COVID-19 stories: Michigan Ross MBA alum launches training program for pod learning just in time for the new school year

September 25, 2020

Photo: Anika Smith

In just four weeks, Sarah Kurtz McKinnon, MBA ’18, launched Pod School Prep in response to the childcare and education crisis that the country is facing due to COVID-19.

Parents and organizations across the country are starting what has been dubbed “learning pods” for kids to do virtual schoolwork in-person in small groups with other students, in order to promote better educational experiences and enable social-emotional connections.

As a parent herself, McKinnon recognized that pods were a great way for children to effectively complete remote schoolwork in a safe environment, but that these pods needed to be led by someone that families trusted.

With her background as a former director of Ann Arbor YMCA Camp Al-Gon-Quian, she saw that there was an opportunity to train pod leaders and founded Pod School Prep — a comprehensive online training program.

“Pod leaders are individuals who are sponsored by families or program directors from community organizations, such as a local YMCA,” explained McKinnon. “They take on the role of a parent who would normally stay home to homeschool their kids.”

McKinnon said pod leaders provide structure and supervision for the Pod while facilitating a curriculum set forth by a school. “They help students with academics, provide social and emotional support, and make the Pod experience fun and engaging,” she said.

McKinnon said a pod size is dependent on what the family or program officer decides, which typical pods ranging from two to 12 students. She added that pods are typically formed for students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

In only a few weeks, the Ann Arbor-based start-up has trained pod leaders from all across the country with 70 people already signed up for the program.

McKinnon’s team developed the online training program in-house. Each program consists of different modules that contain videos, handouts, and quizzes for participants to complete before moving on to the next one.

Leveraging her Michigan Ross learnings

McKinnon shared that the skills and connections she formed in the Evening MBA Program at Michigan Ross have been pivotal in her journey with starting Pod School Prep.

In conducting research for her startup, she consulted one of her MBA classmates and his wife to garner information about their needs as parents.

McKinnon also credited MO 501: Human Behavior and Organization taught by Ross professor Wayne Baker and MO 555: Foundations in Positive Organizational Scholarship (part of the Center for Positive Organizations’ +LAB Program) taught by Jane Dutton and Betsy Erwin as courses that helped her in thinking about Pod School Prep‘s purpose as an organization.

McKinnon shared that she applied many concepts from MO 555 in launching Pod School Prep, including establishing a mission, vision, and values when first embarking on a project.

“I did this in two ways with Pod School Prep: First, establishing a mission for the organization as a whole — to figure out why we were doing this project and what we stood for,” said McKinnon. “Second, creating an entire unit in our training for our pod leaders where they establish their own mission, vision, and values.”

As the pod learning trend gains traction nationwide, McKinnon is continuing to redefine the training program and developing an ongoing coaching program for pod leaders. The company would also like to form more partnerships with local communities so that more people can be trained as pod leaders and increase access to this unique childcare solution.

This article was originally published as a Ross News Blog post.