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What it Takes to Start Your Own School

Walden alumni and faculty members share their experiences, their setbacks, and the perseverance it took to ultimately push forward. 


October 2008


Founding a school of one’s own is a dream many Walden University students, alumni, and faculty members share. Their reasons for wanting to do so are as diverse as the individuals themselves. Richard W. Riley College of Education and Leadership graduate Dr. Karine Clay’s passion to open her own school was awakened when she discovered that most handicapped children in her native Republic of Trinidad and Tobago receive no formal education.


“I have seen the children sitting in wheelchairs, hidden away in their homes or in institutions looking out the window, maybe with a toy to play with if they are lucky,” says Clay, who made this discovery while conducting research for her dissertation. “In my country, the life philosophy is ‘survival of the fittest.’ It is our custom to hide the weak...If I don’t advocate for these handicapped children, I’m not sure anyone will.”


Several members of the Walden community have been involved in school start-ups over the years. Each knows that founding a school begins with a dream—like Clay’s—but that it also requires an essential combination of community support, leadership skills, and financing to become a viable and sustainable reality.


What it Takes: Ideas and Passion

Clay, Walden’s 2007 Social Change Award recipient, is establishing a K–2 special education school in Trinidad. “Three-quarters of my family on both sides lives in Trinidad, and I go back every year,” says the Atlanta resident who has lived in the United States for 26 years. “In many ways it still feels like home to me.”


In conducting research for her dissertation, Clay examined the implementation of the education goals of Vision 2020, an economic development initiative to help the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago become a developed nation by 2020.The research, conducted in part over the course of three months in Trinidad, included a survey of dozens of parents, teachers, and school administrators.


What she discovered about Trinidad’s attitude toward educating the disabled surprised her. “In Trinidad, disability is something to be ashamed of, and inclusive education is not part of the Trinidadian vocabulary,” says Clay. “Unless their parents send them abroad for school—and few can afford this—Trinidadian children with disabilities get no public education, and many are never even formally evaluated.” This includes children who are blind or mildly learning disabled, or who have ADHD, not merely children with severe disabilities, she says.


Clay adds that she would not have known this had she not had the opportunity to focus her research on her interests. “My experience at Walden taught me professional research skills,” she says, “and the dissertation taught me so much I didn’t know about my own country.”

What it Takes: A Curriculum Based on Research

Dr. Alice Duhon-Ross, a Walden faculty member and licensed school counselor, was likewise so moved by the educational struggles of disadvantaged children in her New Orleans community that she decided to help a failing school get back on track.


Duhon-Ross, who directs Walden’s master’s Teacher Leadership specialization, is a member of a group of Louisiana educators who founded the Institute For Academic Excellence Foundation (IFAE). In 2005, the Louisiana State Board of Education assigned the group to the Sophie B. Wright Middle School.


“Before it was taken over, the Sophie B. Wright Middle School was in a state of ‘corrective action’ for failing to meet federal standards several years in a row,” says Duhon-Ross. (Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, corrective action occurs when a school fails to make adequate yearly progress toward the majority of its students working at grade level. In its fifth consecutive failing year, such a school would be slated for restructuring—one option for which is closing and re-opening as a charter school.)


As educators, the IFAE saw the failing middle school as an opportunity to provide a curriculum based on research to help at-risk students reach their academic potential. “We thought a charter school might better meet their needs,” explains Duhon-Ross. “We decided to reach out and help.”


IFAE provided faculty development training using the Academic Critical Triangle Model, which was developed by Duhon-Ross’ mother, educator Dr. Rose Sells. “The model is based on three major tenets: peace education, multicultural education, and brain-based learning,” Duhon-Ross explains. “We added in a parenting component, whereby the school would offer services to the students’ parents, such as referring and partnering parents with local community agencies.”


In 2007, three years after its restructuring, Sophie B. Wright Middle School, which has 300 students, is once again making adequate yearly progress. All students enrolled are sponsored by local community leaders, who provide financial incentives to the students based on their academic process and achievements. “And its LEAP [state assessment] scores are among the highest in Orleans Parish,” Duhon-Ross notes.


Her experience as one of the IFAE Foundation founders (and current Sophie B. Wright board member) has been beneficial to her as a post-secondary educator in a number of ways, she adds. “These are great research opportunities which allow me to share with my Walden students the process of developing and designing a curriculum that meets the needs of at-risk youth,” she says.


What it Takes: The Vision to Create a New Kind of School

Dr. Steve Canipe, who directs The Richard W. Riley College of Education and Leadership’s program for math and science master’s programs and assessment, co-founded an alternative high school 20 years ago with a completely different goal: train rural students for jobs in the post-industrial workforce.


In 1986, Canipe’s community of Lincolnton, N.C. (35 miles outside Charlotte), was losing its textile industry and the high-paying but predominantly low-skill factory jobs it provided. Leaders in the town’s business and education communities saw that local youths would need better job training if they were to make a living wage outside the factory.


“Employers told me that they were ‘moving away from hiring hands and moving toward hiring heads,’” recalls Canipe, who was then a high school principal. “High school students needed to learn communication skills, math skills, and how to work in teams.”


Around the same time, the local community college came to a similar realization: many of its students were unprepared for nonindustrial entry-level jobs. “They needed remedial math and science, some at the high school level,” Canipe says.


To fulfill both needs, Canipe and his colleagues came up with the idea to create one school that would satisfy the academic requirements of both high school and community college students, according to their ability, and bring in the expertise of area businesses in the form of the local economic development entity.


“We combined a community college with a technical high school and economic development, housed them all in the same building, and ran them as a public-private partnership,” says Canipe, who was then the school’s development facilitator and who later became its first principal. “We called it the Lincoln County School of Technology.”


At Lincoln, advanced high school students could take community-college level courses. Conversely, college students who needed extra help could take high-school level courses. While the students’ academic success was paramount, local government saw that the school would benefit the community in the long run, because a better-educated workforce would attract new employers to the area.


What it Takes: Community Buy-in

The Lincoln County School of Technology was an unusual institution in that it had community buy-in built into its very design. Often, start-up schools have to seek out this crucial component of success.


Take, for example, Sophie B. Wright. Before the IFAE applied to take over the school, it sponsored a town hall meeting for parents and other stakeholders to make sure a charter school would have their support.


“We listened to the parents’ voices and their concerns—not just their bad-mouthing the school system, but also their hopes—and once they knew that we respected what they had to say, we felt confident in pursuing the charter,” Duhon-Ross says.


Before calling the town meeting, IFAE had explored other schools in corrective action. “We asked ourselves not only which schools had the greatest needs, but which schools were looking for change,” Duhon-Ross says. “We needed the buy-in from the community.”


What it Takes: Red Tape Management Skills

Once school founders have buy-in from their constituents, they need to become masters in the art of leaping over bureaucratic hurdles, says Canipe, who remembers that bureaucratic resistance was Lincoln County School of Technology’s single greatest challenge.


Both the North Carolina state school board and the North Carolina community college board were powerful and could have stonewalled the technology school’s progress. “The boards were literally housed in the same building, but when it came to helping us through the process of merging, they wouldn’t talk to each other,” Canipe says. “They would only correspond by mail, which was very frustrating.”


Canipe and his colleagues dealt with this by accepting that government agencies could be resistant to change. “No one had ever created a high school/community college before,” he says. “And the boards didn’t quite know what to make of us. This was years before partnerships were in vogue, and we had many interesting challenges to overcome.”


Canipe learned a lot from those experiences and says he tries to bring these in-the-trenches lessons home to his Walden students, many of whom are in leadership roles.


“Starting a school was an exercise in problem-solving,” says Canipe, who tells his students to keep challenges in perspective. “I tell them to always keep the end—their end goal—in mind.”


Instead of meeting the boards’ foot-dragging by throwing up their hands or becoming frustrated, Canipe and his colleagues chose strategic handholding instead. “Early on, we visited the office and got the boards to meet in person to resolve our issues,” he says. “This involved some cajoling, but things did work out.”


Clay, meanwhile, is overcoming similar bureaucratic challenges. In the summer of 2007 she spent a month in Trinidad meeting with representatives from the Trinidad Ministry of Education to obtain a license to open her school, which she ultimately received late in 2007. “I was passed from one desk to another,” she says. “Eventually, I had to call in family favors to get passed along to the right person.”


What it Takes: Funding

Because the Lincoln County School of Technology was a public school, its everyday operating expenses and salaries were covered by the school budget, according to its enrollment. Additional books, supplies, programs, equipment, and activities had to be funded from elsewhere.


To help meet this need, in addition to its board of directors, Lincoln established advisory committees for each academic program, such as technical drafting and automotive, and Canipe parlayed these committee contacts into donations from local businesses.


“In exchange for the donation, we gave them opportunities to name meeting rooms and auditoriums in our buildings and allowed the businesses to use our school for meetings,” he says. “The students got to meet local business people and see them in action, and the business community got to see the work our students were doing.”


With the money, the Lincoln County School of Technology bought the most up-to-date equipment, such as computers. “We had $70,000 worth of computerized automotive diagnostic equipment and IBM ‘mini’ computers when these technologies were state of the art,” recalls Canipe. The school’s investment in technology paid off: In 1989, it was among those named Governor’s Schools of Excellence for the state of North Carolina.


Clay, who has dual citizenship, says that opening her school in Trinidad actually affords her a number of financial advantages. The American dollar is still strong there, and a middle-class person such as herself can realistically build a school and hire employees. In addition, she already owns land in Trinidad, although the Trinidadian government recently denied Clay’s building on the site that was her first choice.


“It was not big enough and not connected to the city sewer system,” says Clay, who is not discouraged. “We will be soliciting the Ministry of Agriculture in 2008, requesting to purchase some unused land, for a reasonable price, I hope.”


Clay is supporting her school through the Higher Potential Foundation, a U.S.-based foundation she formed in 2007. And she has applied for a grant from the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to help fund the school, which she anticipates will have 80 students.


“Some parents will be able to pay a modest tuition, but not all,” Clay says. “With the license from the Ministry of Education, I am confident I will get the UNESCO grant, but I am looking for other funding as well.” In addition, Clay recently contacted Walden’s new Grants Center, which directed her to two additional funding sources.


“Opening this school is important to me, and the sooner the better,” she says. “I feel like I should be in Trinidad now, teaching students in my living room. I can’t let my students just sit there in institutions when I know I can be making a difference in their lives.”


Learn more about what it takes to start a school. Read about a Walden alumna who donated funds to build a school in Guatemala. arrow


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