Ms. Julie Young, Vice President, Education Outreach & Student Services, Arizona State University & Managing Director, ASU Prep Academy & ASU Prep Digital

Julie Young is a visionary CEO, educator, and entrepreneur. As VP of Educational Outreach and Student Services for Arizona State University and Managing Director of ASU Prep Academy, Julie’s role is to create seamless K-20 pathways. She was founder of Florida Virtual School, the world’s first state-wide virtual school and one of the largest K-12 online providers. Julie graduated from the University of South Florida, M. Ed, and the University of Kentucky, BA. She is also a member of the Aspen Global Leadership Network.

Recently, in an exclusive interview with CXO Magazine, Ms. Young shared her insights on the transformation of K12 education landscape over the last 5 years, current roles and responsibilities as the VP of Education Outreach & Student Services at Arizona State University, personal leadership style, pearls of wisdom, and much more. The following excerpts are taken from the interview.

How has the K12 education landscape transformed over the last five years and where is it heading now?

I don’t think anyone can deny the impact that the pandemic had on the rate and trajectory of change and innovation in education. There has been a rapid adoption of digital tools, online learning platforms, and educational apps. This has allowed for personalized learning experiences, expanded access to resources, and increased collaboration among students and teachers.

Certainly, there is a greater awareness of digital learning in general. That’s a positive. But because the pivot to a “remote learning” environment was conducted almost overnight, the quality of the student experience was all over the map—and much of it was negative. At the same time, many parents and teachers, perhaps for the first time, saw the potential of digitally supported learning environments in their ability to provide a more 1:1 learning experience. This is especially true for students who were lucky enough to pivot to an online experience that was already designed as such. At ASU Prep, for example, because we already had an established and well-designed online learning program in place, complete with the requisite systems, content, and even instructional models to effectively support students, our transition to online learning was seamless. That’s how it should be for all students.

Since the pandemic, we have seen increased interest from families in creative learning models that leverage technology to offer more personalization and flexibility. At ASU Prep, many, but certainly not all, students opted to remain as fully online students after they had the option to return to physical classrooms. We are also seeing increased demand for students who want both—a hybrid of online and face-to-face learning. Some students want to come to school at least one day per week, while others want a more even split between online and onsite learning.

Technologically, we’ve had the capability of providing hybrid learning models for a long time. For the first time, though, families are asking for microschools, learning pods, and hybrid learning environments. This demand will increase because it meets many students’ dual needs for flexibility and focused support. It also meets family needs for choices, and even industry needs for models that can be shaped around specific learning themes to prepare for college and career.

The importance of social-emotional learning (SEL) has gained significant recognition in recent years. Schools now emphasize the development of students’ emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, resilience, and well-being. SEL programs are being integrated into curricula to support students’ mental health, foster empathy, and cultivate positive relationships. I would expect the focus on SEL will only increase, as educators recognize how crucial it is in students realizing success and overall health and well-being.

Finally, I’m pleased to see that traditional standardized testing as the main measure of student achievement is changing. Educators and policymakers are exploring different assessment approaches that provide a more complete evaluation of students’ skills, knowledge, and abilities. Performance-based assessments, portfolios, and project-based evaluations are becoming more popular. There has been a growing trend among colleges and universities to drop or modify the ACT and SAT requirements for college admissions with an increasing number of institutions implementing test-optional or test-flexible policies. Students are allowed to focus on their extracurricular activities,  special interests, past work experience or letters of recommendation and choose whether or not to submit standardized test scores as part of their application. This represents a trend for schools to be deliberate about focusing on the whole child/person.

Ms. Young, can you brief us about your professional background and areas of interest?

I began my career as an elementary teacher and followed the traditional path of progressing to various administrative roles. In fact, as early as I can remember, I used to play “school” with my friends, and I was always the teacher. I had an opportunity in the 90s to lead a tech initiative between IBM and the Fort Myers, FL school district, where I was working at the time. It was all about integrating technology into the classroom to improve reading outcomes, and I found I had a true love for this work  and a knack for pioneering new learning models.

A few years later, I was approached by the Orange County school superintendent in Orlando about leading a grant-funded initiative to experiment with offering online courses to high school students. At the time, “distance learning” was not widespread and much of what was available was more about translating the classroom experience via satellite or online. Too often, it was nothing more than notes or textbooks on a screen. There hadn’t really been a systemic “rethink” of how online learning could or should be designed around the needs of the student, using technology as a tool.

A “redesign” was exactly what I had the opportunity to do, and that is the charge I gave to my earliest leadership team. I kept asking, “If we could design school around the needs of the student instead of the other way around, what would that look like?”  That question, along with the work of so many who worked out the practical implications on a daily basis, led to many of the innovations you see today.

For example, the fact that an expert teacher in physics, who happens to live in Florida, can leverage her years of experience and expertise to work with students in Arizona—and vice versa—came from those like us who worked through the politics and design challenges to make it happen. Students gained access to expertise, quality content, college pathways and college-related content, and to 1:1 guidance and coaching. They gained flexible pacing, digital tools like online dictionaries and translators, and, as in the case of ASU, even access to college faculty and courses.

I left that grant-funded program in Florida, which began with just 77 students, and by 2014 was known as Florida Virtual School, a vehicle for many “firsts” in education: first state-wide, public virtual school district; first school to provide a way for teachers to share expertise across district and even state lines; first to eliminate the barriers of place and time; first to offer “rolling enrollment” options that maximize pacing flexibility; first to implement a performance pay mechanism – and many more. We were serving over 2 million students by the time I left.

Today, at ASU Prep, I’ve been charged with scaling ASU Prep’s K-20 vision, where students can access and begin their college experience as soon as they are ready. We are taking full advantage of the mandate ASU has given us to create new learning models while also raising the level of achievement for all students. ASU Prep Academy launched in 2009 and grew a network of Arizona-based charter schools over the next eight years. Since establishing these successful community schools, growth and demand have been exponential. In 2017, after launching our fully online program, ASU Prep Digital, online student enrollments grew from just 19 full-time students to 153 students and 3 graduates in the first year. Fast forward to 2022-2023, and we served more than 6000 students and graduated over 500! Beyond student growth, though, is the relentless commitment to continuous improvement of learning environments for the sake of students. How can we open more doors and support students ever more effectively in their learning journeys? That’s what drives us onward.

Tell us about your roles and responsibilities as the Vice President of Education Outreach & Student Services at Arizona State University.

My role at ASU is to provide oversight and direction for the K-12 arm of the university, as realized through ASU Prep. I am both a listener and advisor. I listen to the vision of the university, the programs that are available or under development, and the strategy of the President, Michael Crow, and I look for synergies in our K-12 programming. I am an advisor in that I am continually bringing feedback from our day-to-day experience to the university so that we can collectively find ways to open more doors to more students for a quality college education. My feedback to the university comes from practical, on-the-ground daily insights of running our K-12 programming, which includes site-based, hybrid, and online offerings that serve not only our own students, but also, through partnerships, students in schools and districts all over the country. I interact with educational and policy leaders every day, and I bring feedback from those interactions to our own school leaders, to the university, and to educational leaders nationwide.

As the Managing Director of ASU Prep Academy and ASU Prep Digital School, what type of challenges do you face and how do you tackle them?

My challenges are, in some ways, similar to those that any school leaders face today. I am asking many of the same questions they are asking about how to create the kind of nurturing and positive environment that attracts students, teachers, and families and makes them want to stay. We are in challenging times in terms of the high levels of stress and anxiety our society is grappling with, and that certainly shows up in our schools. My challenge is to celebrate and showcase the amazing work our best teachers and school leaders are doing and hold the highest standards possible—while at the same time providing the right support and commitment to those who may be struggling.

Another challenge is to find ways to take the instructional practices that we know work, such individualized learning plans for all, coaching, or flexible learning models, and scale them to a broader audience. This entails getting teachers on board with new instructional models. While teachers are critical and still have subject-matter expertise to offer, how they deliver that expertise and engage students as agents of their own learning must change. Teachers need to be okay with that. They also need to be okay with working in teams more often and taking on leadership roles as more responsibilities will be distributed in a shared leadership model. Leaders, likewise, need to be comfortable sharing both control and decision making, and they must learn to both trust and support their teams in the process. This kind of change requires commitment, leadership, and modeling from our entire leadership team. It’s not always easy, but it’s the path to growth.

What are the most important recommendations you would like to drive home for administrators and leaders at other institutions regarding the integration of technology and education?

I think most leaders are past the point of denying the importance of preparing students to live in a tech-integrated world, but for any who are still in denial, I would challenge them to consider this: If you don’t prepare your students to manage technology, technology will manage them. They will be passengers versus drivers in their own learning journeys, and we will have done them a disservice.

For those who see the promise that technology offers, I would encourage them to not abdicate their responsibilities to ensure that tech-supported environments are truly designed around student needs. At one time, I was challenging the idea of a 10-month school year in an age where technology allowed students to attend school any time, any place, and any pace. Now, I find I also need to challenge us to take every shiny new technology that comes down the pike, and there are obviously many, and put each to the litmus test of student outcomes. How does this new thing truly move the needle for learning, skill building, increased competencies, and stronger soft skills? Is this new app or design truly facilitating outcomes, or is it actually a distraction? Does it accelerate the learning journey or does it get in the way?  We can never stop asking the questions, listening to our students and families, and taking the feedback to heart if we want to see this thing we call “school” be a place where kids thrive.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I strive to create work environments that embody the qualities I would want as an employee. My approach combines personal humility with a strong determination to achieve organizational excellence. I am dedicated to inspiring others to reach their full potential and fostering a culture of continuous improvement.

Recognizing the value of collaboration and inclusivity, I actively acknowledge the contributions of team members and seek their input. Every individual within the team is essential, and I believe in creating a well-designed team where everyone’s perspectives and ideas are valued.

I place great importance on maintaining a deep understanding of educational principles, instructional strategies, and administrative practices. Staying updated with the latest research and best practices is crucial in my role as a lead instructional leader. This knowledge allows me to provide effective guidance and support to the team.

Working closely with leadership, we set ambitious goals and relentlessly pursue them to drive the organization towards excellence. I establish both short-term and long-term visions, providing strategic direction while allowing the team the autonomy to excel. I maintain a clear view of progress, offering ongoing guidance when needed.

Furthermore, I prioritize the growth and development of our team members. I invest my time in providing executive coaching and creating opportunities for the team to come together, align efforts, and work collaboratively towards our shared goals. Growth and development are essential components of our collective success.

In summary, I set clear expectations and communicate our mandates, and I let my team have room to explore what the strategy should be within their respective areas of responsibilities. Like any good teacher, though, I understand the role of formative feedback and assessments. In my role, that means watching the data and checking in with my leadership team regularly on progress towards our metrics. Personally, I am a verbal thought processor, so I find it helpful to have regular time to work through data feedback, strategy, and challenges with my leadership team. I generally find that the twin engines of trust and accountability will take you far as a leader, as will modelling what it looks like to serve both our goals and one another.

Who is your role model in life and why?

Growing up in Kentucky, and being weaned on basketball, I have always been an admirer of basketball coach John Wooden. He won 10 national basketball championships and, among many honors, was presented a Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush. Wooden wrote about life and leadership long after his basketball coaching days, sharing principles that he tried to both follow and instill in others. They were usually profound in their simplicity, such as “flexibility is the key to stability,” or “be quick, but don’t hurry.” He said you should “surround yourself with smart people who’ll argue with you.” But one of my favorite “Woodenisms” is this: “Talent is God given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful.” Wise life practices.

But I can’t just list one…my dad is my hero. He was an incredible role model as a father and a husband. For his professional life, he started his career in the mailroom of the largest bank in Lexington, KY and finished his career as President and CEO of the same bank. I watched him love people, always bring his smile, lead from his heart and change lives.

What are some of your greatest achievements in your career till date? What makes them special?

I’m proud of what we were able to achieve not just related to the growth and influence of Florida Virtual School and ASU Prep Academy, but more importantly in terms of the impact on students. There was a time when a student who lived in a dysfunctional or failing school district had no other options but to “make do” in their assigned school. That is no longer true, and it gives me great satisfaction to know that families have choices they did not have before. The same is true for the students who, at one time, couldn’t access the same kinds of advanced learning opportunities as their counterparts in districts with greater resources.

One of my greatest achievements has been ‘saying yes’ and taking calculated and informed risks to pioneer new educational models which have improved outcomes for students everywhere. I pride myself on choosing great talent, putting the student at the center of our decisions, and knowing when to pivot. There are footprints of our work around the globe.

While I’m honored by the awards I have received from peers and from industry organizations, what I find most gratifying is watching students walk across a graduation stage and knowing that I had some part in their success. I still get chill bumps. Just to give you one example of many, we had a student who just graduated this May who has enough college credits to enter ASU’s College of Engineering as a college senior – at the age of 18! He will be pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Computer Systems Engineering with a focus in cyber security.

You have been a recipient of numerous awards and recognitions over the years. What is the secret mantra behind your success?

I love what I do. My work is my play, and my closest circle of friends have come from the workplace. I am extremely gratified by watching kids soar as they discover who they are and what they are capable of achieving. I also love solving problems, re-imagining systems, policies, and practices to better serve students and families. And I love putting teachers and leaders in a place where they are encouraged to bring their best ideas to the table in service of students. I get to do all of that, and most of the time, it doesn’t feel like work.

Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?

I’m enjoying growing our leadership team, and I think that’s a big part of my role. I’m looking for that balance of making “stretch” challenges and providing the right support to keep momentum going in their own growth. I also know that a big part of my role is in being a voice both at the university and in the larger educational landscape for innovation in education—not just for innovation’s sake but for the sake of children.

Our students, more than ever, need learning environments that provide the right mix of guidance and support, together with a “slow release” to their own decision making. If we know anything about the future, it’s this: the future is uncertain!  Change is the only inevitability, and accelerated change is something we can bet on. We have to prepare our students to thrive in very uncertain times so they are able to pivot, to make decisions with less-than-complete information, to negotiate and advocate for themselves, to persevere when things get tough, to fail and get back up, and to know the value they bring to the table no matter what the circumstance.

What advice would you give to aspiring edtech professionals?

Keep your focus on students. Enjoy all the fun and wonder of technology, but never forget that the student should be central to every decision we make. For teachers, remember that you are the most important component in a child’s learning experience – not the technology. For those who are designing next-generation learning environments, be sure your designs, whether a digital tool, a course, or even an entire program, truly support student outcomes and that they reflect the voice and needs of the students, families, and communities you are serving.

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