In the early days of the pandemic, many parents shared a puzzling feeling.
Stuck with kids at home in quarantine, they couldn’t stand to hear another episode of Gravity Falls, and getting their kids to pay attention in a boring Zoom class seemed like an impossible task. In-person activities that could offer their kids stimulation—and offer parents some relief—were canceled indefinitely.
So where could parents turn? What could they do? How could they parent in a pandemic without letting kids’ brains turn to mush by looking at screens 24/7?
Chris Ryan and Leslie Kerner knew the feeling, too. When New Jersey-based Kerner sent a survey asking parents she knew about takeaways from the pandemic schooling experience, North Carolina-based Ryan knew that Kerner would be the perfect partner to adapt an idea of his own—Silverquicken, a novel series—into an innovative educational product. Kerner was “sold.”
“He told me about the story he was envisioning, a middle-grade novel that sort of guides all of our learning principles,” Kerner said. “It’s a fictional story of 10 kids who are part of the secret Silverquicken School, which is a secret society kind of thing. It’s mysterious. It’s a mystery adventure story. And he told me about this and he said, ‘I’m thinking this is a way we can reach kids through this in the pandemic,’ and I said, ‘I’m sold. My kid is the first one to sign up. I’m gonna help you do whatever we can do.’”
Carrboro-based Silverquicken—a fun, educational mail-order puzzle kit service—was born. The startup was recently a semifinalist for NC IDEA’s $50K SEED grants.
Kerner and Ryan are no stranger to the education space. While studying at Duke’s Fuqua Business School, the pair started Academic Fellows, a tutoring support system for fellow business school students.
Both entered business school with a passion for education—Ryan worked as a teacher before attending Fuqua and Kerner went to Fuqua looking to transition from management consulting for edtech companies. Both also began working in edtech after graduation, with Kerner developing educator training products as a Senior Vice President at Amplify and Ryan innovating standardized test prep projects as Vice President of Academics at Manhattan Prep.
On the side, Ryan started writing educational novels for kids through stories about a secret society called Silverquicken. As the pandemic threw education systems into flux he realized Silverquicken could be much more than a story—it could be an educational product to help overwhelmed parents keep their kids sharp, engaged and off screens.
Most enrichment curriculum is focused towards pre-K, early elementary or high school students. Silverquicken’s curriculum is geared toward the “forgotten middle” of upper elementary and middle school students, who often lack the engaging material that other age demographics may have access to.
Said Ryan, “We realized that’s really where we have both the opportunity and the need to reach kids with really unique enrichment to bring the best of what we might call ‘gifted’ education—cool, creative, challenging, and community-building— to those kids. You reach them as they’re coming out of early elementary and starting to feel like they’re being assessed and sorted into different tracks. They’re starting to question, ‘Do I like math anymore? Do I like science? I’m not good at math, so I’m gonna go away from it.’ That’s when you start losing kids.”
It’s at this age, both founders said, that some kids begin to give up. The pandemic has only heightened this phenomenon, Kerner said. Silverquicken’s hands-on tools and intriguing storytelling looks to keep these kids engaged, even as they met virtually with instructors over the height of quarantine.
“In the pandemic, we’ve all seen kids not just lose academic skills because they weren’t in school, but they’ve lost a lot of the confidence that they need to attack novel problems and to attack things that they haven’t seen before,” Kerner said. “That’s no knock on our teachers—our teachers have been doing an incredible job with having to go virtual and then hybrid—but at some point, it was survival. It was, ‘How can we get the information over in any way?’ There wasn’t as much time for kids to do hands-on work, or to have to really think hard, because you’re gonna lose them through a screen.”
When parents buy a subscription to Silverquicken’s “Quest Club,” Silverquicken sends a “Box of Wonders” introductory kit full of mysterious tools like ciphers within two weeks of subscribing. After that, families receive a new quest to complete every month.
While Silverquicken’s first product fit well with a pandemic world, as parents looked to get their kids back to in-person activities, the startup adapted. Today, Silverquicken has established in-person “Silverquicken Afterschool” in 14 schools across the country—including in Ryan’s Carrboro—for middle school and elementary school kids.
Parents pay for a six- or 12-week course, which includes materials and puzzles similar to if they were doing Silverquicken Quest Club while providing students with instruction and a collaborative environment.
Some have criticized traditional gifted education metrics as being biased to create a cohort that doesn’t include students based on their neurodivergence or family income. But when Silverquicken says its motto is “The best parts of gifted education made accessible to all,” they mean it. When schools don’t cover the cost of afterschool for all students, either schools or the company create scholarships to help lower-income students attend the program.
Silverquicken has a lot to look forward to. Ryan is looking to publish his first Silverquicken novel in 2024, and both founders are looking to the metaverse as a future place for kids to virtually live their Silverquicken fantasies. Puzzles, they found, are an “equity point” for kids of all backgrounds and abilities. Ryan hopes that one day that these puzzles could even be used as diagnostic tools for a new, more democratic kind of gifted education.
“Puzzles draw kids in who might not be responding to what they see as boring classwork, or a standardized test that isn’t interesting,” Ryan said. “But for a kid—especially one overlooked by those things, who is gifted and has some serious talents but for various reasons [it] is not being picked up by other things—puzzles provide an opportunity. They find a puzzle that just grips them and then they go spend two days with it, or they spend an half an hour with it, but come up with all these different interesting angles. This really is an equity point.”