Collaborative Disruption

Photo by Kenneth Acrum
Khotso Khabele and Michael Strong are disrupting the nation’s existing educational model.

They are opening a new school in Austin in the fall of 2014 with hopes that it will eventually transmute education the same way the personal computer transformed communication. Together, they view schools as places for human development, not just student development.

Khabele & Strong Incubator will begin as a pilot program teaching approximately 20 students, most in middle school, but a few in high school as well. Casa de Luz’s Integrity Academy near Barton Springs will share its space with Khabele & Strong until renovation is complete on an existing structure in the urban core that will be remodeled for sustainability.

The collaboration brings a wealth of educator and program-development experience to the table. In 2001, Khotso co-founded a private school in Austin that he helped grow from a one-room school with nine students to enrollment of more than 500 students in 2013.

Between 1994 and 1996, Michael taught Socratic Method training to Montessori teachers in San Antonio at the former Judson Montessori School. Michael co-founded Flow in 2004 with John Mackay, CEO of Whole Foods Market. Flow and its offshoot Conscious Capitalism are engines for encouraging entrepreneurial solutions to world problems. Michael wrote the book THE HABIT OF THOUGHT: FROM SOCRATIC SEMINARS TO SOCRATIC PRACTICE, and he has given several TED Talks, including one in 2011 at Universidad Francisco Marroquín (UFM) in Guatemala on the topic, “Socratic Practice as Disruptive Technology.”

Khotso and Michael agree that traditional schools – public, charter, and private – often do not prepare students for achieving their full human potential. They want to change that. They want to prepare students not just for success in college, but in life as business owners, professionals, and diverse community members who give back.

“I think the test-taking approach in this country is flawed because it attempts to get students to demonstrate academic proficiency at the expense of forgetting the source, cognitive development,” says Khotso.

Michael adds, “In other countries, like African countries, kids are given much more responsibility at age 12 and 13. We will be integrating those expectations of traditional cultures.”

Here’s their approach:

  1. Teach students Advanced Placement (AP) level material through the Socratic Method beginning in middle school, so that they understand context that makes the study material relevant to their lives and so they master early-on Standardized Aptitude Test (SAT) cultural concepts in case they later choose to apply for college. (The Socratic Method involves asking the student questions to draw out their answers and is often used in law schools.)
  2. Teach students about building brands around their personal interests and marketing those brands so they can demonstrate amazing talent or accomplishments, whether while applying for college or while pursuing business or professional endeavors directly after high school.
  3. Teach students to value culture and give back to communities by requiring each school project to provide at least some direct benefit to others.

You can have perfect facilities and the best establishment and lack culture. Conversely, you can have few facilities and materials and have culture. Culture is reverence, inspiration and love…

Khotso and Michael’s classroom innovation includes enabling students to process large chunks of information more quickly so they can begin using the information to build projects that will advance their personal goals. Students will use a cloud-based program, trails.by, through which they are connected to a collection of quality resources on any given topic. Instead of having to search for, sift through and read everything about a topic (much of which will likely be discarded as not useful), the student accesses an expert-compiled treasury—biographies, reports, schematics, art, films, albums, whatever is relevant.

Michael attributes to Khotso the ability to create the type of inspirational culture that may not arise spontaneously in educational settings.

“What sort of culture you establish is key,” Khotso says. “You can have perfect facilities and the best establishment and lack culture. Conversely, you can have few facilities and materials and have culture. Culture is reverence, inspiration and love. Reverence includes respect, accountability and follow-through. Love is having a sense of trust and safety and connection so that we can then talk about making a difference in the world and deal with big ideas and trying to work them out.”

In addition to their agreement on the importance of schools as educators of people and not just “students,” Khotso and Michael share other commonalities: They are both fathers, both have ties to Africa, and they both previously helped create successful schools from which time came to move on.

Khotso was born in Lesotho, Southern Africa. His mother, Austinite Joan Khabele, 71, met Khotso’s father while living in Southern Africa for three decades. Before leaving Austin, Joan participated in swim-ins in 1960 to protest an Austin rule disallowing Black people from swimming in Barton Springs. In 1962, her mother, Khotso’s grandmother Bertha Means, 94, organized protests of Austin’s Ice Palace Skating Rink when her children were denied entry because of the color of their skin. Khotso moved to Austin from Lesotho at age 12 to attend St. Stephen’s Episcopal School and then the University of Texas at Austin, where he earned an economics degree. In 2013, Khotso left The Khabele School after disagreement with the board of directors (of which he and his wife, Moya, were members) at a time when the school’s budget had reached $6 million.

Michael’s ties to Africa arise through his wife, Magatte Wade, who was born and raised in Senegal before moving to Europe between the ages of 7 and 8. Magatte owns Tiossan, a skin care product line based on indigenous Senegalese recipes. FORBES Magazine named Magatte one of the 20 Youngest Power Women of Africa, and the 2011 World Economic Forum named her Young Global Leader. You may have seen John Stossel interview Michael and Magatte on Fox News in 2011, during which they raised intriguing advocacy for less government regulation.

In 2004, Michael left Moreno Valley High School in Angel Fire, New Mexico. He co-founded the school premised in part on Socratic methods in 2002, and around the time he left, it ranked 36th best public school on NEWSWEEK Magazine’s Challenge Index (a ranking based on the number of AP tests taken divided by the number of graduating seniors). Michael left the school when a state law was enacted to newly require charter school administrators to hold administrator licenses. He didn’t have one, and it would take seven years of teaching in public schools to obtain.

And so, both men once experienced finding themselves outside educational materials they helped create. With the trademark persistence of innovators, they are beginning anew, building a new model from the ground up: The Khabele & Strong Incubator. This time, all curriculums will be made publicly available from the outset.

Khabele & Strong have not yet released its tuition price, but offers inter-community collaboration with homeschoolers, co-ops, those who can’t afford the tuition, or any others who are also interested in alternative educational methods that emphasize human potential in addition to academic education.

“If there were a group of parents who want to do a low-cost version, I would be willing to talk to them about creating a model, and all the materials will be available for free,” says Michael, who in 2010 published the essay, “How to Give Your Child an Expensive Private Education – for Less than $3,000 per Year.

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