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Affordable private schooling for middle-class America – Dexter

Updated: Jul 22, 2020

Education is a space I’ve been studying for a while now and I’m thrilled to have made an investment in Dexter. They are building a new school format for 10+ year-olds that uses mastery-based learning approach with a full digital curriculum, to provide a private school experience that is more affordable and effective for middle-class America. The mission is to develop students with core foundational knowledge in the humanities and STEAM and provide them with the creative confidence to become compassionate and ethical artists, writers, engineers, scientists and leaders. Students are allowed to complete courses based on their academic stage, not just their age.

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Dexter plans to utilise AI/Machine Learning in ways never before done in education. As more students join the Dexter network, its AI-powered software system will use sentiment analysis of every typed word to body posture in the physical space via image processing to become more intelligent and adapt accordingly. Some of its flagship courses include Math Pickle, STEM Coding, Mathigon Algebra and SAT Writing. As a parent, I realise the irrelevance of our current education system in today's technologically permeated world. Memory based learning has no meaning after Google. Project and inquiry based Learning and Learning by Doing are the core tenets that will prepare our learners to become the builders of tomorrow. While I say the above from an Indian perspective, the same stands for even a developed country like the United States too.

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There are currently 56 million K-12 students in the US. The vast majority of these students, over 90%, attend government/public schools while approximately 10% (5.8 million) attend private schools. Estimates vary, but over 7.5% of total GDP (~ $1.45T) is spent each year on K-12 education in the US. In 1968, almost 20 percent of high-income and 12 percent of middle-class families went to a private school. Today, the percentage of high-income families enrolled in a private school has remained constant while middle-class participation has dropped to just 6%. In other words, the middle class has been priced out of private schooling (largely due to a drop in affordable catholic private schools). This has contributed to the meteoric rise of the home-schooling population from a few thousand students in the 1970s to approximately 2.3 million today.

A new generation of digitally native parents is demanding new education options for their children (as evidenced by the growth in the home-schooling market) that are both affordable and relevant in the digital age. This demand combined with advances in web-based tools (Scratch, Tinker CAD, p5.js, etc.), Machine Learning, a proliferation of free online learning content (YouTube, Wikipedia, etc.) have converged to allow for the creation of an entirely new education system for the digital age.

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For two years Dexter operated as a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics) supplemental program. This gave them the opportunity to experiment with new modes of education typically off-limits to traditional schools and provided the core team with ‘time in the trenches’ working with hundreds of students. In the process, they built a vertically integrated curriculum, software platform and physical space that culminated in the launch of a full-time school in Wichita Falls, TX. The Dexter team is led by their super energetic and talented Co-Founder and CEO Michael Olaya and they posses the right combination of technical background, domain expertise, unrelenting focus, and vision.

VEX Robot tour of

On the competition front, there are companies like Outschool or Prenda that have customers overlap with Dexter but will never take center stage as a viable option. Humans are embodied intelligences that require access to a community, learning tools, and physical spaces. The future of education is not a home-school co-op that meets every other Wednesday at the community library (Prenda) or video conferences via Zoom (Outschool). Dexter's primary competitor is the government school system that holds a nationwide monopoly and captures most of the middle-class population. Additionally, there are innovative private schools like High Tech High or Avenues School that fail to significantly reduce costs through systematisation. Companies such as Squirrel AI (from China) represent a relevant foreign competitor creating a similar AI-powered software system.

After COVID struck earlier in the year, and as US schools were to remain closed for the foreseeable future, Dexter was one of the few schools on the planet that had already developed its own software platform and leveraged this fact by launching Dexter Online School as early as March 2020. It included live-streamed classes on Twitch, full access to their course library, peer to peer messaging, course community forums, and peer grading. I got my 13 year old to sign up for a month during his session break and he loved every moment of it, often staying up late past midnight to keep up with the US time zone.

Dexter will open its second campus in Kansas, TX in Q4 2020 and will press the expansion accelerator from 2022. I won't be surprised for Dexter to reach 50 campuses by 2025 and thereafter aim to become the largest school system on the planet. Establishing Dexter as the alternative to government schooling will result in a vast network of physical locations that will be difficult to replicate. The company has been funded by LAUNCH Accelerator and Jason’s Syndicate in the Silicone Valley.

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