By Laura Gossman

Author’s Note: In a recent interview with Sajan George, Founder and CEO of Matchbook Learning, a non profit committed to turning around America’s lowest performing schools through a blended learning approach of technology and face-to-face teaching. He shared the story of how it all began, its challenges and lessons along the way.

Prior to founding Matchbook Learning (MBL), Sajan had spent the first 10 years of his career in corporate turnarounds.  He would go into companies that were in crisis and help them emerge stronger and more viable.  The second half of his career he applied this corporate turnaround methodology to large urban public school districts across numerous cities including St Louis, New Orleans, New York, Washington, DC and Detroit. Sajan left this work because he felt that the work needed to evolve and pivot from turning around school districts to individual schools. He states, “parents do not send their children to a district but to their local school.  Schools should be the unit of change as that is where grassroots support and bottoms-up momentum can be built – something necessary for any kind of turnaround to be sustained.”  Sajan discovered through “School Turnaround Field Guide” from FSG Social Impact Advisors that the number of chronically failing public schools in need of a turnaround in the US is skyrocketing with over 20,000 and growing, and there is still no scalable, sustainable national turnaround solution in the country.  This was the reason Matchbook Learning was formed.

A student hard at work in a school using the Matchbook Learning methodology.

A student hard at work in a school using the Matchbook Learning methodology.

His initial dream was to combine the best of online learning, powerfully blend it with the best of face-to-face instruction, and house both approaches within a turnaround methodology and student-centered design.  This would create the very best blended school turnaround for our nation’s most needy schools and the children they serve.  Sajan shared, “we believe that by designing our model to leverage the best in customizing education technology, we can meet the needs of each and every student uniquely but do so in a scalable, sustainable manner.” The problem is that education is not an industry very receptive to risk taking – a critical component and precursor to innovation.  “Because our target audience is young children, there is a natural aversion to trying anything new or unproven.  Consequently, our biggest obstacles were convincing both philanthropic funders and at least one school district client to be an early adopter of our innovative but unproven model,” Sajan reflected.

One student's dream as a result of their academic improvements with MBL.

One student’s dream as a result of their academic improvements with MBL.

So at its core, the challenge for MBL, and many start-ups is market acceptance.  Sajan had to ask himself, ‘how do ideas convert into strategies and those strategies into adopted tactics by finding supporters (clients and funders) willing to scale the hill of uncertainty any start-up must scale?’  Through their experience with Praxis, an accelerator program for social enterprises with gospel motivations, there were three ways MBL tried to overcome these obstacles, launch and prove out their model:

1.    Surround yourself with experts.  Sajan recruited board members whose backgrounds, expertise and passion combine to extend and deepen their reach.  He specifically asked leading K-12 education experts to be Advisors to Matchbook and leading experts at some of the country’s national philanthropies targeting education as well as leading educators in K-12. Such figures included some of the nation’s governors, state superintendents, mayors, chancellors, and school superintendents and two of the largest education philanthropic investors in the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Eli & Edythe Broad Foundation, who are dissatisfied by the status quo in public education in our country. Praxis also provided him access to mentors that would wrestle alongside of him during critical inflection points in communicating their story, navigating their growth path and accelerating the vision.

2.  Surround yourself with fellow social entrepreneurs. Sajan reflected, “Praxis provided me with a cohort of like-minded, faith following entrepreneurs also trying to figure out how to achieve their visions early in their launch.  Peer-to-peer learning is powerful and the entrepreneurial path can often be a lonely one filled with risk, uncertainty and constant failure.  A cord of 3 or more strands is not easily broken.”

3.  Design-Prototype-Fail-Learn-Iterate.  Expecting immediate success and a perfect product is naïve. You will fail early and often in launching a start-up.  As Sajan puts it, “(it is) better to launch with a minimum viable product, empathize with your users and iterate on their points of pain and delight, designing experiences that create learning feedback loops for your team.  Throw out the lengthy business plan and business planning process and replace it with design cycles that are more rapid and iterative.” As a result of MBL’s intervention, today, there are schools like A.L. Holmes in Detroit, MI that saw reading proficiency double and quintruple in math over a two-year period. This school was deemed the “Rewards School” by the state of Michigan, awarded to those schools in the top 5% or who are beating the odds and making progress.

MBL values 5 key differences in turning around schools: Courage, innovation, teacher-centric, inspiration and seamlessness.

MBL values 5 key differences in turning around schools: Courage, innovation, teacher-centric, inspiration and seamlessness.

Want to bring Matchbook Learning to a low performing school in your community? Just contact them through Know a teacher that is looking for a change in their job? Have them check out career opportunities here.

Laura Gossman lives in Pasadena, California. She is the Director of Operations at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership and a recent new mother to son Benjamin and wife of Adam Gossman. She received her M.A. in Cross Cultural Studies from Fuller in 2006. Fieldnotes Magazine is a publication of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. We would love to hear from you about people, businesses, or other organizations we can interview or feature. Please email the editor at Fieldnotes Magazine.


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