As the promise of 2021 looms on the horizon, most people are anxious to close the books on what is likely the most unsettling year — from the pandemic to politics to PPP loans — we will ever experience. Strong leadership has never been more essential than it is today. To share some of their best leadership practices, Az Business magazine sat down with some Arizona business leaders to watch in 2021, including Damian Creamer, founder and CEO of Primavera Online High School and StrongMind.

After founding Primavera Online High School in 2001, Creamer realized that existing technology was not delivering the content students deserved, so he founded StrongMind to be a digital solutions provider for Primavera. Through collaboration and innovation, Primavera is now the largest high school in Arizona, serving more than 26,000 students annually, and is one of the most successful online schools in the country.

Here is the full transcript of the interview with Damian Creamer and Mary Gifford, president of StrongMind

Az Business: Can you tell us a little bit about your business here? Your mission, both with StrongMind and Primavera?

Damian Creamer: StrongMind exists to support digital schools around the country. And what we had set out to accomplish is to provide a superior experience for the students and families that come to our school. And when they come to our school, what they’re looking for is a digital learner program, so the remote learners or the hybrid learners. We have virtual schools that we support around the country, we also have hybrid schools, which are brick and mortar schools, where the students come to the school and they also do a lot of learning remotely as well. And so, probably we’ve been in existence for almost 20 years now and we recognized that there was a real need to create a program in the space that would allow students to have a superior user experience when they’re students of ours or of other schools.

And so, we actually focus heavily on the content and the user experience in there. They go and blow with one another, but they are a little bit different. So when we speak in terms of the user experience, we’re talking about the total experience that the student has, anything from enrolling into the school, becoming students, taking courses with us and how is that experience that they have with us? What is that experience and how do we make that experience, just this superior experience for the students and the guardians, or the parents of the students. And so, we focus heavily on those two aspects, strongly on those. And you have to take a look at this through the lens of technology, because as a digital learning solutions company, we utilize technology and we’ve built and developed our technology, we also utilize technology from other third party providers. But what we do with this is, we tie it all together seamlessly.

So one of the areas that a lot of schools struggle with when they’re delivering digital content is that it seems so disjointed, and there’s so many different places where a parent needs to go in order to check their student’s grade or progress in the student’s class. And what we set out is, we tried to simplify all of that so that our parents and our students have an enjoyable experience, but more meaningful than that is, we want to make sure that every student is actually learning because that’s really the goal for us, is to make sure that the students learn when they’re here in our program, so that’s what we focus on. Mary, do you have another thing to add there?

Mary Gifford: One thing I think is key to the mission and it’s been part of the mission since Damian started the Primavera school 20 years ago, is that irrespective of where a family lives, they should have access to a quality set of online instruction. And that’s been something that has driven Damian, driven the company, driven everyone in the school is that, it shouldn’t matter where you live, you should have access to quality online instruction, comprehensive, wonderful teaching, irrespective of where you live. And I think from a technology perspective, we deliver that. I think we also have made it primary our mission to empower teachers to use technology, really, really equip them well and make them a part of the experience, not secondary in the experience. So I think between bringing it to the people and empowering teachers, we really fulfill the mission for over 20 years.

DC:  And I’d also say, there are those magical moments that we’ve all had in education, whether you’re sitting in front of a professor who knows how to deliver the content and you’re receiving that content, you’re just really having this magical experience in this moment of learning something. We have worked tirelessly to translate that into a digital format, to recreate those magical moments of learning because that’s where we get the engagement of the student to buy in and to really lean into the process of learning. And so, we are all focused on how do we develop these magical moments for these students? And one of the other great things which drives us is the democratization of education here in Arizona through Primavera. We have students who come from the most affluent zip codes in Arizona and students who come from some of the most economically challenged zip codes, remote students in the most remote places in Arizona. And yet, all of these students collaboratively coming together, it helps to democratize this education for these students.

And that’s something we’re super proud of is that we can help students wherever they are and regardless of how much money their parents makes or how little resources they may have. This is an opportunity to democratize education. So it’s super gratifying and it’s very rewarding, and that’s one of the biggest things that, I think, drives all 700 of the people in our organization is that, we really feel like we are adding value to our community and making sure that the children in the community are getting a really superior product and superior education and that they’re able to get value from what we’re offering them.

AB: What do you see as some of the qualities that you have personally that have made you such an effective leader of Primavera and now, StrongMind?

DC: I recognize that it takes a team of people to do this. When I started this 20 years ago, I wanted to be involved in a space where I was adding value to my community. They talk about conscientious capitalism, and so I wanted to, not only do something to where I could run and own my own business, but I also want to do something that was going to be very valuable and valuable for other people, internally for the team members that we have on our team and externally for the stakeholders that are part of our school. And so, that was really important to me, but I recognized really quickly that I couldn’t do that by myself, that I was going to have to build a team.

And so, I’ve spent my entire life’s work, trying to identify the smartest people in the industry, and trying to attract them to our organization, and trying to create a culture that we can keep and embrace all the team members, because it really does take a team of tremendously talented people who understand what they’re doing. And what I’ve recognized is that, my vision is not enough to get us to where we want to go, we really need those subject matter experts in the field who have deep knowledge and experience to bring this all to bear and make sure that everybody is getting a quality experience. So those are probably some of the things that I would say. Mary, what do you have to say? Not about that, but what are some of your leadership qualities that you think that we have?

MG: I think passion, I think every person in the building, every person working remotely who’s supporting what we do in this building, they get up every day thinking about doing what’s best for kids and that’s what fuels them. And having a vision like Damian has, and the opportunity to actually work on behalf of kids everyday, it’s amazing, it keeps them going, it allows us to attract the best and brightest, it allows us to keep the best and brightest. We started off as a little company in Chandler, and now we have 700 people and we’re drawing from people across the country, and we’re getting the best in class, and engineers, and animators, and educators and finance people. I mean, we really are able to draw and keep the best in class because we are so motivated by that vision. And by the way, you get to do something everyday that makes a difference and that’s how we’re going to keep them. And that I think is what draws us here and keeps us here.

AB: What is the impact that COVID has had on your industry?

DC: Up until March of this year, virtual learning in the K-12 space was maybe 2%, somewhere in that area. 2% of all students chose a virtual school, and come March of this year, 100% of everybody went into what we call crisis remote learning. And so, that’s been a game changer. Education has lagged behind other industries in transforming digitally, and yet, that hand was forced in March. And it has been a mixed bag of goods, there’s been good, bad, and other in there, some of it has not been rolled out with efficacy and it has been a real struggle for traditional educational institutions to provide this type of money because it’s not in their wheelhouse. And we have been able to support a lot of these schools around the country and help them in this digital transformation.

I personally believe we’re going to get through the pandemic and everything is going to be fine. We don’t know how soon it’s going to get there, but eventually, this too shall come to pass and we will go back to normal, but the normal may be a new normal. I think in education, this digital shift has been forced and I think that educators are going to be much more prone now to making sure that they understand what’s valuable? How to do it with efficacy? How to make sure that students are learning? And I think that they’re going to want to make sure that this is a part of their ecosystem that they offer, moving forward.

AB:  Do you think there’s going to be more online learning, moving forward, both K through 12 and college because of the pandemic?

MG:  I think there will be more online learning. I think that people who maybe thought it wasn’t for them will discover that it’s for them. I don’t think it will ever be for everyone like it has been since March of 2020. I think it will be more than 2% like it had been before March of 2020. I think that we have learned, and everyone has learned that engagement is the key. And so, I think as public schools, as private schools, as charter schools, as they all start figuring out how to engage kids online, we’re going to find that kids are more and more attracted to that. We’re probably going to see more and more hybrid settings as people have an increasing discomfort with returning to how things used to be. There’ll be some who will be fine, but for those who aren’t yet there, a hybrid setting is going to be great where kids interact irrespective of where they are with their classmates, with their teachers.

And I think we’re going to see some real development in hybrid learning, which is exciting. Certainly, every kid could benefit from some form of hybrid learning. Even if they’re never going to be full-time online learners, they’re going to get something great out of doing a portion of an online, because that’s what they’re going to see in the workplace, that’s what they’re going see in college. And so, I think it’s going to be increasingly more comfortable. I don’t think we’re there yet, I think we saw a lot of what didn’t work in the spring of 2020. I think we’re starting to see more of what can work, particularly from our vulnerable populations this fall and I think it’s a springboard. I think it will be a springboard for all of us who have been working to do this.

It’s hard, it’s really hard. And I think that’s what a lot of people discovered in spring of 2020. This isn’t that easy, or everybody would be doing it. There’s a reason there’s only 2% who’ve done it historically. I think that we’re going to see more doing it, but I think there’s going to be a recognition for this is difficult. And for those who want to do it well, there’s going to be a place now to do it well.

DC: I think the tools also are going to start changing in educational institutions around the country. So you take a look at some of the tools that teachers have depended on, or educators have depended on, you’re talking about textbook. Take a look at what digital landscape can do for just that one tool that teachers have. Textbook is very stuck, and it is what it is and it’s old. With digital content, you can assess students on flying inside of the digital content with formative assessments, if there’s bad content in that digital individual content, you can change that. So it’s much more iterative than a textbook, and I think those tools are much more powerful moving forward.

And I think that schools are going to embrace digital tools and replace those eventually with some of the analog tools that they’re currently using. And I think that’s very exciting for everybody involved, it’s exciting for students, and teachers and administrators. And so, those tools are going to be continued to develop, that’s not only a StrongMind type of solution. Textbook publishers around the country are really investing heavily in these types of tools, and so I think that’s going to be positive for everyone involved in the space.

MG: It’s how young people consume information, too. Think about everything that they learned through gaming with their peers and things. We think they are hanging out in their basement not interacting with anybody, but they have really rich lives interacting with kids in different ways than we did. So I think the technology is actually catching up to where they are and we’re going to meet them there. They are going to be learning differently at a different pace, in a different way. They’re going to be demonstrating their knowledge differently through things that we couldn’t even imagine. Earning badges and things like that that have been really easy for kids to do in the gaming world, it’s now going to become part of what they do in their learning world and that’s a really cool way for things to collide, and that’s what we’re seeing right now.

AB: How have you been able to stay ahead of the competition?

DC: I think innovation is about solving really big problems. And so, a lot of the innovation that we have come up with Primavera and StrongMind has been around solving the big problems that we have ourselves. And so, if you take a look at something, for example, like our Loud Mouth application, we recognize that engagement was a serious issue with our learners, with our students out there and their families. And we wanted to create technology that would increase the engagement of the students. Sure, we could go out and we could license a text messaging service, and indeed we’ve done that in the past, but that isn’t what some of this innovation around engagement that we’ve really, really poured our hearts and souls into is around the performance of the students in the classroom and making sure that the parents are getting real-time notification about how their kids are performing in the classroom and giving them guidance as to how they can help their students increase, not only their grades, but learning and things like that.

And so, innovation for us, we’re taking a look at the problems and we’re seeing, are there solutions out there that already exists or do we have to create something? And in our space, when I started Primavera 20 years ago, there really wasn’t a handbook for digital learning at that point in time, the post-secondary schools had already invested in online, but the K-12 space was really void of this. There was only a few of us players in the space at that time, and so there wasn’t a handbook, and so we had to figure everything out ourselves.

And as we went through the process of learning of what this space is all about, we started to realize, “You know what? There’s another piece of technology that will give us what we need. We need to invest and we need to develop that technology.” Or “This content right here, you can’t send out a textbook in this type of an environment and expect for the students to be successful. We’re going to have to create all of this content.” And then you get into this content that you roll out and you realize, “We could probably do better than that.” And so, when I say iterative, me iterating on a daily basis, and the innovation is about solving the big problems, I think so.

MG: Think about 20 years ago, there was no Alexa. Just think now, 20 years ago, mom and dad would open up the backpack full of books, see the note from the teacher. Now you can go home and say, “Hey Alexa, what did Damian do in school today? What does Damian need to do more of? What should I be doing with Damian tonight?” And actually here, day after day, after day, “This is what Damian should be working on today. He struggled with this, but he did well at that.” And a lot of the time, you couldn’t actually do that. And no one even envisioned Alexa 20 years ago, much less that she could be a powerful tool in helping parents know what to do with their students from an educational perspective.

So I think as technology evolves and looking at it and figuring like getting up at decoder ring and figuring out how it relates to what we do in education is fun and exciting, and it’s the stuff that exhilarates us. And it’s also the stuff that it’s going to keep us on the front edge of things and it’s going to keep us relevant, and everything we do should also be making kids more successful every day. And so, it’s a lot of fun and who knew it would look like this.

AB: Do you view Primavera and StrongMind as a technology company, or an education company or a new industry?

DC: We view ourselves as a digital learning solutions company. So it’s much more than just developing some content that people can license from us. When we work with schools, we try to understand what they’re going through and what things they’re struggling with, and determine whether or not the solutions that we’ve come up with would be a good fit with them, there’re schools that they are and there’re schools where they’re not. And so, it just really a very much a collaborative experience, but we are a digital learning solutions company and I think that that’s a really key distinction as to who we are. Is because it’s not just about technology, it’s not just about content, it’s about understanding how to solve these problems and making sure that we’ve got a solution for the issues that educators are finding themselves in around the country.

AB: Are there some issues, or trends or challenges that we should be watching out for in this space in the next year or so?

MG: I think one of the things we should all care about is the most vulnerable learners. I think that’s probably one of the things that was exposed in spring of 2020 is that, digital learning for vulnerable learners looks a little bit different than it does for a traditional learner. And thinking about the students who may have a disability, the students may who may have slow internet, the students who may not be academically well-prepared and not able to just drop in to a class. And so, I think that is one of the interesting challenges that we are focused on and we’re coming up with solutions to address that. But I think that is something that the industry has yet to figure out a really great solution for all those different vulnerable populations. And I think there are really smart people thinking about that and working on that right now, and it will only get better. But I do think that that is something that came about.

I think also the role of the teacher. I think that it is not so unlike a traditional classroom to teach in the online setting, but it does take something to figure out how to translate what works in a regular setting to an online setting. And nobody had a chance to do that when they left school on Friday and they were schooling online from their living room on Monday, so nobody had a chance to figure that out. So I think people are recognizing that it isn’t just flipping the switch, there has to be an investment in training people to do this well and I think there are a lot of companies now that are starting to respond and provide good training in that area. But I think that’s another really good learning is that this, again, you’ve got to actually invest in the people. Because we’re using technology, it does not mean the people don’t matter. The teachers are just as important in an online setting as they are in a brick and mortar setting and you have to invest in training them.

DC: I think one of these things, just piggybacking on what Mary said, is that so many times people think that digital learning would replace the teacher, and that was one of the major decisions that we made many, many, many years ago is that our teachers matter and that we’re going to invest heavily in our teachers, and that means investing heavily in their user experience as well. I think that since March, we’ve heard the pains from educators around the country as we followed this closely and it’s been a struggle for parents, it’s been a struggle for students, it’s been a struggle for the teachers.

And we haven’t struggled that way here at Primavera. We are able to make sure that… It’s business as normal, it’s just increased considerably. But we want to make sure that our teachers, they are the key differentiator in education. Nobody ever comes home and says, “That was a great textbook that I read.” You learn from your teacher and that’s the same here in an online experience in a virtual school. Our teachers are those key differentiators in those students’ lives and we want to make sure that our teachers can make the impact that they could make in a brick and mortar classroom, just like they can make a digital learning classroom, so yeah.

AB: When the pandemic hit, were you bombarded with people who needed your help, or had questions? How did it impact your business right out of the gate?

DC: That’s a great question. Our industry was impacted because everybody went online, but that didn’t necessarily impact StrongMind, initially. And so, the things that impacted us is, we have about 350 people who show up to work everyday in our offices and we had to put everybody home. But we’re used to educating students online in the first place, so it wasn’t that big of a stretch for us to be able to work with our… Indeed many of our employees already working from home as well. That being said, there was a lot of things that we had to do as an organization to make sure that productivity was going to be high, to make sure that we were going to maintain the culture of our employees. Something that we’re super proud of is the fact that it feels very familiar here, we have a family-like organization and we were afraid that we were going to lose all of that by putting everybody home.

And so, we made a plan and we executed on that plan to make sure that (A.) We were going to keep our culture intact. (B.) We’re going to keep productivity intact. And part of that included over-communicating. And I don’t think you can ever over-communicate, but we really increased our communication with all of the stakeholders. We also recognized that we’re going to have flexibility in this process. And so, we were very flexible, we developed policies to create flexibility for our team members. Was there anything else that you would add here?

MG: One of the things we knew is that we were going to be getting a lot of students who were being driven to online learning, not those who necessarily chose it. And so, we started thinking about how we orient students. We started thinking about a pipeline for teachers, how do we have enough teachers? And the school has definitely grown as a result of the pandemic and will probably continue to grow, but we recognized early on that we were going to be getting learners who were not here because of the desire to be here, they were here because this was the only option left.

And so, how do we make sure that they are ready to learn on day one? How do we make sure teachers are ready to teach on day one? And that became our immediate focus is to scale, but also to recognize that our population of kids was going to look and feel a little bit different, and how do we change what we do to make sure that they are able to learn when we welcome them. And so, that was something we did from day one, from the school perspective.

AB: Who the ideal student is, who’s going to benefit from online education?

MG: Online learning, if it’s done well, can be appealing to any kind of student. It really depends on if the student is willing to engage. Just like in anything, if you engage, you’re going to be better. If I know I should be going to the gym everyday, it doesn’t matter that I have a gym membership if I never engage with the gym activities. So much like that online schooling, if kids are willing to engage, they can get a lot out of it if it’s done well. We have really geared everything we do around any kind of learner, the student who’s going to come in not well-prepared, the student was going to come in very well-prepared, the student is going to need to go at a little slower pace, the student who can rocket from the beginning. And so, we really recognized that if they’re willing to engage, we can get them there, but they might come at a very different point when they start to engage.

So what we focus on is getting them engaged because we do believe any kid can learn. We most certainly have things that cater to the non-traditional learner. The students who are working in supporting their families. The students who are parents themselves and have little ones they’re taking care of. The kids who are four credits behind because something happened in life, but they’re really good learners and if someone gives them the chance to take courses out of sequence, they could get caught up, but they don’t need algebra one now, they need pre-algebra right now, and only algebra one is available. So there are many different reasons the flexibility is appealing. There are many different things we can program instructionally toward kids, but they have to engage.

And if they’re willing to engage, really any kid can be successful online. That’s the particular kinds of programs we have crafted, but there are good online programs out there truly that could serve any kid, as long as they’re willing to engage. At the lower grade levels, and now that we’re working with K through five students, we’ve been thinking about this too. In many cases, it also involves a loving adult of some sort. We recognized it doesn’t always have to be a mom or a dad, but it can be a loving adult in the home for the younger students who are learning online. And we’re seeing that little kids can learn to read when they’re in an online school, they can learn to do math using math manipulatives. They need a loving adult to guide them in addition to really great teachers, which we believe we have. But again, engagement matters, and if students are willing to engage, I think probably any kid can be successful in online schooling.

AB: What’s your industry outlook for 2021 and beyond? Taking everything into account that’s happened in the last seven months.

MG: I think 2021 and beyond will be an exciting time for online learning. I think it’ll be an interesting time overall for education, but I think for online learning, it will be particularly interesting. I do think that the things that were learned in spring of 20, for people who haven’t done this for decades will inform what gets done in the future and it will only get better. For folks like us that have been doing it for a long time, I think there’s a recognition of how difficult this is and how challenging it is, and it will accelerate what we do a little bit. The interest is high, the enrollments are good, I think that, right now it, is ours to grab.

There’s been a lot of inertia behind doing things the same old way. And I think when they flipped the switch in March of 20, that inertia, that energy dissipated into the universe, and I think it’s ours to harness. And that’s really what we’re looking at for 2021 and beyond is, how do we harness all of that energy that’s floating around out there on all of the untraditional stuff now that could be ours? How do we grab that and how do we bring that into the online universe and make it ours? And I think it’s really exciting, I think technology is going to drive a lot. I think personalized and customized instruction will win out here.

I think if we learned anything is that kids are learning differently. Every kid is learning differently and there’s a different point in their learning, and technology is that thing that can truly differentiate instruction with really good teaching as well. But I think if folks are willing, like we are, to sit and think about really carefully and really critically, how do you meet kids where they are in differentiating instruction? I think 2021 and beyond is going to be wonderful for online learning and really great for kids.