the pandemic and accept charitable donations, without having to spend additional resources on incorporation and audits. However, as Outschool.org matures, we are in the process of securing our own independent nonprofit 501(c)(3) status and forming a board of directors.
Q: In addition to virtual classes, which other services are you providing to communities?
Dent: Outschool.org co-designs educational programs with community partners, which include homeschooling co-ops, local and national nonprofit organizations, micro schools and K-12 school districts. Our first program is Class Connect, which offers private, virtual tutoring and specialized enrichment classes leveraging content from Outschool. Class Connect enables learners to experience courses such as coding or Japanese they couldn’t otherwise. All of these classes are taught by high-quality and vetted educators.
Our second program is Outbridge, an online platform designed to help families access and navigate in-person and online educational resources. In Virginia, we are partnering with the state’s Department of Education to bring families Outbridge. Outbridge will ensure Virginia’s COVID-relief microgrant program, which includes up to $3,000 for low-income families to access tutoring and other educational resources, is implemented effectively. It will help families overcome misunderstandings about which expenses qualify, gain more information about local tutors and find peer recommendations and a supportive community.
Q: What are the ongoing challenges or pitfalls for Outschool.org and organizations like yours that aim to address COVID-19 learning loss?
Dent: COVID-19’s impact extended far beyond standardized test score gaps or reading level
discrepancies for low-income families of color. Predating COVID-19 and continuing through today, incremental reforms have left learners and families of color on the periphery of progress. Despite overwhelming evidence that has demonstrated the power of out-of-school learning in providing transformational outcomes for learners and their communities, low-income families remain unable to access these opportunities because public and philanthropic interventions narrowly focus on reading and mathematics. Cross-sector commitment to enrichment and career development learning opportunities would transform outcomes for low-income families of color because their children would be able to identify and pursue their interests, which would also have positive effects toward increasing their performance on more traditional measures of success.
Q: Core to your mission is equal access to quality education. How does your work address equal access and opportunity for all students?
Dent: At Outschool.org, we are working toward a world in which all families and children can access and create learning pathways that reflect their identities, aspirations and beliefs. We understand that our impact as an organization will always be limited by scale, which is why we’ve prioritized working with and supporting organizations across the country who have demonstrated track records of serving learners and families most underserved by the traditional system. Our aim is to show what’s possible when you equip families with the tools, access and agency necessary to personalize an education that meets their learners’ needs and interests.
For these reasons we’re doing the work to support the implementation of microgrants in states like Virginia. With more programs that allow families to explore learning opportunities outside of the traditional K-12 system, we’re hoping that out-of-school learning will receive the same level of attention as in-school learning. With the existence of these types of policies, we are better able to fulfill our mission of making out-of-school learning accessible to all learners, as they enable philanthropic funding we raise to go further.
For more information about this organization or others providing Pathways to Opportunity, reach out to Philanthropy Roundtable Program Director Erica Haines.