Entrepreneur Envisions String of School Franchises

Published September 1, 2006

A Rhode Island entrepreneur has developed a high-technology-based school development model he believes will provide a higher level of education than is currently available to most children nationwide.

In 2003, David Anderson, Ph.D., a retired physicist, came up with the idea of Stellar Schools franchises as an education option for parents concerned about the quality of their children’s education.

Anderson’s concept is designed as a for-profit network of K-12 schools to be located across the country. He believes his model–which would use more new technologies, such as video conferencing and virtual classes, than other for-profit education companies such as Edison Schools or KIPP have employed–can help solve many of the problems currently afflicting both public and private education.

“I have the business model on my Web site and have been trying to raise capital and interest for the last three years,” Anderson said. “I think it would be a perfect concept for some public or charter schools, or could be a way for a brand-new school [to define] itself.”

Using New Technology

Stellar Schools is currently in a development phase, with the organization focused mainly on developing a staff and acquiring financial support. Once those are acquired, franchising opportunities will be made available.

Anderson’s model would provide each student with a laptop computer, on which they would access the instructional services and content for all courses in the core curriculum at remote school sites. All routine teacher functions would be automated, and the teaching faculty–those who do the actual instruction–would be based at the franchisor’s central service facility.

These faculty members, working in two-person teaching teams, would produce the courseware, including Web-based video lectures. They also would generate and maintain the examination database and assist at the franchisor’s help desk when the remotely located students seek additional help that’s not available at their franchisee locations. Meanwhile, teachers at the local schools will act as tutors, helped by teaching assistants and peer tutors.

The curriculum of Stellar Schools is operationally defined as the universe of examination questions and answers applicable to its courses.

Threatening Entrenched Interests

The franchising model would allow Anderson and Stellar School administrators to give franchisees some autonomy while maintaining control over each school’s management and curriculum. “Web-based video lectures” will keep costs down, and use of technology will keep quality high, Anderson said.

Individual schools in the system will be owned by franchisees, who will use centralized services provided by the franchisor, including the aforementioned Web-based distance education services, examinations, and supplies. Homeschools also will receive services from the franchisor under a format similar to those of existing “virtual schools.”

Guilbert Hentschke, an education professor at the University of Southern California and advocate of the for-profit school concept, said Anderson’s model has significant merit. But he noted some of its unique aspects could threaten traditional educational beliefs.

“I think it is a viable idea we need to look at because compared to other countries, our model of [school] education doesn’t seem to be working,” Hentschke said. “This type of model would definitely force [existing] schools to improve their standards in the wake of competition.”

Challenging Mediocrity

Even though students would receive less direct, personal attention using his model, Anderson is confident interaction would be more advanced and effective.

Anderson believes there is a lot wrong with today’s standard K-12 education, notably high dropout rates and poor achievement. “We know, both from anecdotal accounts and from research sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, that many high school-aged children either drop out of school or are among the 75 percent of high school graduates who are not proficient at the twelfth-grade level,” Anderson said.

According to a U.S. Department of Education study released in 2000, 5 percent of all U.S. high school students nationwide dropped out in 1999, and other studies suggest schools greatly underreport dropout rates. Private schools do no better than public ones, Anderson said.

“It is generally believed that nonprofit private schools primarily compete with the public schools and therefore they need not be markedly better to succeed–they simply must be ‘enough’ better to fill their seats,” Anderson explained. “This tendency toward private-school mediocrity does not seem to extend to those few private schools that are for-profit.”

Offering Flexibility

Ken Calvert, headmaster at Hillsdale Academy–a K-12 school run by Hillsdale College in Michigan–supports the Stellar Schools concept as well as the traditional classroom model of teacher instruction. He believes the Stellar Schools approach offers flexibility that will enhance the learning experience by allowing students to be more creative and forward-thinking.

“I support anything where we are trying to go beyond the typical public school restrictions,” said Calvert, whose academy provides curricula to 500 charter schools nationwide. “I believe that there is a need to challenge the public school model, and I think alternative options are needed.

“The potential is there for a great educational model, so I hope [Anderson] can get it up and running,” Calvert said.

Mike Scott ([email protected]) is a freelance writer in White Lake, Michigan.