Advantage Schools’ Effective Approach

Published February 1, 2001

Advantage Schools, a for-profit charter school company based in Boston, believes it has a working model for the future of American urban education. From CEO Steven Wilson on down, the organization makes it a priority to demonstrate that it has the results necessary for the company to figure prominently in that future.

Advantage opened its first two charter schools in 1997 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina and Phoenix, Arizona. Today, working with local nonprofits and other cofounders, it operates charter schools in eight states and the District of Columbia. Locations include Charlotte, North Carolina, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Jersey City, Philadelphia, San Antonio, and Worcester, Massachusetts. Most of the nearly 8,000 students the company serves are from low-income families.

Wilson describes Advantage’s commitment to urban charters as central to the company’s business plan. Higher population densities, generally high per-pupil spending levels, and the prevalence of underperforming schools suit their mission well, he says.

Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler has often described his city’s relationship with Advantage’s Golden Door Charter School as an unqualified success. The school’s remarkable track record costs approximately $8,000 annually per student, said the mayor, while other schools in the Jersey City School District spend between $13,000 and $15,000 per child, including capital and pension costs.

Advantage Schools’ curriculum is based on the Direct Instruction system but does not stop there. Students participate in specially designed character education programs and adhere to standards from the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. At the Abby Kelly Foster Kelly charter in Worcester, students learn Latin.

While the company’s commitment to results runs deep, appearances matter, too. All Advantage schools maintain strict dress codes; many require uniforms. Advantage also strives to develop modern facilities that can offer a safe and appealing contrast to many of their urban government-school counterparts. For example, the Rocky Mount school was converted from a former J.C. Penney store and now features bright colors and wall-to-wall carpeting. The Worcester school, once an historic mill building, has kept its characteristic brick walls and high ceilings.

“We thought the for-profit culture would create the kind of discipline and focus on execution that nonprofit environments sometimes lack,” explained Chief Education Officer Theodor Rebarber. “It also works well with our commitment to expand. We want to have an impact on education, not just one or two schools.”

Some have observed that Advantage might not be as aggressive as other companies when it comes to making a profit on charters. The company offers students hot lunches and busing, for example, as a way to attract a broader population of students. But the company’s investors, an “A” list from the venture capital community including Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, Chase Capital, and Bessemer Venture Partners, don’t seem to mind.

“We were impressed by the strength of the Advantage management team and its record of successful execution,” said Chase Capital Partners’ Stephen P. Murray.

For more information . . . visit the Advantage Schools Web site at