The New Hampshire Department of Education is looking to decrease funding going to Prenda for learning pod education, pointing to lower-than-expected student enrollment. (Screenshot)
The New Hampshire Department of Education is seeking to reduce the amount of federal funding going to Prenda, a private pod-based learning company, after lower-than-expected enrollment by students.
The department is requesting to lower the total value of its four-year contract with Prenda from $5.8 million to $3.4 million, a 41 percent decrease, according to an item before the Executive Council Wednesday.
“When this program was launched in the midst of the pandemic, some parents were seeking alternate educational opportunities for their students,” Kimberley Houghton, a spokesperson for the Department of Education, said in an email Tuesday. “Now, with schools back in session and in-person, it is appropriate for (the department) to adjust its contract with Prenda to consider reallocating a portion of the funding for other programs.”
The state partnered with Prenda, an Arizona-based company, in April 2021 to create learning pods across the state for children who experienced learning loss as a result of the pandemic. Prenda, which operates in six states, sets up “microschools” – classrooms of five to ten students of varying ages who are tutored by “guides” through school subjects.
In New Hampshire, the program was funded using federal COVID-19 relief funds designated for learning loss programs. New Hampshire’s program, “Recovering Bright Futures,” pays Prenda $5,000 per year per participating student. The instruction takes the place of classroom learning at the student’s local school district and follows a curriculum set by Prenda.
The learning pods were championed by the department and school choice supporters as an innovative alternative for students who were struggling to readjust to the classroom after months of remote or hybrid learning in 2020 and 2021.
But they also drew criticism from public school advocates and Democrats. The Prenda learning guides are not required to have teaching credentials, which opponents objected to. And they argued the money should be spent on school learning loss programs.
During an Executive Council vote in December 2021 to extend the program another two years, Democratic Councilor Cinde Warmington argued the low take-up rate did not justify the cost.
“Why would we want to subscribe to this for another two years (and) tie up these funds, which could be used to help address learning loss in our public schools?” Warmington said.
The program was designed so learning pods could be established either as a collaboration with school districts or by community members. But while four districts in the state initially expressed interest, learning pods never materialized there.
Instead, Prenda established 35 community-led learning pods across the state, which currently serve 212 students, according to the department.
Despite reducing its overall contract to reflect lower enrollment, the department plans to continue the Prenda program through the end of the 2023 to 2024 school year, as well as an adjacent summer camp program that will end in 2024, it said Tuesday.
Houghton argued the program “has been incredibly successful” for the families and students using it. The department said Prenda students had seen a 172 percent progress rate in English Language Arts among students who had an 80 percent or higher attendance rate, and a 92 percent progress rate between grades 3 and 7 in math.
If the council approves the reduction to the Prenda contract, the department will seek to use the $2.4 million in federal funds toward other learning loss programs. That could include the “Rekindle Curiosity program,” a collaboration with the New Hampshire Community Behavioral Health Association to increase mental health support among students, the spokesperson said.
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