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A word with Terry Ryan of Bluum

Terry Ryan at his office in Boise. Photo by Celia Southcombe.

Terry Ryan at his office in Boise. Photo by Celia Southcombe.

Terry Ryan is president of Bluum, a project of the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation that will spend $3 million in Idaho this year on education projects around the state.

Bluum creates and supports alternative education models with an emphasis on college and career readiness. Ryan, who has worked in education since 1990, was hired in 2013 to help the Albertson Foundation create Bluum, and the independent nonprofit now has five employees in downtown Boise and a mandate to fulfill the foundation’s goal of “20 in 10,” or 20,000 new high-performing charter school seats in 10 years.

This year, Bluum released a report by the Boise research organization ECONorthwest showing a snapshot of which areas have the greatest need, with the largest population of high-need communities. Nampa was one, and that’s why Bluum is helping the superintendent there to create a charter-like high school there. Other areas identified as targets are the fast-growing Rexburg, Idaho Falls, Twin Falls, near Coeur d’Alene and Moscow, and the Treasure Valley.

The Albertson Family Foundation made education its primary focus in 1997, and officials there said it has donated $700 million since that year, most of it aimed at improving student achievement in Idaho.

Bluum has worked closely with Nampa School District David Peterson. This year, Peterson helped get a law change through the Legislature that allows local school boards to create new “innovation” schools that operate independently from many of the state and local rules that govern schools.  That change enables Bluum to work with superintendents or charter principals to create new assessment standards and new teaching models.

Idaho Business Review spent some time with Ryan learning about Bluum, about the proposed Nampa school, and about Bluum’s plans over the coming decade. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Is Bluum set up primarily to create more charter schools?

No. One thing we’ve been critical of with charter schools is they’re not serving the diverse student body of the districts. And we’d like to see that change. The history of charters on this state was about disgruntled middle class parents saying, “We can do it better.”

With the economics of charters here, if you’re doing a charter you have no money for facilities, so you have to find a place to open it. That results in families having to drive to get kids there, so some selection goes on with access.

Instead of just opening schools where you could afford to open them, this is where philanthropy can help do something where the need is the greatest. This report can help us be more strategic in recommending to Albertson and others where the need is greatest.

So they’re not charter schools?

No. Early on, the idea was that Bluum would be about charter school growth, and that the new schools would be charter schools.

The strategy has evolved to include not only public charter schools but also district innovation schools and private schools. The goal here is to support schools (new or those ready to expand) that have the greatest likelihood of academic and programmatic success. As of May 1, the grants provided by the foundation have supported six charter schools, one district innovation school, and one private school.

They wanted a bolder approach of trying to identify schools with a great leader or great program attached to them, or a model with proven success in other states. We work with innovators who are committed to doing something different.

Why not invest in the existing schools?

Because they didn’t want to keep doing what they have always done. The Albertson Foundation has invested over 600 million dollars into that and feels like they haven’t gotten much return. There’s frustration, frankly. They wanted a bolder approach.

So they said, “Let’s try to identify schools that we can help open. New schools where there is a great leader or great program attached, or that has proven success in other states.” We work with innovators in Idaho like David Peterson who are committed to doing something different. He helped to get the law changed.

How did the new law change things?

Under the new law, charter schools and innovation schools are legally separate and different entities. Charter schools are public schools that are governed by nonprofit school boards. The innovation schools are public schools that are governed by a district school board but have more building-level freedoms and flexibilities than traditional district schools. As of today there are 48 charter schools in Idaho serving about 20,000 students. The first innovation schools in Idaho are allowed to open in the autumn of 2016. Under law up to 10 innovation schools could open in 2016.

What does the difference look like in the classroom?

What’s different is they’re going to use technology in a very different way, in a model called blended learning. There’s not going to be this teacher standing in front directing 30 kids who are all sitting in rows.

This is more of students learning at their own pace, having access to their technology, having access to staff. It’s mastery-based so kids will advance as they actually learn things, rather than being based on years.

It’s also very different in the organizational structure. The school leader will have real authority over the budget, over the hiring of staff, over the culture of the school. It’s different from the traditional way of doing education, where you have a central office and they distribute the curriculum. Here, the school leadership team has real authority over what happens in the building, as long as they deliver. They have a contract with the district that is charter-like. As long as they deliver results they can do their own thing.

How do you measure results?

The go-on rate will be one. Test scores do matter, so we’ll have a math assessment: Are kids making gains over time? Things like graduation rates will ultimately matter. Also waiting lists, financial probity, these are things that are in the contract. If there are more kids who want to go to school, that shows they’re doing something right.

Is Bluum part of the Albertson foundation? How much of your funding comes from the Albertson foundation?

Legally we’re not. I’m going to say 90 percent comes from the foundation. But Bluum is its own 501(c)3, with its own board of trustees.

I’m not speaking for the Albertson foundation; I am speaking for Bluum and Terry Ryan. They are great supporters and friends of what we do, and we wouldn’t be here without them. But they’re not telling us what to do. They trust us, they hired us to help them.

What happened to the Idaho Charter School Network?

When I came in, the Idaho Charter School Network was not really functional. All the board members were charter school leaders. If you want to get into making decisions about who should get grant support, you can’t have that. We had to fire the board members and bring in board members who weren’t personally able to benefit from the grant-making.

It was hard. The ICSN still exists as its own organization, and 10 percent of my time is allocated to that work.

What is the status of the Nampa school?

They have every intention of being approved as one of the state’s first innovation schools. They would open their doors to students in August of 2017. They have a building and are fixing it up.

They’ll start out with 200 students in grades 9-10. They’re going to grow it as charters do, one grade at a time. So then they’ll grow to serve 14 to 18-year-olds. It’s mastery-based, we won’t even have grades; you may have a 16-year-old who is taking half the courses at Northwest Nazarene or wherever.

In Nampa, they visited to see some things going on in Denver, Salt Lake City, Silicon Valley. We said, “Bring back these great ideas, and come up with a way of making this work with your kids.”

Is Nampa Bluum’s primary project right now?

Sage has been another, and the north Idaho STEM school in Rathdrum.  There’s a group called Gem Prep that is opening a school in Nampa and the superintendent of the district is going to be the authorizer. They received a lot of support through the Albertson Foundation and Bluum to grow what they do. There is also a school in Pocatello that is starting to attract investment funding from outside of Idaho, which is exciting to us. We think highly of them.

We’ve worked with the the Albertson Foundation to get grant support to Grace Lutheran high school in Pocatello, and we’re having conversations with the Catholic Diocese about possibly supporting the first new Catholic elementary school in the Treasure Valley in 50 years, St. Ignatius, in Meridian.

We’re not saying, “Go open a school and do what you have always done.”

How much money are you spending on this?

This year we’re spending $3 million on Bluum-recommended projects. Next year it will be at least $3 million.

About Anne Wallace Allen

Anne Wallace Allen is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.