After my remembrance of Connections Education CEO Barbara Dreyer on the heels of her passing, many people who knew Barbara reached out and shared their own stories of their time with her. Julie Young, founder and former CEO of the Florida Virtual School and, along with Barbara, a disruptive innovator and pioneer of the K–12 online learning movement, sent me her remarks that she made at Barbara’s celebration of life ceremony. With Julie’s permission, I am sharing her heartfelt words:

My relationship with Barbara began in 2003 as a competitor when CA ventured into Florida; later we would often joke that it seemed like a lifetime ago. We were two scrappy women, who always seemed to find ourselves swimming up stream, fighting for what we believed was the good fight for kids. We had almost instant admiration for each other as we began to discover that we were incredibly aligned on our values. We spent the first few years trying to convince each other that our toys were better than the others, and then thanks to the Florida Legislature we found ourselves in the precarious position of becoming partners.

People often ask me, “how do you choose your partners?”  My answer is an easy one; after the typical financial sustainability and legal clearance,  first and foremost, I look at the leadership of the organization and how they run their company. I talk to their employees to see what they think of their organization and determine their convictions. I then look for a shared vision and a heart for kids.  It is my belief that if you let the students’ needs guide your decisions, great things will follow. Barbara shared that belief. In my business, our families, legislators and taxpayers were our shareholders. We used to say that our profits came in the form of student success. Some would argue that a private company could never really put the student at the center of their decisions; driving revenue was first and foremost. Barbara changed that paradigm. After spending a few hours together, it was instantly clear that there was a shared vision and that she had a huge heart for kids. During the years that followed, regardless of her P&L, I watched Barbara develop amazing relationships with her families and put students first.

At first it seemed we could not have been more different.  One night over dinner after a long day walking the halls of the FL Capitol, we made a list. Her background was in corporate finance and mine was very much of a traditional educator, recognizing Florida Virtual School was an exception. She had always worked in private sector, and I had always worked in public sector.  Her brain worked in numbers and my brain worked in words. She raised girls and I raised boys. She was really tall and I was really short. She wore boots and I wore pumps. She rode horses and I was the girl from KY who tended to fall off horses.  She had an expense account, I had a per diem.

But our similarities were what really mattered. We shared an incredible passion for changing the face of education and the lives of children and were determined not to take no for an answer. It wasn’t that we saw a better way, but we saw a different way that was better for some children. We also saw our work as our play and our work teams as our extended family. If you listen to Barbara’s team talk about what it was like to work for her and the environment she created, it was and still is a family. You feel the warmth the moment you walk into the Connections Education Corporate office. Most of her 11 executive team members have been with her since day one; one has followed her for 22 years. We all know that people don’t work for companies, they work for their bosses.

But we soon discovered that leveraging our differences was our silver bullet as we built a ground-breaking private/public partnership in Florida. Don’t get me wrong, it hasn’t all been daisies and rainbows. The difference was that when the weeds appeared, the trust we shared allowed us to go mano a mano to reach a solution and then talk about what our families were doing for Thanksgiving.

To describe Barbara, many adjectives come to mind. We have all witnessed her strength and courage over these many months. She was so determined to continue to push forward, that from a distance, it was easy to forget she was ill. I’m sure that is exactly what she wanted. Often the only way you were reminded she was sick was when an email reply took more than a few hours.  But she also had the courage to share her journey to bring more awareness to cancer and the devastation it breeds. I admire that self-less courage.

Barbara was a classic disrupter with an innovative spirit. She could see beyond the obvious. Whenever she was in the room, she spoke with passionate purpose. She always did her homework and had so much detail in her brain that she would often leave others somewhat speechless. It was a great negotiating tactic. She never held back and always left it all on the floor.

Barbara was Tenacious with a capital T. She really wanted to know in a deep way what worked and what didn’t work educationally in our schools, so she would dig, dig, dig into the data looking for patterns. She was notorious for doing complex statistical analyses at 2 am and stunning everyone with her insights when they opened their email the next morning. Her intellectual curiosity and her belief in data were the real deal. To this day, I think she knows more about Florida education legislation and formulas than most anyone working or residing in the state.

I was always struck by how she analyzed a situation, managing to play out all of the scenarios with such depth.  I remember telling Pam Birtolo, our Chief Education Officer, that I wish I could live a day in her brain. The results of her analysis would often come in the form of a verbose email, finding its way to your inbox first thing in the morning, shortly after she had just gone to bed and you had just gotten up. She was a night owl and we shared our distain for alarm clocks.
Barbara was a woman of significant character and integrity, never shying away from openly facing the bad news and taking her share of the blame. As an industry leader, when the press would take on virtual education, Barbara would bring the accusations to the forefront, opening the kimono and facing them head-on; confirming the accuracy of the allegations and identifying a go forward strategy or clearing up the inaccuracies with data or a commissioned third party study.  Barbara was one of those people who did the right things for the right reasons.

John Bailey, VP of Policy at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, remembers Barbara as “always being the adult in the room, pushing for what was good for kids.” Barbara made online/blended learning all about kids and families, and not in an abstract way – she made it a point to personally get to know many students and was so moved by their stories that it kept the focus on the right things for her and all those around her.

Barbara was a shrewd and determined business woman. I personally loved this about her. You always knew where you stood and she was the first to pick the phone up and call when something was out of kilter. There were no whispers in the shadows; she would readily cut to the chase. Cecilia Lopez, former Business Development Officer for FLVS,  found herself in the unfortunate position of having to negotiate a contract with Barbara in the past few months. She shared the following:

“Barbara is by far one of the craftiest negotiators that I’ve ever dealt with, but she is fair. Her points and counterpoints were just and fair. Our conversations took place over the course of multiple weeks. She would provide us with dates when she would be in the hospital and when she would be available. I remember a day that she was in the hospital and she was on the phone with us. The doctor came in and she asked us to hold. As feisty as she was with us, she was as feisty with that doctor. She never wavered on her convictions regarding the negotiations and I experienced first hand that she was going to fight like hell for her life and everything that reflected her life.”

Over the years I have seen Barbara through a number of lenses – ranging from an educational leader and pioneer, a competitor, a well respected colleague, a wonderful wife and mother and my friend.  We meet a great deal of people over the course of our careers and lives and in some manner they all make an impact on us.  What few do though is make a major impact on society.  To be able to serve in a role where you can impact so many people is an honor and a blessing.  Barbara is one of those people and her impact will be felt for years to come. We will miss having the opportunity to work with her on the big things that might revolutionize education and we will cherish the time we’ve had.

As I reflect, I am reminded that we get very few chances to do the big things with the people who inspire us and we need to jump at every opportunity to do them.  Let that be a lesson to all of us. Barbara did that and will be remembered for all of those she helped and how her work will endure.

When I received the call asking me to come and share my heart and memories of Barbara, as you might imagine, a flood of emotions took over. I was incredibly honored and humbled as my admiration and love for Barbara is immeasurable. I felt an immediate sense of responsibility, as I thought about all of the incredible colleagues Barbara has surrounded herself with and the loss they are all feeling today; I want to honor their loss as a community. Many of them could not be here today and send their love. And finally, I felt a sense of peace because I would finally have the opportunity to meet her beautiful family that she talked about so often and to say, “I’ll see you later, my friend. Keep everyone in line up there. We love you.”


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.