Ep: 194: How this former police became an academic pioneer for online learning with Dr. Annise Mabry
In this episode, I speak with Dr. Annise Mabry who is an academic pioneer for online learning and the founder of The Dr. Annise Mabry foundation.
The foundation’s mission is to develop and implement creative community-based strategies that provide the framework for economic opportunity and development.
Listen on to find out how Dr. Annise Mabry has been able to build online courses that provide communities with supportive homeschool learning.
Hey everyone. Thank you so much for being here. I’m really excited to speak with today’s guest, Dr. Annise Mabry. Hey Dr. Annise, how are you?
Hey, Debbie. I’m good. How are you?
I am great. I am really excited to talk to you today. Can you tell us more about you and why you live an offbeat life?
Well, I am Dr. Annise Mabry and I have really been living an offbeat life since 2000. I was probably one of the early academic pioneers for online learning. And when I first started online teaching and learning, everyone told me that it was a fad and they didn’t understand why I was investing so much time.
Why would I even go get a master’s degree in this? Because it was just going to be something that was gone in five years. And fast forward to 2020, 20 years later, in the middle of COVID-19, I have built probably more online courses for different universities.
I’ve had the opportunity to be in so many different places that a traditional classroom wouldn’t have allowed me. And for my family, it’s given us an opportunity to truly live life and not just do life in our community, but live life in the world.
What made you decide to really hone in on this and start creating all of these courses?
I think for me, I was married at the time and my ex-husband was a narcotics detective with the Tri-Cities narcotics unit. We were both police officers. I had just had a baby and we woke up one day and it kinda hit us that, “Oh crap. Both of us are police officers. If something happens, then our child is going to be left with no one.”
So one of us had to make a decision to live a different life. And of course, that one of us was me. And then I wanted something that would allow me the flexibility to be at home with my daughter. Because I just couldn’t see having her and going back into the workforce full time.
I needed something that was going to fit into the life that I was building, not the other way around.
Yeah. And one of the ways that you were able to do that is by creating all of these courses for somebody like you, who is a parent. And there’s a lot of stay at home parents out there who maybe want to do homeschooling and you were able to help all of these people in different types of household.
What was your motivation for that? Did you see anything with your own community that may be allowed you to go into that trajectory with what you wanted to do?
I think for me my children have always been my greatest launching pad, so to speak. And I dove into homeschooling because of my daughter. When we first relocated to a new area the school systems, when we got there, were really good. And by the time my daughter was entering middle school, it was like somebody flipped the switch and the school systems that were really good became really horrible.
She ended up being the victim of severe bullying and as a result of being bullied, so severely, she developed post-traumatic stress disorder and Schizoaffective disorder. So the mere fact of sending her back into a classroom was a trigger for her.
And I had to find a tool that would give her, not only education, but would also create a pathway for her to do something. I call it the “a now what”. Now that you’re getting a high school diploma now, what are you going to do?
So I needed a now what bridge for her. And I didn’t have the luxury of having a public school system to support me. And the area that we were in, we didn’t even really have any private schools that I wanted to send her to.
When you decided that this was something that you really wanted to get into, how did you prepare for this and how did you make sure that what you were going to be teaching your daughter at home is what she needed?
That’s a great question. I think for me, the way that we prepared for it was I brought my daughter in on all of the conversations and we designed what she wanted her curriculum to look like together. I kind of gave her the skeleton of, “Okay, you’ve got to have four English classes, you’ve got to have four math classes, you’ve got to have four science classes.”
But what those classes look like, you can determine those for yourself. Do you want to do Marine biology or do you want to do regular biology? Do you want to do chemistry or do you want to do a combination of organic and earth chemistry?
So I allowed her to dictate what her classes were and once she selected what she wanted to learn, then I went out and I set the pathway for finding the resources and building it into an online environment. Because she was in and out of the adolescent mental health care facilities a lot.
So I needed something that was going to be very mobile that she could essentially manage her own coursework. Because remember, I’m still trying to work, I still got bills to pay, and I’ve got a child in the hospital who has to really manage her own schooling. So that’s how we ended up where we were.
I love that you were giving her these choices and she’s become an independent person because of this. ‘Cause I think a lot of times when children go to school, there’s no choice. It’s like being in a prison: you do this, you do that.
You have no choice in what you can learn. You’re going to do bad. You’re going to do well. That’s what we decide, what you do, and how you’re going to do with it. So it’s so great that you actually sat down and talked to her about this before creating the curriculum.
Absolutely. I know for myself that it’s working with adult learners. Adult learners tend to do better when they have some control over their learning. And the same thing applies to our non-adult learners, for our children.
People do better when they have some type of control over what is what they’re learning and how they’re learning it.
So once you got these curriculums for your daughter, how did you transition it to become something bigger, into a bigger business that you made for yourself and creating all of these online courses?
What happened to me with my daughter is when I was in the process of trying to build her classes, there was one particular class that she wanted from an independent publisher. And this independent publisher, I went to them, I told them what I was doing.
At this point, I’m affiliated with a university. I was an online faculty manager for new faculty members. And I said, “Hey, I need to purchase some of your K-12 curriculum for my daughter.” And this particular curriculum provider said, “We will not sell to you. We will only sell to school districts and non-profit organizations.” I said, “Oh, okay. Well, hold on, let me go build a non-profit organization and I’ll be back.”
And this particular provider thought that I was joking. And in six months, I had my non-profit foundation up and running. And not only did I just go by the curriculum, I bought 200 licenses of the curriculum. And once I bought 200 licenses, I didn’t need all 200 licenses, but I also knew that there were other families like me who needed access to this curriculum and they couldn’t get it.
Wow. That is amazing. I mean, that’s pretty much where you start off, right? It’s a no and then you turn it into a hell, yes. And you turn it into something bigger than that and bigger than what you ultimately thought what you were going to be doing, which is incredible.
Yeah. I always joke, I said, “If you tell me no, I’m going to turn it into a go and I’m going to steamroll over you in the process.”
So once you decided that this is going to be something that you are going to get into full time, Dr. Annise, did you have what now moment after you had all of these licenses, and what was that like for you?
Oh my God, Debbie. I had so many what now moments. Sometimes I would be sitting there and I’m like, “Okay, God, did you really tell me to do this? Did I hear you or was I just so arrogant that I was listening to my own self?” Because it wasn’t easy.
Some of the struggles that I had, people doubted me. I’m sitting there looking at them like, “Hello, I’m the one that develops the online classes for universities. I’m the one that teaches teachers how to teach. So why would I not be able to homeschool my own child? Do you not see that I have a Ph.D. and five master’s degrees? Actually, I have two Ph.D.” So it’s like, “Why are y’all questioning me again?”
But it’s because I was doing something that was so outside of the norm. And the other thing is when most people think about homeschooling, they have this preconceived idea in their head of what homeschooling is.
Homeschooling is simply taking education and making it fit your family, not the other way around. So I think those were some of my biggest challenges in terms of turning this into a non-profit organization. Remember, Debbie, I started my non-profit because I got mad.
I started a non-profit with no real experience working in non-profits. I mean, the only thing I’d ever done is I’d worked in education and I’d worked in for-profit education at that. So a non-profit was a whole new world for me. I quickly had to figure out how to create bylaws. I had to figure out how to build my own budget.
I knew how to write grants because I’d written them at the university level, but I’d never written them. I’d never written non-profit grants. So what does that look like? And how do you navigate that and how do you build a business plan for a nonprofit?
Because every time I would ask somebody, “I need a business plan for this non-profit,” they would say, “Oh, well, you’re a, non-profit, you’re not a real business.” And it’s like, “Yeah, a nonprofit is a real business. We just don’t sit on the profits at the end of the year, we reinvest them into the community.”
I had a lot of learning to do. And unfortunately, there weren’t a lot of resources for the type of that I was doing. So again I’m out here. I’m like, “Okay, here I go again, building a bridge.” And I used to joke with people all the time, I said, “I just want something that’s already built that I don’t have to build.”
Yeah. And that’s exactly what you did. You started creating all of these different lifelines for you to start your own company. And now you’re educating so many different types of people. You’re right, Dr. Annise, there are so many misconceptions about homeschooling, right?
I was an educator before I started this business and my fiance is still one. He’s a therapist for children with autism. And we tell people all the time, “We do not like the public school systems that we have, specifically in New York City.” And we were like, “We want to homeschool our future children.”
And people looked at us like we were crazy. And they were like, “How are you going to do that?” And we were like, “We have the education. We have all of these backgrounds. I think we can do it.” And I think because people are so afraid that maybe your kid will turn out weird, there’s not going to be any social functions.
And they’re going to be starved for interaction with their peers, which obviously there’s always something around that. And even if you look at people who travel with their children as well, there’s always things that you can do for your children and to educate them, but it doesn’t have to be in that box that people tell you to do
Absolutely, Debbie. The thing that I love the most about homeschooling is once my daughter finished, she graduated in 2015, I had this incredible program that I had built for her. It just felt like a disservice to be like, “Okay, I built this program for my daughter and I’m done.” But I didn’t know what else to do with it.
I always say that when you’re on the right path for something, the “what next” will appear. You don’t have to go look for the what next it just simply appears. And my what next was actually living right next door to me and her name was Beth.
She had dropped out of high school. She and my daughter had gone to high, they’d gone to school together. Beth had gone on to high school in this area and ended up dropping out of school because she was bullied so severely just like my daughter.
And it was actually Beth that gave me the idea to take this program that I had built for my daughter and use it for adults who had dropped out of school to get a high school diploma. When I figured out how to do that for Beth, Debbie, my light came on and I was like, “This is it. This is why I was a police officer. This is why I worked as an elementary teacher. This is why I had all of that experience in working with diverse student populations and at-risk populations.”
Because now the program that I have is the only program in the entire state of Georgia that focuses exclusively on homeless, LGBTQ youth, sex trafficking survivors, and high school dropouts to get them an actual high school diploma and not a GED.
And the other really cool thing about my program is I work with law enforcement agencies. I operate a Cops and Community Program that spends in this part of the adult diploma part. And we have the Chief’s Diploma Program. And again, this is all online.
This is still all very offbeat. Who would think to take a homeschool program into a police department and go up to a police chief and say, “Hey, you’ve got a high dropout rate in your city. Let’s get them some diplomas and let’s turn this around”?
And you’re able to really connect those two things especially with what’s happening today, Dr. Annise, with the authorities and the police not coming together with the community. And that’s where a lot of the problems really come from because we always look at them and we’re fearful.
But what you’re doing is actually bridging that gap to make sure that there’s communication there. And you’re helping children who may not have a place that they feel that they have in society and even in their schools. Because honestly, we should feel the safest in our schools, right?
Because there are people over there who are supposedly going to take care of us but it’s unfortunate that a lot of children in that community do not feel that way. Like you said, they’re getting bullied and they’re not getting the education they need because there are so many other things that they have to go through every single day before they can even get educated, which is really unfortunate.
And that was the biggest thing for me. When you have a child in an environment where they don’t feel safe, you create, I coined the phrase, called academic trauma. And academic trauma is simply, it’s like any other trauma, but it’s related to academics.
So if you’re in a classroom and you’re bullied, then every time you walk into a classroom, even as an adult, that anxiety level for you is going to increase because you remember what it felt like the last time you were in a classroom. And you remember what it felt like to need help from an adult and not receive it.
And so I deal a lot with academic trauma. I deal a lot with foster kids because they move around from foster family to foster family, and there is no continuity of their education. Not only they have academic trauma, but they also have low self-esteem coupled with the academic trauma because they feel like they are unsuccessful academically when it’s actually how their life was set up.
They have no control over being pulled away from a foster family after only two weeks and being sent 40 miles to another foster family. And, “Oh, by the way, the school district that you’re going into never got the records from your other school districts. So you’re just going to have to start over.”
I mean, Debbie, the reality is you’re only going to start over so many times before you give up.
Yeah. And with so many obstacles that you have to go through, it just piles up and you really don’t know what you’re going to do with yourself. That’s why having you and what you’re doing for your community and for these families is so crucial to their success.
And really you came at this with trying to figure out a way for your daughter to thrive and you are ending up helping so many families because of it. So that is such a beautiful thing that you have been able to do and still continuously able to do right now.
I think that is the beauty in all of this. I was talking to one of the police chiefs a couple of weeks ago. And her crime rate when we first started talking to each other and I first started working the program with her was over 69%.
We’ve only been working on this program together for a little under 18 months and her crime rate has dropped down to 16%. She didn’t add another officer to the street. She didn’t go police the areas where there were a lot of complaints.
What we did is we took education, we came with the Chief’s Diploma Program and the beautiful thing about our program is it was online. So people who need it to go to class and they had regular jobs, they didn’t have to stop their life to go to school. They integrate school into their life.
That’s what I tell people about anything in life, “Don’t stop your life to do what you want to do, integrate what you want to do into your life. And then you’ll know what you need to do.”
Yeah. It’s always going to be a roadblock, right? There’s always something there that’s going to stop us. But like you said, Dr. Annise, you have to make sure that you still pull through and you keep going. Because like you, we just use you as an example that you’ve gotten so many nos, and look where you are right now. It’s pretty incredible. If you just keep going and you’re so persistent about it too.
I always say anytime somebody turns tells me no, that’s just simply my code for, “Okay. You said no, that really means you mean on.” And so I’m turning it on and I’m going forward.
So with everything that you have been able to do when you first started this, and you decided that this was going to be a non-profit, how did you land your first student and clients for your online courses?
It was actually word of mouth, Debbie. I didn’t do any advertising because remember I didn’t come from a business background – I was education. So I just had this program and after people saw Beth graduating and they knew that she had dropped out, they were like, “Okay, what did you do to get your diploma? And how do I do it? ”
And so it was like Beth told two people and then those two people told four more people. Beth was the first student that I graduated, the next year I had two students. I had my daughter’s best friend. And then my best friend from high school who I didn’t know had dropped out.
And then the following year I had seven students and one of those seven students was Beth’s grandmother who I didn’t know didn’t have a high school diploma. And then the following year was Beth’s stepfather and her mother. Then that year, in that graduating class, I had 20 graduates. Last year, I had 27 graduates, and this year we’ve got close to 46 graduates.
Wow. That is incredible. And I also want to emphasize that you’re not only educating young people but also adults who really want to make a change in their life and start a pivot. But it can be really hard to do that especially when there’s not a lot of resources out there for them to make that change. And you have been able to really give that to them and make it accessible for everyone.
I think the biggest thing, especially where we are as a culture right now, 30 years ago, if you dropped out of school, you could get a job, no problem. But with the climate that we’re in right now and the minimum entry-level skill sets that are required, if you don’t have a diploma, you don’t have a chance.
And you want to talk about getting people to live life differently, give them an opportunity, and give them some hope. And you will see different personalities emerge because when people have the opportunity and when they have hope, they live differently.
Yeah, absolutely. And all of these things that you have been doing really starts you in on that path. So, Dr. Annise, let’s fast forward to 50 years from now, 30 to 40 years from now, and you’re looking back at your life, what legacy do you want to leave and what you want to be remembered for?
It’s funny that you mentioned what legacy do I want to leave because I’m in a small, rural community right now, I’m in Macon County, Georgia, and Macon County is probably one of the top 10 poorest counties in Georgia. And one of my graduates said to me the other day, she said, “Dr. Mabry, you are changing the face of Macon County.”
She said, “For the first time, we don’t feel like we’ve been forgotten. We don’t feel like we’re nothing. We feel like we have a chance, that we can go to school. We’re not at a dead end. I really felt like I was at a dead end. And I just didn’t know how to get around that brick wall that just kept stopping me.”
And as I look back, I’ve been doing this for 20 years now. And what do I want my legacy to look like? Every time I put a diploma in someone’s hands – that’s my legacy, Debbie. My legacy is not of what I’ve done but it’s what I’m leaving behind.
And I’m leaving behind opportunity, I’m leaving behind hope. I’m leaving behind open doors. I’m leaving behind families that never had a high school graduate before. Now they’re having three, four, five generations of high school graduates.
In this graduating class that’s coming up on July 11th, I got six sisters. Two sets of three sisters that are all getting high school diplomas. Do you know how powerful that is going to be for that family and for breaking those cycles? My legacy is the footprints that I’m leaving in the community and it’s really in these diplomas.
So you have definitely already made an impact in a lot of people’s lives even before we reached that, even before 20 to 30 years from now, what would you say has been the best moment for you so far out of all of these different things that you have done and heard and really have seen from the communities that you have been working with?
Actually, I don’t think there’s like one best moment. I think there’s like a series of them. Beth will always be my aha moment of when I realized this is what I’m supposed to be doing. My second aha moment came with a young man called Damien.
Damien had dropped out of school when he was in middle school. He never believed that he was ever going to get a high school diploma. And he thought that he always just going to work under the table cash jobs. And Damian was homeless on the streets of Atlanta and he was a young gay man.
One of my friends took him in and we worked with him for an entire summer to get him up to speed, to be able to do the academic level classes with me. And now I look at Damien and he’s owning his own business. He’s actually taken in his little brother and he’s making sure that his brother gets an education. He told me, “Dr. Mabry, if my brother gets to the point that he can’t go to school anymore, then he’s going to come to you because I know that you’ll get him a diploma.”
And even looking at some of the grandmothers, because we also do an honorary diploma program. Last year, we had a grandmother and a granddaughter graduate together. I mean, Debbie, who’s impacted me? It’s all of them. It’s watching where they’ve come from, watching where they’re going, and watching that I play just a small, tiny role in helping them to get there.
Yeah. And obviously, everyone has their own unique story. And for you to watch that unfold and for you to be a part of that must be so rewarding for you as well.
It is. I think a lot of people go on these journeys to figure out: “What’s my purpose? What am I supposed to be doing? Who am I supposed to help?” Because I think all of us are here to help someone.
Maybe you are a TV news anchor and you’re helping is bringing the news to people’s houses every day so that they know who to connect with when they need something. Maybe you’re helping is your call to be a police officer. Because we do need good officers out there. Maybe you’re helping is simply you’re just being a good person in your community. Maybe that means running for public office. it’s just finding your calling.
And when you find your calling of what you’re supposed to do, you won’t have to push and to make it happen. It will just kind of flow seamlessly for you. Not to say that there won’t be stressors and there won’t be moments of where you go, “Oh my God, what am I doing?” Or “Why did I do this?” Or “Are you sure that this is really what I was supposed to do?”
But when you’re walking into what you’re supposed to be doing, it just simply flows.
Yeah. It’s kind of interesting how with a lot of things in life, we’re always fighting for it but when we’re at the path that we’re supposed to be, like you said, it flows and it just happens naturally. There are definitely still obstacles but you’re going to keep going because it’s what you’re meant to be. And it just makes sense.
Yes. And when you’re on the right path obstacles become opportunities. And I always joke with people when something happens, I said, “Okay, we don’t have challenges, we have chances. We don’t have obstacles, we have opportunities.”
Yeah. I love that quote. And I love that motto in life because that’s how you keep going. That’s how life is. It’s not always the best part. There’s always going to be things that are definitely going to challenge you along the way. And that’s what’s going to make you stronger.
Yes, I absolutely agree with that.
So, Dr. Annise, are you working on anything currently that is really exciting to you?
I am working on a movie script for my documentary called The Box Breakers. It is actually the story of the residents of Macon County and how this program came in. We partnered with the law enforcement agencies in the County and we built this diploma program. And then we turned around and built a community policing resource center. And so all of this is getting ready to be turned into a Netflix documentary very soon.
Oh my goodness. That is so exciting, Dr. Annise. And I can’t wait to be able to see that and see what happens. And I’m really interested in that. So if our listeners want to know more about you, where can they find you?
Great question. Okay. So if you want to know more about the programs that we do, it’s DrAnniseMabry.com. If you want to know more about the alternative diploma program or someone who’s dropped out of school and needs a high school diploma, we are in all 50 States now, and that address is TiersFreeAcademy.org.
And all of these I’m sure will be in the show notes because Debbie is absolutely amazing with her show notes. And then if you want to, let’s say you want to be a donor, we love donors, we need donors, we always can use financial help, feel free to send us a recurring monthly donation or even a one-time donation.
Because some of the programs that we’ve got coming up, we’ve got Backpack With A Cop where we go out and we pass out backpacks filled with school supplies to children in need. We’ve also got our Christmas With A Cop. I know it’s July but Christmas is literally right around the corner.
So we’re always looking for people to sponsor families. We also have an Amazon wishlist. So if you feel so inclined to go shop for us I will share of our greatest needed wishlist with Debbie, and she can drop those in the show notes.
Perfect. That is incredible. I am so happy that you are here with us and for us to be able to share your incredible story with our audience. Thank you so much, Dr. Annise
Thank you, Debbie.
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Audio Engineer: Ben Smith