Clay Christensen talks about innovation occuring at the margin–often the choice between something and nothing.  That’s certainly true in education where we’ve seen innovation start in alternative or special education.

Neil Shorthouse co-founded Communities in Schools, the most respected dropout prevention network in America.  After three decades of working in and with public schools in Atlanta, Neil identified the need for an alternative setting and approach and created Performance Learning Centers.  CISGA says:

PLCs are small, non-traditional high schools geared toward students who are not succeeding in the traditional school setting. They create a business-like environment and emphasize personal support and an intense academic program anchored by an online instructional system and project-based learning.

The network includes 22 Georgia sites with replication occurring in at least five other CIS states with similar models being offered by education service providers including AdvancePath and Mavericks.

Neil recruited Reginald Beaty, a PLC graduate and decorated military officer, to return and run the PLC network.  Reggie is a dynamic speaker, passionate leader, and now serves as EVP and COO of CISGA.  Reggie is investigating a middle school model for 8th graders not ready for high school.

When I talk about blended formats–school formats that combine online and onsite learning–people ask for examples.  For more than a decade, PLCs have demonstrated the power of sustained adult relationships, personalized digital learning, and real world connections.  Ten years from now, most secondary schools will be blended formats and we’ll have Neil, Reggie, and CIS to thank for the improvement.

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Tom Vander Ark is author of Difference Making at the Heart of Learning, The Power of Place, Better Together, Smart Parents, Smart Cities and Getting Smart. He is co-founder of Getting Smart and serves on the boards of Education Board Partners, 4.0 Schools, Digital Learning Institute, Latinx Education Collaborative, Mastery Transcript Consortium and eduInnovation. Follow Tom on Twitter, @tvanderark.


  1. But it is not true that these students were not being offered nothing previously. They were being offered the same thing everyone else in their community got. It just wasn’t sufficient.

    If you want to draw a comparison to “customers,” these are not an undesired low-end market. They are, in effect, a more discriminating market, vis a vis their peers. They require higher quality service than their peers.

    Not that this has anything to do with the value of the approach of the PLC’s, but the “disruptive innovation” talk is misplaced.

    • Christensen’s point that I was echoing is that innovation takes place at the margin. Lots of dropouts have few options (ie non-consumption of public education). Policy makers offer more flexibility to serving kids the traditional system has rejected.


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