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Gem Innovation Schools Holds Large Promise for Success

Gem Innovation Schools and CEO Jason Bransford win $200,000 as a semi-finalist for the Yass Prize. Follow along the 2023 semi-finalist showcase, where Bransford explains the work him and his team have been doing with learning societies.

The Rise of Learning Societies

By Alan Gottlieb

In the ever-shifting world of school choice, what began as a homegrown charter-school network’s small experiment in microschooling stands out as unique—and as a uniquely promising model for replication.

Gem Prep, a network of seven brick-and-mortar K–12 charter schools in rural Idaho, anchored by a longstanding and high-performing online school, launched an experiment called Learning Societies at the start of the 2022–23 school year. Two publicly funded Learning Societies opened in August 2022, one in the hamlet of Emmett, 30 miles northwest of Boise, with 22 students in grades 1–5, and the other in Lewiston in northern Idaho, with seven students in grades 1–5.

The basic idea is this: Some parents who, for a variety of reasons, hesitate to send their children to a traditional brick-and-mortar school have neither the time, inclination, or temperament to homeschool or to monitor a full-time online program. Learning Societies provide an intimate environment where kids, supervised by professional educators, learn online and in small, in-person groups for six hours a day. Gem Prep leaders describe it as a sweet spot between traditional schooling and at-home online learning. It is particularly well suited to rural areas.

While the inaugural year in both Learning Society locations was filled with challenges, those challenges produced valuable lessons that Gem Prep leaders are confident will strengthen the program going forward, as it expands to new locations and more grade levels.

I spent the Learning Societies’ inaugural year tracking their progress for Bluum, a Boise-based nonprofit that acts as a funding intermediary and local champion of entrepreneurial education ventures. I visited each center twice, once early in the school year and once toward the end, and checked in frequently with teachers, parents, and Gem Prep administrators.

It’s a testament to the underlying strength of the academic program that, even as the Learning Societies struggled with operational and procedural snafus, especially in the first few months, parents stuck with the initiative, with very little attrition.

Though online schools in general have been justifiably criticized for poor academic results, Gem Prep Online stands out as an exception. Thirty-five percent of its students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, more than in the state as a whole (27 percent). Yet Gem Prep Online, with a homegrown curriculum refined over more than a decade, regularly outperforms state averages in student achievement. In fact, in 2021–22, the online school boasted the state’s highest performance on the Idaho Reading Indicator, which is administered to students in grades K–3.