When their daughter's public school closed due to the pandemic last year, Austin education entrepreneurs Alyssa and Mica Villalon did what everyone else did: They tried to finish her kindergarten year online.
"It was a real struggle," Alyssa Villalon said.
Four months later, the couple, both former educators, hope to be a solution for families like theirs, in the face of a looming back-to-school season fraught with fears over a pandemic that has not subsided.
Their new venture, Teachers2U, matches teachers to family groups seeking help with virtual schooling. They are part of the machinery behind the advent of modern-day one-room schoolhouses popping up in homes and backyards across the country.
The response in the Austin area has been, Alyssa Villalon said, "overwhelming."
A new wave in education
Homeschool is nothing new, but learning "pods" is a phenomenon that has exploded during the pandemic, as districts limit in-person schools or offer online courses as an alternative.
Teachers2U hires teachers with competitive pay and benefits, an easier schedule, less administrative work and, hopefully, a safer environment. Families are responsible for finding their own groups. The company then matches a teacher to the group, and "school" is held at homes—sometimes the locations rotate, sometimes they stay in one spot.
The idea is hailed as an innovative solution by some parents who fear exposing their kids to the virus at school. It is a particular boon for those who work, or who want to avoid isolation, or who would rather have a professional teaching their kids than stumble through it themselves.
It is also criticized as a solution that drains teachers and funding from the district and segregates children along racial and economic lines.
The alternatives are to educate them ourselves while also trying to keep our jobs going, which we know from the las… https://t.co/20PDIf19cY— Dr. Paige Harden (@Dr. Paige Harden)1594680746.0
While they encourage the families they serve to stay enrolled in their public districts, the Villalons also hope that at least some will use their program long-term—a hybrid of homeschooling and traditional public school.
"We think this is going to be a new wave and educational model," said Mica Villalon.
Meeting a need
The Villalons have, for the past 8 years, owned and operated Sportball, which hosts sports camps for Austin children throughout the year.
They hatched the idea for Teachers2U after the pandemic forced them to cancel their school-based activities, which utilized professional coaches, and start running tiny camps for family groups out of backyards. Copying the model for teachers was easy, they said.
"One thing we're really trying to do is to really benefit the students," Alyssa Villalon said. "We really want to give them success in this crazy time."
The families pay rates that are similar to most area daycares, and they avoid the pitfalls of doing it on their own—namely insurance issues and the legality of caring for other people's kids without a license.
The company is seeking grants that would allow them to start offering spots to lower-income families.
Some teachers are retired, and others come from private schools. Others are taking a district-sanctioned leave of absence for the rest of the year.
Before their initial launch this month, Teachers2U had 10 family groups and even more teachers already signed up for their services. Just six weeks after the idea was hatched, their business model and license has been snapped up by partners in Denver and Los Angeles.
The couple has been getting calls from El Paso, North Carolina, South Florida, Oklahoma and other states to set up programs there.
"We haven't advertised," she said, "at all."
The Villalons want to continue supporting the public schools. They also want to support teachers who want to keep teaching but are afraid to go back into classes—and families for whom effective home-based learning may not be a viable alternative without help.
"It's been really nice to see and hear the relief in parents when they see this as a viable solution for the fall," Mica Villalon said. "And actually be excited about it."
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Austin FC couldn't find the stamina to fight off a 2-0 loss against LAFC for their inaugural match on Saturday.
The match, which saw No. 21 Austin FC go head-to-head with No. 2 LAFC in Los Angeles, was broadcast nationally on FOX and FOX Deportes.
Salute the support. 👏
It's only the beginning for @AustinFC. pic.twitter.com/TduorqYr2y
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) April 18, 2021
Eleven players took the stage as Austin FC players for the first time, with five starters making their MLS debut. "Ringleader" Alex Ring took the captain's armband and wore it well. The defensive midfielder could be seen leading his teammates through their first ever match, but it wasn't enough to stage an Austin takeover in LA.
In the signature style of Head Coach Josh Wolff, the team played with quickness and intensity, nearly connecting on several fast breaks. It was harder for them to stay in front, however, something that Wolff credits with quick decision making and a tough LAFC defense.
"We have a quick attacking team, but I think when you make quick attacks and it fizzles it's just about some decision making," Wolff said. "Are we in position to finish attacks? If not, can we reestablish our attack and get stuff better?"
The club was given some generous breaks from No. 2 LAFC, who had one or both of their star DPs out for the half. While forward Diego Rossi is out for the entire match due to a hamstring injury, Carlos Vela was accidentally pulled too soon on what turned out to be a miscommunication.
"He gave us the sign that he needed to come off," LAFC Head Coach Bob Bradley said on broadcast. "I can't say more than maybe it's my fault."
LA pulled some dramatics and slowly gained more possession throughout the half, but ATXFC's defense wasn't initially as shaky as it seemed in preseason. Jhohan Romana has pulled his weight in getting the ball out of goal, and a 34-year old Matt Besler held his own in center back.
As the second half commenced, however, it became clear that LAFC had the advantage over Austin's first major league team.
Goalkeeper Brad Stuver had his work cut out for him, fending off 24 shot attempts, 11 of which were on goal. He didn't have much time to prepare, either: in the first 30 seconds of play, Stuver had already made a save to keep the match 0-0.
LAFC finally connected in the 61st minute of play as Corey Baird shot one into the bottom right corner. The team capitalized off their momentum and put one past Stuver a second time, drawing roars of approval from the LAFC crowd.
While some last-minute attempts from Jon Gallagher and others were made, Austin FC didn't have the endurance to bring a tie. After seven additional minutes of stoppage time, the club lost their first match 2-0.
While the scoreboard tells one story, Wolff said that the team did well considering the skill of LAFC and the pressure of their club debut.
"We've got to be realistic," Wolff said. "This is the first time this organization has been in front of TV with an opportunity to show itself and I think there were some promising moments. And we're going to maximize those and continue to try to develop those, but there's lots to build on."
The team may have lost, but it still won the support of thousands of Verde fans, dozens of which made it to watch their team's first match. When Stuver and the team made it to bthe stadium, Los Verdes fans were already there to show support, and Stuver said his wife saw the same back in Austin.
"The moment that we pulled into the stadium, we saw Black and Verde fans cheering us on as we got to the stadium," Stuver said. "During warm up, you can just look around and see different groups sitting in different sections of the stadium and it's just truly amazing to see the support in our first game. We know that we want to give the fans everything, because this we play for the city and we play for them."