Verree D. Laughlin wants to launch a network of small, community-oriented charter schools, starting with one near the Mexican border in Yuma, Ariz. Katheryn Crayton-Shay recently took the reins of a beleaguered Hawaii charter school that she’s struggling to get back on its feet. Jason Guerrero is working to replicate a Pueblo, Colo., charter school with new campuses across the state.
All three are part of a relatively new breed: public education entrepreneurs. They’re also students in a master’s-degree program specially designed for their ilk. The Leadership for Educational Entrepreneurs, or LEE, program, housed at the west campus of Arizona State University in Phoenix, and financed under a federal grant, blends coursework from the education and business schools and targets those in the charter school arena.
The three students—or protégés, as they’re called—gathered here along with 20 others this month for a week of classes, forums, outings, and lots of bonding. Since much of the program is run online, they won’t all see one another again until June, when they’ll spend three weeks in Arizona.
Many of the protégés face headaches that most school leaders never have to deal with: writing business plans, persuading banks to loan them money, finding facilities, submitting applications to open schools, and fighting to keep them open.
“Charter operators typically are everything: the accountant, the CEO, the teacher, the administrator,” says Kimberly M. Allen, one of seven mentors for the LEE students. “That’s a shock to your system when you’ve come from a traditional area and you have a central office, you have layers of people that handle things,” adds Allen, who works in the Arizona Department of Education and previously ran a Las Vegas charter school. “This program prepares them for this.”
That’s been the experience of Crayton-Shay, a veteran of regular public schools in California and Hawaii who became the director of the Pahoa, Hawaii-based Waters of Life Public Charter School in 2004. “Every time I have a problem—and I have a problem now with facilities—there’s a course that comes up, … or there’s a major project devoted to it,” she says. “Everything is timely and it fits, even though we have very diverse problems.”
‘A New Environment’
The LEE program opened its doors in 2002. The idea sprang from research by Eleanor Perry, a professor in Arizona State University’s education school who is now the program’s co-director. “We heard that charter school leaders needed both the business and the education skills to be successful, and we also heard that no university was meeting their needs,” she says. “So that’s when I went back to the college and said, ‘OK, this is what we need to do.’ ”
The program first won a competitive, $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education, followed by one for $2.7 million, which runs through this coming fall. “The education professors are using words like ‘executive coaching,’ and the business guys are talking about ‘scope and sequence,’ ” Perry says. “So we have created a new environment within the structure of the university.”
The current class is the program’s third. Originally a two-year program, it’s been shortened to 18 months. On average, three students apply for every one who is accepted.
Each class has 24 students, who take 12 courses on subjects from educational leadership, to assessment and accountability, to accounting, marketing, and facilities. They also are paired with a mentor, participate in a 140-hour internship, mentoring with a school administrator or businessperson, and prepare an independent research project.
That project is a key component. “They start out in the summer institute, that’s the first class, to identify what they have a burning need to change in their school or organization,” Rebecca H. Akporiaye, the program’s assistant director, says of incoming students.
One student’s research project was on how to restructure the California Charter Schools Association. Another devised a system of performance-based pay for teachers.
“When you look at college of education programs, not only is our curriculum very different, but our delivery and our national focus is very unique,” says Akporiaye. “So it’s a bit hard to look out in the field and find programs that are very similar to ours.”
A few other programs have some comparable elements. Both Harvard University and Stanford University, for instance, now offer training programs for education leaders that blend courses in business and education. (“Leaders Go to School on Business Practices,” Aug. 31, 2005.)
And Central Michigan University is aiming to expand a program that now caters to charter school leaders in Detroit. The federal grant for the Arizona program states that part of its mission is to serve as a model, and staff members from the Michigan program have met with LEE officials. Perry says she’s received many inquiries from other universities.
‘They’re Dying to Learn It’
The LEE students’ recent visit to Washington featured classes on marketing, school facilities, and leadership. It also included public forums and a trip to Capitol Hill, where legislative aides offered tips on getting charter leaders’ messages out to lawmakers.
On the final day, instructor Lars Thording introduced the protégés to his seven-week marketing class. “They’re dying to learn it,” Thording, a former professor in Arizona State’s business school who now is a consultant to pharmaceutical companies, says of the marketing material. “These guys have that need, and they know they’ve got to learn this.”
For Crayton-Shay of Hawaii, know-how in marketing is a key skill she hopes to get from the program. She inherited a host of headaches when she took over her charter school, which is scattered across 20 miles on three campuses. The school has faced changes in leadership and staff, lawsuits, and major financial debt. At one point, the state board of education tried to shut it down. Crayton-Shay is working to build a single, consolidated facility on school-owned land.
“We’re always in the papers fighting our neighbors or the state department of education,” she says. She wants to craft a marketing strategy and revise the Waters of Life school’s business plan to make the school more attractive to donors, bankers, and others. Her research project is directly tied to that goal. “Our image, our business image, in the community must change,” she says. “You can’t even apply to have an account at the local hardware store if you have a negative image on a small island like the one where I live.”
Many LEE students say the networking opportunities in the program are especially attractive. “I’ve been able to meet people who … can help me write my charter, people who can help me set up a budget, a five-year budget plan,” says Laughlin, who runs a nonprofit organization in Yuma and intends to submit an application this spring to start her first charter school. “And then also people who know how to get grants and funding for the building.”
Stress Levels High
The program requires a lot from students already busy with full-time jobs, and then some. “I would say I work a minimum of 65 to 70 hours a week,” says Guerrero, the chief financial officer for the Cesar Chavez Public Charter School in Pueblo.
Early in the week in Washington, one instructor asks the students to rate their stress levels on a scale of 1 to 10; many report 8’s and 9’s. Guerrero, who already has an M.B.A, says he does most of his program work late at night. “I mean, seriously, late at night,” he says. “And there’s a joke that our stress level tends to increase around 11:55 p.m., and that’s because … our assignments have to be posted by midnight.”
“Generally, these are really Type A people,” says Robert Maranto, a political science professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania who teaches the program’s Politics of Education course. “And they’re very bright.”
With its federal funding running out, Leadership for Educational Entrepreneurs faces new challenges as program leaders work with Arizona State to make it a fixture at the university. Because of the grant, students pay only 20 percent of the tuition costs. That comes to $2,600 for Arizona residents, and $4,000 for students from other states. While future tuition has not been set, the program is expected to cost about $10,000 for in-state students and more than $23,000 for others.
Ting L. Sun, a mentor in the program and the vice president of leadership and quality at the California Charter Schools Association, worries the program will change. “I think it will look different because higher education institutions tend to like their way of doing things, and I think there will be components of it that will be lost, unfortunately, because of lack of funding, like the mentoring,” she says.
But Perry says she’s confident the program will keep key components intact, and that it will thrive. Over lunch one day this month, she compares the program itself to a charter school.
“The university let us be somewhat autonomous within its framework,” she elaborates in a later e-mail. “The grant gave us the opportunity to create and innovate. In return, we’ve been held to higher expectations and scrutiny by multiple masters—just like a charter.”
Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 2006 edition of Education Week as Enterprising Approach