Making Schools Their Business

By David Hill — January 01, 1990 21 min read

When Larry Sawyer talks about public schools, he sounds like a corporate vice president who has been asked to slash spending and show some results—or else. Schools, he says, are like bloated bureaucracies; if you want to change them, you have to nudge them until you get a “positive outcome.” Students, he believes, must be “productive” in order to become “net assets” rather than “net liabilities.”

Two years ago, while recuperating from surgery, Sawyer, director of government relations and civic affairs for General Mills, came up with a plan to “nudge” the Minneapolis Public Schools. As he saw it, the school district was in trouble. Thanks, in part, to white flight, the proportion of minority students had nearly tripled, from 14.5 percent in 1971 to 42.5 percent and growing, and the minority students were disproportionately represented among those considered “at risk.”

Sawyer based his plan on the premise that students learn much better in smaller classes than in larger ones, and that compensatory programs designed to provide remedial help to lagging students are not particularly successful at improving academic achievement. To test his ideas, Sawyer proposed a three-year pilot project called the Public School Academy, and he persuaded the General Mills Foundation to fork over $350,000 to help get it started. By a slim majority (the vote was 4 to 3), the Minneapolis School Board approved the plan; by September 1988, the PSA was up and running.

The jury is still out, but the PSA—currently with 168 kindergarten-through-5th-grade students—appears to be proving Sawyer’s thesis correct. An evaluation by the school district of the Academy’s first year found that students performed well on standardized tests, “with some uncommonly large gains in some areas.” And teachers were “enthusiastic” and had “favorable opinions about their working conditions.”

While Sawyer was working on his proposal, Ray Harris, a Minneapolis real-estate developer, was having his own worries about the Minneapolis schools. “Minneapolis has a good school system,” Harris said at the time, “but we feel it could be even better.” The “we” was an informal group of friends and associates who had banded together to figure out what they could do to improve the schools.

“Two or three of us started talking that way, and the group just kept getting bigger and bigger,” he says. “You could just see the interest. We went for three or four months like this, and we finally said, ‘Let’s quit talking about it and just do something.’”

Here’s what they did: First, they came up with some general guidelines for a proposed demonstration school, one that would be seen as a “leading edge” program with the potential for achieving a “critical breakthrough” in education. The school would take advantage of “the combined wisdom and resources” of local businesses and the school district, and it would encourage the decisionmaking involvement of teachers and parents. And it would do these things without spending any more per student than other Minneapolis schools.

In April 1988, the group created a steering committee of 18 that included Harris as chairman and a hand-picked group of businesspeople, teachers, school administrators, and parents. (“We wanted to make sure that everybody who had an ax to grind was on the committee,” Harris says.) The immediate task at hand was to come up with a specific proposal to present to the Minneapolis School Board by the end of the year. To do that, Harris hit upon an idea: Why not hold a competition, complete with prize money, to find the best ideas for a new school?

“When my company looks at a new project,” Harris explains, “we have 10 or 15 architects submit proposals. You get the winner, but you also get proposals from people who have damned good ideas. So I said, ‘Why don’t we do that?’”

The winning submission—from a former principal and a former teacher, who received $5,000 for their efforts—evolved into the Chiron School, named after the wise centaur who tutored Achilles and Hercules. The school would combine academics with real-life experiences for 120 5th and 6th grade students from throughout Minneapolis. Harris agreed to raise $300,000 to $400,000 in private-sector money to help cover the start-up costs.

Despite some opposition from the local principals’ organization (Harris wanted the flexibility to set up the school “whatever way we think will work best,” with or without a principal), the school board last spring unanimously approved the proposal for a three-year pilot program, and the school opened last fall. “Now, that’s more of a miracle than what we did—how we did it,” boasts Harris. “In one year we did the whole damn thing.”

Sawyer, 46, and Harris, 60, are among a growing number of business leaders who feel compelled to roll up their sleeves and get involved in school reform. Motivated, in part, by the obvious fact that today’s students are tomorrow’s employees, many business leaders are no longer content to watch from the sidelines as schools struggle to improve. Some are providing money. Others are using their positions and stature to criticize, inspire, and prod. And still others—believing that those who manage schools can only benefit from the experience and expertise of business—are taking a more hands-on approach, coming up with grandiose plans to restructure the schools.

The paths Sawyer and Harris followed to put their ideas into action were remarkably similar: Both men saw a school system in need of help, both came up with proposals to help fix the problem, and both had enough business knowhow to raise the money and get their projects off the ground. In addition, both had the good fortune to live in a city where the school superintendent, the school board, and the local teachers’ union are willing to try new ideas—wherever they come from.

At the sleek, austere, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill-designed General Mills Headquarters west of downtown Minneapolis, Larry Sawyer is singing the praises of small-class sizes. He’s dressed in typically corporate attire: blue suit, blue button-down shirt, blue striped tie. After a few minutes, it becomes clear that this is a man who has thought a great deal about education.

The way he sees it, Minneapolis school teachers—because of the increasing number of at-risk students in the school system—are forced to devote too much of their time to classroom discipline and socialization. “In this environment,” he says, “very little may be demanded of better prepared students except that they behave and create a minimal amount of work.”

Sawyer also believes that as the school population has become more difficult to teach, the school system has responded by slapping on Band-Aids: compensatory programs to provide remedial help. “None of these programs has been particularly successful in improving academic achievement,” he says. For Sawyer, student performance is the bottom line; he considers any school program not directly related to it a waste of valuable resources.

“What I’m saying is that because we’re not going to get a lot of new resources, we’ve got to start to think about moving some of [the resources we have] back into the classroom,” Sawyer says. “And the literature suggests that you don’t get [improved student performance] by going from 32 students in a class down to 28. You’ve got to get it down to where you can make a change, and that’s 14 or 15.”

Sawyer’s proposal for the Public School Academy called for a K-6 school with two classes at each grade level, each with a 14-to-1 student-teacher ratio. The students would be selected to reflect the district’s overall demographics. Teachers from throughout the district could apply to work at the school, but the teaching staff would be selected to reflect the district’s teacher population. There would be no special classes for gifted or academically slow students. In addition, teachers at the school would share decisionmaking responsibilities with the principal, and communication between teachers and parents would be not merely encouraged, but essential.

The $350,000 from General Mills would be start-up money; if after three years, the school district decided to keep the school going, it would have to foot the bill on its own.

With 140 K-4 students and nine teachers (plus a part-time Spanish teacher), the PSA opened its doors in September 1988. (Two 5th grade classes were added this year, and two 6th grade classes will be added next year.) Located in a wing of Bethune Elementary School in north Minneapolis, across the street from the graffiti-covered buildings of the Sumner-Olson Housing Project, the Academy’s classrooms are very much like those in any other inner-city school. Two differences, however, stand out: The classes are noticeably quieter than most (due to the small number of students in each classroom), and on each teacher’s desk sits a telephone.

The telephones have proved so successful that one wonders why more schools haven’t tried the idea. “Of all the things that came into this,” says Sawyer, “the thing that worked the best was the phone in the classroom. Normally, when 2:30 rolls around or their shift is over, Minneapolis public school teachers punch their time clock and go home. In the Public School Academy, they sit down, pick up the phone, and call the parents.”

“It’s made me feel like a professional,” says 5th grade teacher Ann Tank, who calls her students’ parents at least twice a week to let them know how their children are doing. “I no longer have to wait in line at one central location to make a phone call.”

Sawyer was so confident that his experiment would work he claimed in his proposal that 75 percent of the students in grades 2-4 would demonstrate at least 14 months’ growth in reading and math on the California Achievement Tests during the 1988-89 school year. That didn’t happen: 43 percent of the 2nd-through4th-grade students reached his goal in reading, while 60 percent did so in math. However, the first-year evaluation conducted by the Minneapolis Public Schools called those gains “uncommonly large.”

What did the teachers think of the PSA’s first year? According to the evaluation, the shared decisionmaking got high marks, although all the teachers described the process as time consuming. For the most part, job satisfaction was high: The teachers said they were stimulated to grow professionally, and they depended on each other and helped each other more than in previous schools. In addition, the evaluation concluded, “A high trust level existed among teachers and between them and their principal.”

Six teachers felt the school needed some of the very resources that were left out of the plan, such as a social worker, a speech teacher, or a physical education teacher. To get these, three of the teachers were willing to add a few more children per class.

The students’ views, for some reason, weren’t included in the evaluation, but Principal JoAnn Heryla says their response has been favorable. “What I’ve seen is that kids come to school excited, and then go home every day excited,” she says. “What better feedback than that? There is a sense of belonging.”

Larry Sawyer may have come up with the idea for the PSA on his own, but without the backing of the General Mills Foundation, it might never have seen the light of day. The foundation gives a lot of money to educational programs ($1.6 million last year), but most of them are already in place. The PSA was different: Here was a plan for a completely new school, one that would incorporate some of the best ideas of the education-reform movement and—if it proved successful—could be replicated throughout the entire Minneapolis school system.

“The foundation accepts ideas to be considered from all sources, but we love to have ideas presented to us by employees of General Mills,” says Reatha King, the foundation’s president and executive director. “This was particularly exciting because Larry knew the schools, and he knew the needed ingredients to make the project work.” Although King wasn’t working at General Mills when Sawyer’s proposal was given the thumbs-up, she calls it “profound” and supports it wholeheartedly. “We’re already considering the idea of expanding the project,” she says.

Sawyer says he has no intention of running the Minneapolis Public Schools, but rather he wants to show the school district that classes with fewer students produce better students. And if he can demonstrate that, then he thinks the city schools will require nothing less than total restructuring. “Our goal is to show them that it can work,” he says.

Minneapolis School Board member Ann Kaari isn’t so sure that replication is such a good idea. “I’m just afraid that we’re going to create a real space crunch if we try to replicate it,” she says. Space—or rather, the lack of space—was one of the reasons why Kaari voted against Sawyer’s proposal. And some parents, Kaari says, were worried that General Mills was going to dictate the school’s curriculum. “But,” she adds, “I think some of those same parents are rethinking their skepticism.”

Kaari supports the PSA’s concept—as well as the high level of business involvement in the Minneapolis Public Schools—but she has some doubts about whether or not the school is achieving what it set out to do. She points out, for example, that the school failed to meet its stated studentperformance goals. And although Kaari acknowledges that the students have shown academic improvement, she adds, “I know some of the teachers over there, and they would be good teachers wherever they taught.” She’s watching the school very carefully.

But then, so is Sawyer: “The way I look at it, I’ve got my neck on the line with a $350,000 gamble. I talked the foundation out of a big chunk of change. This is one of the biggest grants they’ve ever made. I’m damn interested in seeing it work.”

Certainly, General Mills wants to see the PSA succeed, but King insists that the foundation is keeping its hands off the project. “We intend to work with them in a very respectful manner,” she says. “We don’t try to do their job. We don’t second-guess them. We don’t sneak around.”

Within minutes after sitting down for an inter- view at his downtown Minneapolis office to discuss the Chiron School, Ray Harris, with no prompting, says, “I have no selfish reasons to be involved in this.” If he sounds a bit defensive, maybe it’s because Harris is used to explaining his actions. As one of Minneapolis’s leading developers, Harris has made a name for himself through risky, inner-city ventures that have helped transform the heart of the city.

One such project, a shopping mall called Calhoun Square, faced stiff opposition when it was first proposed by Harris, who was portrayed as a money-grubber bent on destroying a neighborhood. He managed to get it built, however, and many of those same people who once opposed the project have since changed their minds.

Reflecting on the controversy, Harris told a reporter for The Minneapolis Star & Tribune in 1985: “I think I’m entitled to honest treatment, and I don’t think I got it. I’m perceived as a person that causes change in the world. If they don’t like that, they’re not going to like me.”

Fast forward to December 1988. Harris and his steering committee were ready to present their Chiron Middle School proposal to the Minneapolis School Board. They wanted to create an experimental school that would be a true partnership between the Minneapolis business community and the public schools. They wanted the students—300 in grades 5-8—to attend school at three community-based learning centers for 12-week sessions. Each site would emphasize a different field of study, and students, rather than learning from textbooks, would get firsthand information from “mentors” in the community. The student-teacher ratio would be 20 to 1. Like the Public School Academy, no special education or gifted and talented classes would be offered. And each classroom would have a telephone.

The committee wanted the school to be run by a “management council” composed of teachers, parents, the principal, and representatives from businesses that had pledged start-up money for the school. They wanted “lump-sum budgeting,” whereby the council would have the authority to allocate funds as they saw fit. And they wanted to hire teachers based on talent rather than seniority (provisions in collective bargaining agreements normally give teachers with seniority first dibs on job openings). “It’s the way we hire people in the private sector,” says Harris. “If you’ve got eight people who want a job, you interview them all and then you make a decision. It has no relation to experience or years of service.”

He adds: “We wanted to have complete freedom as to how the school was set up. We were talking about doing some new things in different ways. We didn’t want to be constrained by any of the past rules.”

The result of all this, of course, would be improved student performance: Students, the committee’s proposal predicted, would exceed the district’s achievement average by 15 percent and the daily attendance average by 5 percent. And these increases, it said, would cost no more per pupil than other Minneapolis schools spend. The committee also forecasted that 80 percent of the students would report positive attitudes toward the Chiron School.

For the most part, Harris and his committee got what they wanted. The school board approved of the plan unanimously, with some stipulations: A board member was to serve on the management council, and the school district was to choose the school’s students, approve budgets, and see quarterly financial statements.

But getting the board’s approval wasn’t easy. No Minneapolis public school had ever tried lump-sum budgeting, which, in effect, takes power away from the school board and puts it in the hands of a local governing panel. At first, the board wanted to delay the project for a year. Harris vehemently objected: “We said, ‘No. We don’t back off on anything. We do it now or we’re never going to do it.’” He adds: “There were three solid votes for us, the other three were on the fence, and it took a lot of lobbying to convince them.”

“I think we all had questions,” says board member Ann Kaari. “We’re going to be monitoring it very closely. One of our concerns was the cost. We wanted to make sure the business community fulfilled its commitment to the school.” Board member Judy Farmer shared Kaari’s concerns: “We wanted to be sure we were in a partnership. We didn’t want to be left holding the bag.” In fact, board member David Tilsen says that some of the businesses haven’t come through with their pledges.

“That is absolutely not the case,” counters Harris. “We haven’t requested that everyone turn over their money. We wanted to work out a three-year budget before doing that.”

The Chiron Steering Committee is now running the school while it figures out how to set up the Chiron Management Council. Harris says he assumes that many of those on the committee will end up on the council, which will be composed of a “meaningful representation” of parents, teachers, administrators, union officials, and businesspeople. The size of the council has not yet been determined.

At the end of the three-year pilot program, the Chiron School will presumably become self-sufficient and the private-sector contributions will no longer be necessary. The management council, however, will remain in place. Harris makes it clear that he doesn’t want the Chiron School to be just another magnet school; he wants the school—or at least some of its ideas—to be replicated throughout the entire Minneapolis school system. “We want to have an impact on all of public education in this city,” he says.

The lights have just gone out at the Chiron Middle School, located in a former parochial school just west of downtown Minneapolis. (The school has two other sites, one downtown and the other at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Agriculture in St. Paul.) “We’re having a little problem here,” says Kathleen Burke, the school’s principal. “I think we just blew a fuse. These things happen.”

Minutes later, the lights are back on. Burke looks tired. Starting a school from scratch hasn’t been easy. After the school board approved the plan last April, the steering committee had four months to hire a staff, find three school sites, acquire start-up money, and, of course, enroll students. “It’s tough taking something from a dream to a reality,” Burke says.

At present, the Chiron School has 120 5th and 6th grade students, with 40 at each site. (By 1991, the school will reach its limit of 240 5th-through-8thgrade students.) Each site has two teachers, one of whom remains at the site for the entire year while the other rotates with the students every 12 weeks. About 200 students applied to the school, and, as with the Public School Academy, those selected had to reflect the demographics of the entire district. (“We wanted a true cross section of the kids in Minneapolis, so nobody could accuse us of dealing only with the affluent, white middle class,” says Harris.)

The academic focus is different at each site. At the parochial school site, located just a stone’s throw from the Walker Art Center, the emphasis, naturally, is on fine arts. Downtown, where class is held at the College of St. Thomas, the focus is on government and economics. Meanwhile, at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Agriculture, environmental education and science set the tone. At each location, a parent known as a “site coordinator” arranges for visiting speakers and mentors.

Basic skills are not neglected, but taught thematically depending on the site. For example, in St. Paul, the students learn vocabulary words based on the books they read, and those books are related to the site’s emphasis on science and the environment: Never Cry Wolf, All Creatures Great and Small, and The Call of the Wild, to name a few.

Not everything has worked out as planned. Jane Mergy, a teacher at the downtown site, says she originally wanted to set up each student with a mentor in the downtown community. Then she found out that mentors would have to be screened by the school district, an obvious necessity but something that discourages community involvement. Mentors now must come to the school. “That really put a damper on what I wanted to do,” she says.

Mergy also says it has been tough finding time to develop the curriculum, especially with all the meetings to deal with the logistics of starting a brand-new school. “For the last three months,” she says, “I’ve had a meeting every single night.” Still, she adds, the Chiron School “is at the forefront of what’s happening in education.” Business getting involved with public education, she believes, is the wave of the future. “I think it has to be. If they want people who are responsible and well-educated in the business arena, I think they will have to help make it happen. Especially since the funding [for public education] is being cut left and right. I do think it’s their responsibility. It’s everyone’s responsibility.”

Board member David Tilsen puts it more succinctly: “Why do you rob banks? Because that’s where the money is. Why do we get money from corporations? Because that’s where the money is.”

Students seem to like the Chiron School and its emphasis on experiential learning. “My class goes outside a lot,” wrote one student in the school newsletter. “We have recess at the Federal Reserve Bank.” Another student wasn’t so thrilled: “Am I learning? Yes, I am learning. But I wouldn’t mind some textbooks.”

It’s no accident that the impetus for the PSA and the Chiron School came from people outside the school system, says Louise Sundin, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. “Sometimes you need that outside stimulus to prod the bureaucracy,” she says, echoing Larry Sawyer’s words. “I don’t think it would have worked if it had just been our idea. Sometimes you need an institutional irreverence to make changes.” Not that business could have done it alone: Everyone seems to agree that without the support of the union (both Sawyer and Harris sought Sundin’s cooperation and advice), the schools would never have gotten beyond the drawing board.

But will they get beyond the experiment stage? Perhaps. Two more Public School Academy-type schools are due to open next fall, although the school board has not yet given final approval. As for the Chiron School, only time will tell. “We’re quite a ways from talking about that,” says Superintendent Robert Ferrera. “The whole thing is dependent upon an increase in student achievement levels. If the school doesn’t improve student performance, then it’s just another marketing device.”

Meanwhile, Sawyer and Harris are in demand. Sawyer says he has received 80 to 90 calls about the PSA during the last year—from reporters, academics, businesspeople, and politicians. And people from all over the country are calling Harris to find out how he started the Chiron School. He says he has devoted 20 to 25 percent of his time to the project during the last year. “I’m not in the education business,” Harris complains, knowing full well that—whether he likes it or not—he is now.

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as Making Schools Their Business