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Environmental scientist turned full-time mom drawing attention for blended-learning model


When Kathryn E. Kelly, an environmental toxicologist with a global reputation and clientele, decided to step away from business for a time to home school her two adopted foreign-born sons, she wound up honing an education model that is now drawing as much attention as her science role did.  

Ironically, it was her deciding she wanted to be a mom that guided Kelly to a new career as an education innovator as she adopted 6-year-old Nicolay from Kazakhstan in 2003 and Sasha, then age four, in 2006 from the same Central Asian nation so "Kolya" would have a brother.

Kathryn Kelly with Sasha and Kolya 

Kelly, a Stanford graduate who earned her PhD at Columbia, didn't create the concept of "blended-learning." But in the Incline Village, NV, community where she moved to raise her sons, she has implemented it in a way that has attracted attention from other communities, who want her to show them how to do it, and even other countries.  

Kelly has a quick explanation of what has happened since she created eLearning Café in 2011 as an innovative internet café with computers, chairs for relaxing conversation and an opportunity for drop-ins to take courses in person or online, or to offer instruction.

"When you let students be in control of their learning, great things result, whether retaking a class, looking for advanced academic opportunities or just expanding personal horizons," Kelly said. Her premise has been "the one-size-fits-all model of current education did not fit my sons or anyone else I knew, from special-needs kids to profoundly gifted ones."

Kelly, whom I first met in the late '80s when she headed her own Seattle-based environmental firm and we served on the Seattle Chamber of Commerce Board together, had closed her Seattle company, keeping some key clients for personal attention, and moved to Tahoe, where her family had a summer home when she was growing up. She wanted a friendly environment for her kids and began home schooling first one son, then two, and learning the challenges of that process.

She recalls that the first donor who walked in the door while she and friends were still painting the cafe prior to opening was a retired Green Beret who had "heard about what we were doing as he engaged one of our board members in conversation while having a glass of wine the previous night," Kelly recalls with a smile. "He handed me a Costco card so we could get some things we needed."

Soon former teachers began wandering into the café for coffee, conversation, and offering to teach various classes for the face-time portion of the blended-learning offerings, a concept described as "the effective use of education technology to transform the learning experience for students." She explains that blended-learning courses involve 30 to 70 percent of the instruction delivered online.

And the "face-to-face" instruction has also sometimes taken on an Internet flavor as she explains "We have Skyped with our students from Japan to New Zealand to Chile to Spain."

"We have been gratified to attract seasoned teachers who love that they have the freedom to be with kids all day and not stuck in meetings and paperwork," said Kelly, noting "Our math teacher, for example, has been teaching so long that she owns calculus.net domain name and can teach anything from 4th grade special needs to Calculus and computer programs."  

Kelly quickly put together an advisory board for eLearning Cafes, Inc., including reaching out to WSU President Emeritus Sam Smith, one of the founders of Western Governors University, where she got her Master of Education degree soon after founding eLearning Café.

Within two years of its founding, eLearning Cafes, Inc., was attracting national attention and winning awards. Kelly was a speaker at various blended-learning conferences and in 2013 and 2014 was honored with a prestigious Top-Rated Award from Great Nonprofits, a national organization that recognizes the best of nonprofits based on user reviews.

But eLearning Cafes, which she describes as a big, beautiful, community learning space, has now metamorphosed into what she has named iSchool, standing for "individualized school," to reflect the move of the community learning center to a formal school that she proudly says she patterned after WGU.

"There was clearly a pressing need to help kids who have not finished high school for various reasons so we turned it into a school, although I miss the community learning center part where students of all ages, from 4 to 94, came to learn everything imaginable - and from each other," she said.

Kelly has become a speaker sought after by education-focused groups who would like to bring the iSchool concept to their regions and at blended-learning conferences. And she has hosted visitorsfrom Texas, and recently from China.

Kelly has another important Washington State tie that came into play when she created iSchool. It was turning to Washington State's 34-year-old Alger Learning Center and Independence High School, State approved and nationally accredited independent school, serving students in grades K-12, as well as adult learners.

ISchool's students get their diplomas from Independence High School since Nevada law doesn't recognize her school.

When I asked her about the costs of operating iSchool, said replied: We operate on a budget of $240,000 to cover primarily rent, teacher salaries, and course materials.  As a non-profit, grants and donations allow us to provide scholarships to all who need them and also test new evidence-based learning strategies."

"We did not set out to become a school," Kelly says of the transition from eLearning to iSchool. But she smiles about her takeoff on Microsoft's early '90s campaign theme of "Where do you want to go today," explaining her successful philosophy of education: "We basically ask the kids 'What do you want to learn today?'"

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