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Wildflower selected as a quarterfinalist for $1 million Yass Prize

Wildflower was recently selected as a quarterfinalist for the Yass Prize, a $1 million award given each year to a promising educational innovation. The quarterfinalist selection comes with a $100,000 grant.

Winners are chosen based on alignment with four criteria: Transformational, Outstanding, Permissionless, and Sustainable.

  • Transformational – a radically different approach to education

  • Outstanding – makes a big difference for kids, with significant demand and enthusiasm from families and children and evidence of learning gains and other benefits

  • Permissionless – educators and parents are able to innovate and lead with minimal need for approval from regulators

  • Sustainable – operates through a combination of tuition and public funding, without long-term reliance on philanthropy

Wildflower is a powerful idea and has been selected for a number of awards over the years, including being selected as among the best educational innovations in America by the IDEO prize back in 2018 and recently receiving a grant from the U.S. Department of Education to support the creation of additional Wildflower programs authorized as charter schools. Rarely, though, do the criteria for an award line up as well with the fundamental principles of our work as they do in this case.

Transformational: Wildflower’s vision is a radical departure from typical learning in three ways. First, while our Montessori methods may be more than a century old, only 1% of American children attend a Montessori school. In low-income communities, despite significant interest from families in child-centered learning, access to Montessori is even more limited. The difference between Montessori settings and more traditional classrooms is hard to overstate: Wildflower students attend school in mixed-age classrooms where they have significant discretion to choose their work, to move about, and to communicate with peers and teachers. Second, our one-room school houses blur the lines between school, home, and community by integrating families and community members into the classroom and the school day, in ways that recall the community-embedded rural schoolhouses of the early 20th century and the freedom schools of the mid-20th century. Third, our teacher-led schools offer innovative and coherent educational programs that reflect the passions and experiences of their founders – Afro-centric cultural schools, dual language immersion schools, schools focused on supporting neurodiversity, and so many other models.

Outstanding: At the heart of Wildflower’s approach is a deeply child-centered learning environment that respects the individuality of each child and ensures that children and families alike feel a sense of joy, personal growth, belonging, and partnership. This leads to substantial interest from families in our schools across a wide range of settings – early childhood up through high school, in rural and suburban and urban areas, in red states and blue states, on the mainland and in Puerto Rico. And, research regularly demonstrates that time-tested Montessori methods support children’s academic learning in the short term and their overall well-being and development across many domains over the long term.

Permissionless: Perhaps Wildflower’s area of greatest divergence from the orthodoxy of the moment is the role we save for educators as visionary founders and leaders of educational environments. While Wildflower schools may operate as nonprofit preschools or charter schools or independent schools, at the heart of each school is a pair of Teacher Leaders who dreamed up the school and brought it to life, choosing everything from its location and schedule to its financial model and governance structure.

Sustainable: The Wildflower Foundation provides a range of support to each emerging school including grants and low-interest loans that are funded by generous donors, but all Wildflower schools break even within their first three years and sustainably support their operations without any philanthropy beyond the scholarship funding they may raise from a school’s own families each year. Importantly, Wildflower schools are able to charge less tuition than peer schools while teachers are able to earn more money than they otherwise might, largely because the Wildflower model eliminates so much of the overhead cost of more traditional school models.

While sustainability is a critical component of the Wildflower school model, we will continue to need philanthropic support to start new schools. Most new schools take out a low-interest loan from Wildflower’s Sunlight Loan Fund to support their startup but also need approximately $100,000 in startup grants. Historically, we’ve always struggled to have those grants lined up several years in advance – so that emerging teacher leaders can proceed through the startup journey with confidence. When we can’t get out in front of the need for grants, it slows them down and slows our growth.

If we are selected for the million-dollar prize, our plan is to use it to seed and launch a $10 million national Wildflower startup grant fund – accessible only to teams of locally-based, grassroots education entrepreneurs – to support the creation of the next 300 Wildflower microschools, serving 8,000 more families before 2030.

We’re grateful to the Yass Foundation and the Center for Education Reform for selecting Wildflower as a quarterfinalist, and we look forward to finding out if we move on to the semi-finalist stage (which comes with another $100,000 grant) next week.


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