'Pulitzer’ for Schools Seeks to Transform Education

A national prize competition is honoring and supporting ambitious programs throughout the nation that increase access to high-quality pre-kindergarten through 12th grade education.

The $1 million Yass Prize is the top annual award of the STOP Foundation for Education, established by donors Janine and Jeff Yass. The foundation aims to make the Yass Prize the Pulitzer of education. In addition to the Yass Prize, the four finalists in the 2021 competition received awards of $250,000 each, and 16 semi-finalists received gifts of $100,000 each, according to the nonprofit’s website.

“The mission of the STOP Awards is to identify and support more best in class education providers who can tackle the challenges and deliver an education for students that is sustainable, transformational, outstanding, and permissionless,” states the STOP Foundation.

The first Yass Prize was awarded in 2021, as schools faced the challenges of COVID-19 mask mandates and restrictions on in-person learning. Many public schools were shuttered for more than a year, leading to the loss of education progress for millions of students. However, entrepreneurial schools and learning programs adapted, pursued their education missions, and kept their students on-track for academic success.

Applications for this year’s prizes can still be submitted.

Science Center Opens School

The first winner of the Yass Prize, the Discovery Center of Springfield (DCS) in Missouri, exemplifies the potential for education innovation the STOP Foundation aims to recognize and promote.

“[In the middle of] a challenging education environment in the Ozarks, this museum and science center turned to educate thousands of children whose schools were closed, many of whose parents were first responders and economically insecure,” states the STOP Foundation. “The Discovery Center provided over 200,000 hours of free child care, over 50,000 free meals and snacks, and served over 1,500 child enrollments.”

As schools were shuttered nationwide, the DCS adapted to continue its Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) mission, states the STOP Foundation.

“In March 2020, every team member opted to serve the community in person rather than wait out the pandemic at home,” according to the STOP Foundation. “They rapidly built out classrooms and turned the center into COVID-safe, licensed emergency child care center capable of caring for hundreds of children a day. Within five days of around-the-clock construction, the facility was modified to keep kids safe with fully licensed child care and engaged in STEM-based education through the crisis.”

In August 2020, DCS leased and modified a building where pods of 10 students received in-person tutoring to support their virtual learning. But that wasn’t all.

“In January 2021, DCS launched the Discovery School,” states the STOP Foundation. “The educational success of the school was so transformational that the Discovery School was sustainably funded through a federal program to provide high quality education to the children of under-resourced families where almost 50% of the 60 full-time students at the Discovery School attend at no cost to their families. The success of this model has been transferred to a new STEM-based preschool that allows pre-k children from under-resourced families to have a safe environment with award-winning STEM education.”

Public, Private, Charter School Innovators

The recipients of STOP Awards range from the Dallas Education Foundation (DEF), the nonprofit arm of the Dallas Independent School District, in Texas, to instructional programs that provide personalized, remote learning utilizing technology, to small public charter academies and private schools that have successfully pursued excellence.

The STOP award to DEF shows that even large public-school systems can be innovative, says the foundation.

“These public-school innovators have brought the kind of technologies that Silicon Valley pioneered to its importantly diverse student body,” states the STOP website.

The small New Testament Christian Academy was one of the 2021 semifinalists.

“Unable to buy and distribute devices like many others could, this small religious school developed a new strategy to support instruction using web-based apps that could be accessed effectively on mobile phones alone,” the STOP Foundation asserts. “With a state mandate they could not open… despite the odds, the students rose on the state’s report card rating and exceeded expectations.”

Another semi-finalist is a program called Full STEAM Forward (FSF), which focuses on educating girls in underserved, minority communities.

“An online STEAM (STEM + Art) enrichment program created in direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic, FSF created and delivered an initial two-week pilot summer camp which was then expanded into a free, year-long after-school enrichment program to BIPOC girls,” says the STOP Foundation.

‘Virtual Ed Zones’

Another 2021 semifinalist is GlobalEd Solutions, Inc., located in Pueblo, Colorado, which operates a virtual charter high school offering blended/online educational programs operating out of “education zones “across the United States, according to the STOP Foundation website.

“A career-focused high school that blends online learning with in-person support had to quickly fill the gap created when COVID prevented their ‘at-promise’ students from meeting with career coaches at their normal library, coffee shop, and other meeting locations,” states the STOP Foundation. “Almost overnight, the leadership pioneered ‘Virtual Ed Zones’ and found additional physical locations that provided students and parents in-person touchpoints with their coaches and teachers. It worked so well they seek to expand this COVID-era innovation to more states.”

‘It’s a Movement’

The STOP Foundation is partnering with the Center for Education Reform (CER) and Forbes in the awards initiative. Jeanne Allen, founder and CEO of CER, is helping with the selection process.

The foundation received hundreds of applications for the 2021 Yass Prize, and expects many more applications for the 2022 awards. The goal of the foundation and its awards is ambitious.

“The STOP Foundation for Education is not just a philanthropy,” the group states. “And the STOP Award is not just a prize. It’s a movement intended to transform education for everyone.”

Initial online applications for the next Yass Prize competition are due by July 15.

Joe Barnett (jbarnett@heartland.orgis a senior editor at The Heartland Institute.

Image: STOP Foundation

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