Started by a teenager, Canary Academy gets what young people need
Canary Academy puts families and students in the homeschooling driver’s seat.
In 2017, when Nasiyah Isra-Ul, founder of Canary Academy, was just 15, she became a teaching assistant to a local educator. A very local educator: her mother.
Her brother, Yasad, was entering middle school, and her mother was balancing work and homeschooling. When Isra-Ul started taking on some of the instructional workload to help her mom out, she saw that her brother was having trouble with certain subjects. Many of the existing routes emphasized reading and writing for all subjects, which Isra-Ul had loved as a child: Yasad, on the other hand, learned best through hands-on activities.
That gave Isra-Ul an idea, one that would eventually lead to her starting Canary Academy, a nonprofit organization that acts as an online learning platform for homeschoolers, providing curriculum curation, learning tools, coaching, and community engagement for homeschooling families across the country.
“I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to figure out how to make something that gives him the same content that’s in this book, but is fun and engaging in a way that he can do it with his hands,” she says. “I ended up developing fun activities like making edible atom models, where he’s learning about the parts of an atom, but we’re making it out of cake pops.”
Her brother responded so well to his personalized curriculum that Isra-Ul’s mother made her a key collaborator in the homeschool process and put her in charge of certain responsibilities like planning out the day and picking the curriculum.
“I was so excited,” she remembers. “I worked with my brother on what he wanted to learn and what were his strengths and his weaknesses, and really tailored a program to him that did not exist before.”
By 2020, friends of Isra-Ul had heard about the classes, and asked if she could do the same for their children. She won a $10,000 youth entrepreneurship business plan competition, and what began as a one-off project at home officially became Canary Academy.
Isra-Ul’s approach challenges the one-size-fits-all methods of traditional schooling by harnessing the power of individualized education. Catering instruction to people’s unique abilities empowers students to reach their full potential and contribute to society.
Isra-Ul is now pursuing a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies, while continuing to grow Canary Academy. It’s her mission to expand access to homeschooling resources all over the country.
At Canary Academy, there’s a path for everyone
Curricula seeking one-size-fits-all outcomes often don’t provide enough flexibility for learning differences. Isra-Ul thrived on reading-based comprehension, but her brother flourished using hands-on learning, often called kinesthetic methods.
At Canary Academy, learning is tailored to each student.
“Every student learns differently, and trying to make every student fit a model doesn’t really work,” Isra-Ul says. “You have all this curriculum out there, but why wasn’t I able to find one that helped my brother? Diverse models of education are really what students need.”
Rather than forcing a student into a top-down view of “success,” Canary Academy puts families and homeschooled students in the driver’s seat. It doesn’t set a curriculum. It gives families the tools to explore and empowers them to build a curriculum best suited for them.
Only parents and students themselves know their child’s strengths, skills, and goals are. That makes them the experts.
Canary Academy is a one-stop shop for home education, offering curriculum design assistance; micro-funding for school expenses; tips on homeschooling best practices; homeschool starter kits; local tutor sourcing; financial planning help; and one-on-one guidance. Families are also assisted in identifying internships and shadowing experiences that allow students to explore their interests hands-on.
“Our focus currently is giving parents the choice to do what they can with their students, and then we help guide parents and students along,” Isra-Ul describes. “In addition to empowering students, we’re empowering families. We are more of a supplement. We never want to be in a position where we take over what parents are able to do with their students.”
To further support parents, Canary Academy offers coaching for parents and virtual instructors.
“We know that you can’t just give parents a curriculum and expect everything to go completely smoothly,” Isra-Ul says. “So in addition to just giving students a platform to learn, we give parents a platform to learn and continue learning as well.”
Because of that, “success” at Canary Academy is broadly defined, and largely depends on what a family and student’s goals are. However there are two main pillars that signify growth and progress no matter who the student is: how the student feels about themselves and their educational journey; and how the student is able to be successful in their field of interest.
“Those are all different measures of success, and you can’t measure that in the test,” Isra-Ul says.
Canary Academy prioritizes taking ownership of your education
“We want students to take ownership,” says Isra-Ul. “Once we show students how to take ownership of their educational pathways, then they can take the journey that they like, and go where they would want to go.”
Canary Academy’s online community, which currently has more than 75 families in it, is a resource and forum where parents and students can come together to share advice and encouragement. It includes a community library area where families can share curriculum, worksheets, and other resources.
“We’ve been able to sit down with the students and really listen,” Isra-Ul says. “‘What is your passion? ‘What is something that you enjoy?’ And then taking that and building a curriculum around what they like to do.”
Canary Academy has big plans for expansion on the horizon
Isra-Ul’s brother Yasad, now 17, recently graduated from high school — an entire year early.
He is the first student to graduate using Canary Academy’s learning structure and enter the workforce. He hopes to eventually start his own film company, an ambition nurtured by his time learning in his own way.
“He has a very unique entrepreneurial mindset in addition to an academic one,” Isra-Ul says. “He definitely has a lot more confidence, because when you’re learning your own way, you’re able to take a step back. We said ‘Okay, by the end of this year, we need all of these subjects completed. How are you going to approach doing that?’ That gave him that agency to really work out his own independence.”
In 2023, Isra-Ul expects to reach over 1,000 families across the country. Her long-term goal is to build Canary Academy into a national advocacy organization.
“We have connections in all the different pockets of homeschooling communities all over the United States,” she says. “We have a lot of families who are willing to share their stories.”
She hopes to focus on empowering low-income families with homeschooling resources; Canary Academy has been running charity fundraisers over the past few years to be able to give technology and school supplies to students in need.
“We’ve seen how much of a need there is in the nation for more advocacy towards education equity involving homeschooling, in addition to just public education,” Isra-Ul says. “We are working to become that organization that’s going to support families from all backgrounds, and encourage them to homeschool and empower them.”
Canary Academy is supported by the VELA Education Fund, which is part of the Stand Together community and supports everyday entrepreneurs who are boldly reimagining education.