Growing an Education Startup in a Pandemic

College students are the driving force behind Curious Cardinals, an online tutoring platform

| 31 Jul 2020 | 03:46

In a traditional classroom, teachers don’t ask students what they want to learn. This model almost assumes students don’t care about much and limits them from exploring beyond standard subject areas. The education startup I’m working with, Curious Cardinals, does the opposite.

Curious Cardinals is an online education platform run by college students and recent graduates. We offer individualized tutoring and pair students with mentors to develop an independent project. Our seminar style classes connect students from elementary to high school from diverse backgrounds across the United States to discuss everything from Human Behavioral Biology to Mass Incarceration. Each setting sparks passions and liberates students from the pressure of grades.

Growing Curious Cardinals, learning how to teach, and communicating with the team remotely has been a chaotic and invigorating experience.

Audrey Wisch, one of my closest friends, founded Curious Cardinals with fellow Stanford sophomore Alec Katz in March when schools went remote. Concerned about the quality of education younger students were receiving and left with more time, they began tutoring two middle schoolers, Jane and Elise. When Audrey realized how limiting their curriculums could be, she and Alec officialized this tutoring gig. They named it Curious Cardinals. Now, we have nearly 100 students and over 30 employees.

Jane has since analyzed “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson with Audrey, which inspired her to join the Mass Incarceration class. “It felt pretty exciting to find something I was looking forward to learning,” she explained. Jane has thrived in the pressure-free environment. “There’s really no mistakes,” she said.

Jane’s mom Alicia Tranen, whose three kids attend a mix of public and private schools in Los Angeles, is planning to use Curious Cardinals to supplement her childrens’ education this fall. “When I think about it, I’m like, I’m set now. Now that I have the Curious Cardinals, I don’t have to worry,” she said.

When Audrey reached out to me about joining the team in May, I excitedly outlined the class I’m currently teaching called Girl Power: On the Streets and in the Books. I never thought I’d be a teacher, but now I get to mentor younger girls and craft a class I wish I could have taken. The goal is to re-interpret the history of U.S. women’s movements by highlighting the voices that standard narratives leave out. I have my students submit journal entries to raise issues that will influence the class trajectory. As I wrote in my syllabus, “this class is a collaboration.” I want to inspire my students to take control of their education so ranking systems will feel less important than learning about what they love.

A Budding Scientist

I’ve found I can challenge students with material far above their grade level if they care about the topic. Tutoring works best when I combine skills they need to work on with topics that motivate them. I tutor 5-year-old Taylor in reading both Spanish and English. She laughed at the picture books and learned the word “supreme” when we read about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but during the Galileo lesson, she ran to get her Lego telescope, and I knew I was teaching a budding scientist. Since then I’ve focused her readings on basic physics concepts and space. I had her bring a paper airplane to demonstrate the lesson on how planes fly. Now, Taylor will eagerly explain how gravity makes the planets orbit the sun, in two languages. Taylor, like most Curious Cardinals students, is reading above the kindergarten level because she excels in lessons that interest her.

Aside from Alec, none of us have started a business, a circumstance that is both challenging and liberating. We’re busy researching financial models, educational technology and anti-discriminatory pedagogy. Early on, Audrey cold emailed Prep for Prep, an organization that prepares low income students of color in New York City for top independent schools, and built our first partnership. Since then we have been growing our financial aid program.

We don’t feel obligated to follow traditional corporate norms. Rather than a hierarchy, we naturally adopted a horizontal leadership structure. We want our team to communicate and contribute freely. Texting one of the founders with an idea is a good thing!

We bring in guest speakers like Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy and feminist icon Liz Plank to provide expert perspectives and also fellow college students like Darnell Carson, a spoken word poet, to show students that age is no barrier to what they can accomplish.

Since we all believe strongly in our mission, it’s easy to ask guest speakers, parents, and business mentors to take us seriously, and they do. It’s harder to be your peers’ “boss.” Audrey, who is in charge of hiring, often turns down applicants who are older than she is. “It has been awkward at times when I’ve interviewed people who are two, three, four years older than I am,” she said. If their passion doesn’t translate over a Zoom screen, Audrey won’t hire them regardless of age or an impressive resume.

When the founders decided to take off time from college to grow Curious Cardinals full time, I didn’t hesitate to join. Rather than continue my own education in a fractured setting, I wanted to help fix the problems younger students face.

This month, we began planning for fall. Tutoring demand is high. Many parents whose students are not resuming school are gathering groups of their children’s friends to do supplementary classes with us in a setting with a lower student-teacher ratio. Others are looking for after school activities now that many have been canceled. We plan to grow our mentorship program and stay with the same clients long term. The need for imaginative curriculums won’t stop even after the pandemic does.

Come September, the leadership team is moving to California to live in a house we’ve named the Cardinal Crib. Think post-it notes pasted on the walls and 20-something-year-olds sitting on the floor, hunched over laptops, yelling to each other from across the room. If we’ve been able to harness our collective creativity over Zoom and across time zones to get Curious Cardinals to where it is now, big things are sure to happen when we live together.