Schools as Investments

In the recent memoir, Shoe Dog, by Nike creator, Phil Knight, readers’ comments have centered around how amazed they are by what was sacrificed, what risks were taken, and what level of personal investment kept the dream of Nike afloat. In essence, this story captures the entrepreneurial spirit we described in a recent post about the school, University Academy, and the real estate developer who brought it to life.

We posed the question, “What was the business secret that led to success at University Academy?” And very similar to Nike who wanted to change a culture, not just sell shoes, the developers creating the SweetBay community had a broader vision even beyond educating children.

RECAP - In 2010, Panama City wanted to see the property of an abandoned airport terminal redeveloped for mixed use, blending residential, commercial, cultural, institutional, and entertainment uses. They sold the property to Leucadia National, a developer who promised to deliver on the dream with a mixed use development based on New Urbanism principles.

Leucadia began to focus on the community attributes that could help it realize the city’s vision. The company knew the nearby schools were struggling, which would make it extremely difficult to entice new families to move to this new community called SweetBay. So, providing a high-quality education to residents was an important part of the vision, but building and sustaining a thriving community was the overarching vision.

Now, think about a future for a school with this type of investment behind it. When a business owner sees a serious issue that jeopardizes the hard work and future of his or her vision, the business owner takes action. Hire who needs to be hired! Make the change! Imagine the attitude of entrepreneurial Phil Knight pushing for success in a school!

For example, here’s a scenario that would look very different if an entrepreneur was running the administration of a school vs. the typical public school structure. Imagine that there is a subset of 3rd graders at University Academy who are struggling with reading. From a business perspective, not only are a few children’s reading at stake, but also the “investment” and reputation of the school.

In the real estate market, the reputation of a neighborhood school can mean everything for a development. It is probable that in a case like this one, as soon as the problem is identified, extra resources (perhaps a reading specialist) would be deployed to fix the problem. Rather than jumping bureaucratic hoops, a decision would be made. Some one would be hired. There would be no waiting around for the following year’s budget meeting with the school board. In a scenario where an entrepreneur’s hard work and vision are at stake, people act with a sense of urgency.

A charter school may look a little different from a traditional public school due to its mission, vision, and leadership, but the innovative spirit and pressure to protect what has already been invested in the school are good things.

So, what was the business “secret” behind University Academy? Ultimately, allowing schools to be investments with high stakes rather than places where very little can happen to change the status quo can be a big part of a charter school’s success.