Long before the coronavirus, Sora, a startup run by a team of Atlanta entrepreneurs, was toying with the idea of live, virtual high school. The program would focus on student autonomy and organize its curriculum around projects that learners wanted to work on, such as finding ways to reduce the impact of climate change on the world. Students and teachers would use Zoom and Slack to communicate with each other, with standups everyday to pulse-check progress.
The pandemic has both undermined and underscored Sora’s focus. On one end, the millions of students that flocked home have shown how hard it is to effectively and accessibly teach in virtual settings. On the other end, the pandemic isn’t going away any time soon. Parents and students are desperate for better options.
Sora co-founder Garrett Smiley thinks he can convince parents to approach virtual high school with optimism, their kids and their checkbooks. It all starts with green algae farms.
Smiley said students turn to Sora so they can “start running instead of walking” in their education. He added how the first students in the program spent time building algae farms in their backyards, working with SpaceX engineers and taking college-level math classes upon entrance.
Smiley, who co-founded the company with Indra Sofian and Wesley Samples, says that Sora sells best to students who feel stifled or “held back” from traditional educational institutions. Sora’s product, thus, feels more apt for educationally gifted students than students who might need extra help or support.
At Sora’s heart, it is a private school replacement with a project-based curriculum. How it works beyond that is a little bit more confusing to comprehend. Firstly, students upon enrollment embark on two-week learning expeditions, exploring the answers to broad questions like “how do we recreate an alien species.” As time progresses, students are prompted to create their own projects with check-in calls twice a day. Below is an example of a standup:
Beyond the self-directed study, Sora offers a series of Socratic seminars and workshops.
There’s no such thing as science class, but there are workshops such as “the Physics of Sharks.” Here’s an example schedule of a Sora student:
The organization is unconventional. Smiley is insistent on the fact that students complete core subjects and standards needed for high school transcript and graduation, including math, science, English and history. Students are also required to take the SAT or ACT, with practice resources provided by the school.
Sora also has an in-person, optional element. Cohorts will be designed by geography. Students are encouraged to meet up with each other outside of school, form sports teams and attend a Sora-sponsored meet-up.
Outside of learning, Sora created a network of more than 50 career mentors and has a suite of services, such as SAT prep and counselors to aid with the college admissions process.
Smiley says that Sora hasn’t yet graduated a class, so they do not have data on most common exit paths, but he added that the company does not promote college as the only option for students.
Sora is working on partnering with the “next generation of college and university replacements,” he says, such as boot camps or internships.
The goal of Sora is to create a community of self-directed and motivated learners.
“We don’t believe schools are in the business of content creation anymore, just typing in Google search engine search specifically you’ll probably find world-class resources to learn a subject,” Smiley said. “So for us, as to be a super successful school, we knew our role was creating this super high-quality community.”
The company had seven students in its inaugural class last year. Now, more than 39 students participate in Sora School, with three-full time faculty. Monthly tuition ranges from $300 to $800 per student.
Tuition is charged in relation to parent income by using a sliding scale, which Smiley says is part of their strategy in making sure Sora is an inclusive and diverse school.
The diversity breakdown of Sora is 67% white, 15% Hispanic, 13% African American and 5% Asian/Middle Eastern. The gender split male to female is 54% and 44%, respectively, with 2% of students identifying as non-binary.
From a mental diversity perspective, Sora lacks key resources needed to support students with special needs. Virtual high school as a product isn’t built for adoption en masse, but instead works best for students who can afford to partake in self-directed and independent learning. Similar to pandemic pods, it could exacerbate the widening inequalities between wealthy and low-income students.
Smiley says that they “definitely thought about” accessibility and are working on it. Still, he says that Sora is created for “students who perhaps don’t need the extreme structure of an in-person school,” which he estimates to be 95% of the world’s learners.
As Sora scales, a key aspect of its success will be if it is able to balance its hands-on, hands-off approach. The startup announced this week that it has raised a $2.7 million round, led by Union Square Ventures, to bring on more faculty, software engineers for back-end support and managers to work on curriculum development. Other participating investors in the round include Village Global, ReThink Education, Firebolt Ventures, Peak State Ventures, Contrary Capital and angel investor Taylor Greene.