This is an open letter from ICL Academy founder and president Kirk Spahn that addresses the importance of online education in bridging the gap between academics and student engagement.


When I was a student, I faced a dilemma. As a top ranked tennis player, I could pursue my dreams of playing professional tennis, or I could attend an elite prep school that would prepare me for an Ivy League education. However, it seemed I could not do both. The school I attended did not support my intensive training schedule, or my need to travel for tournaments. 

I thought then, as I do now, no young student should have to make a decision between a first rate education or their dreams. I realized in this mobile world, school was the last institution to tether people to a brick and mortar and rigid schedule. I saw a need for a new way of learning and supporting students’ dreams, and thus came the inspiration for ICL Academy.

Thanks to the 20 years I’ve spent in education and youth nonprofits, I see other students facing similar dilemmas to my own as a teenager. Some students are working hard to win an Olympic medal or a Tony Award, some dream of being scientists who create a cure, or entrepreneurs who can impact the world. Other students strive to earn college scholarships. No matter what their goals are, though, many of them aren’t finding the inspiration and instruction on how to reach those achievements in their schools today. 

That said, we know kids are now more engaged outside of school than ever. I’ve seen it firsthand through my work at the Institute for Civic Leadership, and I see it now, today, on the news. Students now are global citizens, and they are eager to change the world.

So why aren’t traditional schools better at supporting them?

Over the past few months, students have had to pivot to online learning as a result of COVID-19. When the world hit Pause, it forced schools and families to jump mediums, frantically implementing confusing technologies in an effort to keep some semblance of school online. Of the many problems the country and the world faced, helping students stay connected to their courses became a Herculean task. And the results were clear: far too many students found little to no value in the type of online education they were receiving, and logged off for good. A huge number of them (40% according to an NPR study) never even logged on at all. If courses successfully energized students by connecting the material to their personal interests, we would see many more students put effort into their school work.  

I see ICL Academy as a solution to these online and academic woes. With our flipped classroom model, students study specially tailored lesson plans at their own pace. Then they convene with the class weekly to discuss the materials in depth, with teachers and classmates. 

I also believe we can help every child discover the tools inside themselves to fulfill their goals and potential while becoming positive agents of change in the world. As part of our curriculum, all ICL Academy students also participate in the award-winning youth leadership and character-building program created by The Institute for Civic Leadership.  We foster children to grow into socially conscious leaders, stewards, and thinkers who can positively impact their communities. 

We strive to bridge the gap between academics and student engagement by repositioning the role of students in schools. To do this, we:

  • Make academics relevant to the world around us — and use mentors and coaches to lead the way. Unlike any other school, ICL Academy has partnered with famous industry leaders who support and inspire our students. From sports, to entertainment, to business, our celebrity partners show students the connections between success and schoolwork.
  • Regularly integrate current events and personal interests into curriculum — Let’s face it — a student who loves hockey is probably going to react better to a geometry problem that incorporates hockey. At ICL Academy, we group students together by interest and then build a curriculum around those shared passions, which captures students’ attention…and keeps it. 
  • Student Choice  — Kids have to feel like they own their academic path, and should experience how it can shape their future, even if that desired future is outside the academic world. 
  • Empower teachers  — Educators who feel engaged and supported themselves, will in turn empower their students. School should be a partnership. 
  • Work backwards  — Show the results first, and reverse engineer the academic path it takes to get there. 
  • Foster peer interactions and community involvement  — We have a variety of technologies and strategies that help students stay connected to each other and to their teachers. 

Students can become fully engaged in their classes. We get them there by envisioning an entirely different kind of education. We challenge students to become the best possible versions of themselves, and we shape a student’s ambition into achievement. 

Our curriculum is a truly transformative experience, which is of the utmost importance, since our mission is to prepare our students for the challenges of the 21st century. 

I invite you to learn more about ICL Academy, a 20-year vision that I am so proud  to bring to fruition!


Founder, ICL Academy