Not all innovators start off with the intention of disrupting.
ASU Preparatory Academy and ASU Prep Digital Managing Director Julie Young has experienced a sea change in online education in the last few decades. Though her work has blazed trails in education, Young was always simply following her north star: finding ways to help students succeed.
Growing up in Lexington, Kentucky, Young graduated with a high school class of 1999 and started her career teaching at San Carlos Park Elementary, a Fort Myers Elementary School, after earning her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Kentucky. She describes her school community growing up as “Leave It to Beaver” — tight-knit and idyllic. She moved to Florida at age 21, got married and raised two sons while she followed her interest in finding ways to improve educational outcomes with technology. She also earned a master’s degree in administration and supervision at the University of South Florida.
It was when Young and her colleagues started implementing an IBM grant in schools that she started following a path in “ed tech.” She worked within public schools to try technologies that promoted different approaches to writing and reading instruction. And the results were phenomenal.
“We had just tremendous outcomes, great success. Students loved it, parents loved it. Absenteeism went down. Student outcomes went up,” she said. “And so I did have the opportunity to see in real time what it was, how this worked, if you could personalize the education experience.”
Young went on to train other educators on how to use the technology tools before she took a meeting that changed everything.
The assistant superintendent for Orange County Public Schools asked her to become the principal of Florida’s first online school. Initially funded by a grant, Young found that the project was met with skepticism. The assistant superintendent wanted someone who was willing to take a fresh view and design a school around kids’ needs, not conventional practices. So Young became the founding president and CEO of Florida Virtual School.
“I always say, ‘What principal in their right mind would leave their day job back in 1996 to take a grant-funded job as a virtual principal, creating a web school?’” she said. “But for me, it was like, ‘Oh, I would love to do this.’ This was right up my alley based on the work that I have been doing.”
At the first meeting of the Florida Virtual School team in 1996, they decided a few fundamental things had to change for their model to work: the calendar had to be flexible, allowing students to enroll and graduate when they want; the education had to be personalized for everyone; parents had to be partners; and the student-teacher relationship had to involve more coaching and getting to know students and their needs.
“It really was awesome to be able to come into this with a fresh view of, if we put the student at the center of the design of this new program, what would change? And how would we do things differently if we carte blanche had the ability to completely reinvent education around this medium? And what we learned is pretty much everything changed,” Young said.
“We saw a lot of students, a lot of children, just blossom,” Young said. “What we learned, too, was a lot of trial and error. This is not easy, designing courses, redesigning them and redesigning them.”
The success of the school grew statewide and then beyond, ultimately serving more than 2 million students in 50 states and 68 countries worldwide. Along the way, Young became a sought-after expert in the potential of ed tech and personalized learning. She even helped to pass a Florida law that requires high school students to take one online course as a graduation requirement, which she sees as an essential postsecondary skill.
Her family saw the importance of the requirement firsthand when both of her sons had trouble with a required online class in college. Given the ubiquity of online training, education and professional development, online learning is a life skill, Young said.
“If you look at it more broadly, it’s really about being successful in life. I mean, corporate training is done in online classes. Most corporations have a significant portion of their workforce work remotely, and they use technology to do their meetings. So it really was not just for college, but it really was for career and life.”
Of course, best practices in online pedagogy are in demand more than ever since the COVID-19 pandemic forced school shutdowns. Young advises a number of entrepreneurial education and technology organizations that parents and educators became very familiar with since 2020, including DreamBox Learning, the U.S. Distance Learning Association, the Aurora Institute and Western Governors University.
Young joined ASU in 2017 to launch ASU Prep Digital, an online school that now serves K–12 students and school partners around the world. The accredited, rigorous virtual program prepares students for college and offers a personalized and unique learning opportunity for all students. Young now also leads the ASU Preparatory Academy tuition-free charter schools, which serve preschool through 12th grade students on four Valley campuses and in Casa Grande.
When schools began to switch to virtual learning in 2020, ASU Prep Digital offered free training for Arizona teachers to share best practices and tips for the quick pivot to virtual learning, and launched full-time online options for the first time to kindergarteners through eighth graders through ASU Prep Digital.
Since joining ASU, Young said it’s been extremely gratifying to bring college courses to students at no cost, to launch a new digital elementary school program and to assist Arizona schools during COVID-19 disruptions with the Arizona Virtual Teacher Institute.
“I’m very proud of the way we were able to support teachers and schools across the board during the height of the pandemic, not only in our network but also across the entire state. We were extremely honored to be funded by the governor’s office, ADE (Arizona Department of Education) and the Helios Foundation to deliver free professional development to thousands of teachers statewide through our newly formed AZ Virtual Teacher Institute,” she said.
While the world leaned on virtual learning in an unprecedented way in 2020 and 2021, Young was able to harness the decades of education innovation to assist not only ASU Prep students, but students and educators near and far. She’s earned much recognition along the way as a leading expert in online education, earning the Harold W. McGraw Jr. Prize in Education, the Florida Diversity Council’s Multicultural Leadership Award and being featured as a top innovator and influencer in ed tech.
It wasn’t always easy, though, coming up in an unconventional path to education administration in a field where women are underrepresented among leadership.
“You know, in the early years, it was very lonely,” she said. “I was like a fish out of water.”
Being new to the district and being trained as an elementary teacher were factors. Young was also leading an unconventional web-based initiative, and she was one of very few women among secondary administrators.
“If you look at elementary principals, there are many more women in the elementary principal roles. And then as you go to middle school, and you go to high school, there are many more men, and many of those men came out of the coaching world and had been with the district for years. I was totally the odd woman out,” she said.
According to the School Superintendents Association, only 14% of the nation’s superintendents are women, even though 72% of all K–12 educators are women, partially because pathways to administration are limited, especially in elementary school systems.
When Florida Virtual School was in its early stages, Young was in her 30s and knew that her project wasn’t popular among her peers. There were fears over-funding and jobs lost, and she felt like she was swimming upstream.
“It was really an interesting time to get started, because nobody particularly wanted me or it to succeed, other than the lawmakers who funded it and Assistant Superintendent Bob Williams, who hired me,” she said. “But I really did just kind of put my head down and focus on the fact that we have an opportunity to build this new model of learning that puts the student at the center, and we’re just going to do what’s best for kids.”
The work paid off. Florida Virtual School quickly grew from Orange County to Alachua County, and later, the whole state. Young and her team grew Florida Virtual School into a diversified, worldwide organization, creatively serving more than 2 million students in 50 states and 68 countries worldwide.The school regularly was ranked as a top 10 high school in the state, all for kids whom Young never met face-to-face.
Now her innovation and experience has been at work for Arizona State University’s mission of innovating education and creating more pathways to higher education for students in the Grand Canyon state and beyond. The students, educators and school districts that now work with ASU Prep Digital and the ASU Preparatory Academy campuses in Arizona love the opportunities it offers students to customize their experience for what works best in their lives and communities.
Both the people and the Sun Devil spirit have made a big impression on Young as she has made her mark on ASU — and an untold number of students and families.
“I’m also very proud of our can-do spirit. We don’t default to ‘no.’ We default to, ‘Is this a great idea for students?’ If the answer is yes, our next question is, ‘How do we make this work?’” she said. “Through this kind of thinking, we are actually realizing ASU’s goal to define ourselves by whom we include versus exclude. It’s exciting to see doors opening for students.”
ASU Student Life reporter Austin Davis contributed to this story.