New Texas School Provides Innovative Alternative

Published February 1, 2009

Unhappy with the education his son was receiving in a public school and turned off by the academics of some private schools and the cost of others, a Texas entrepreneur has launched a private school that incorporates individualized learning and new technology to give Plano students an alternative.

Three years ago Randall Reiners’ eight-year-old son was bored with the education at his previous school—a common problem with traditional education today, Reiners says, because the federal No Child Left Behind Act requires schools to concentrate on the weakest students and neglect the most capable. So last September he started Yorktown Education, a school for students between the ages of 11 and 18.

“Education is aimed at the lowest common denominator,” Reiners said. “Schools are rated based on how they do with the worst student, not on how they work with average or above-average students. Private schools were teaching the same things in the same ways.”

Poor U.S. Performance

Reiners—an entrepreneur and the school’s chairman and CEO—says most students in schools nationwide are performing about one grade level below where they belong. The country as a whole ranks 28th out of 40 industrialized nations, according to the Program for International Student Assessment, a triennial survey of the knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds, developed by the participating countries and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Reiners spent a little more than two years studying the education industry before launching Yorktown Education. Plans are underway to add a lower-level program for students from ages 5 through 10 by next September.

Nontraditional Approach

Yorktown has eliminated the idea of traditional classrooms, grade levels, grades, and schedules, Reiners explained. Incoming students are tested, then placed at the level their results indicate is appropriate. Curricula are designed according to each student’s customized plan.

For instance, elite athletes or those with jobs have slower schedules to provide more free time. Some students will have a full-time, year-round speed schedule if their goal is to enter graduate school before the age of 20.

Instead of letter grades or even number grades, Yorktown operates on a “mastery” program: If a student scores 80 percent or lower on an exam, for example, the teacher will review the material with the student until he can master it.

“At the core of our thinking is that every student is an individual,” Reiners said.

Setting the Pace

Though Yorktown is similar in some ways to Montessori schools, Reiners said there is an important difference. Montessori schools permit students to set their own pace, while Yorktown establishes the pace for students.

If students set their own pace, many of the older ones will tend to slack off, Reiners explained.

“We pace them so that work is occasionally sped up and scaled back,” Reiners said. The oldest students are offered Advanced Placement courses designed to provide the equivalent of up to two years of college work.

Student Enthusiasm

Tracy Fisher, mother of a 13-year-old at Yorktown, said curriculum pacing and a zero-tolerance policy for bullying has transformed her son from someone who complained and just got by at his traditional public school to someone who is excited about going to school and is excelling at Yorktown.

“He was thrilled when we first took him there,” Fisher said. “Before, it was a struggle for him just to write two paragraphs. Today, he wrote a 500-word essay in 45 minutes. Earlier this week, he wrote an 800-word essay.”

Yorktown’s curriculum consists of core courses in math, sciences, “world context” (history, economics, social studies, and related courses), communications, and life skills, as well as a wide variety of electives ranging from engineering to film study.

Flexible Scheduling

Students are educated through a combination of distance learning courses on the Internet, teacher instruction, and a few books. Teachers don’t provide traditional classroom lectures. There are small groups, consisting of no more than eight students, with most of the instruction given one-on-one with individual students.

Students can attend on a flexible schedule. Yorktown is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, year-round, meeting the state’s guideline of providing at least 180 days of education each year. Instruction is provided at an accelerated pace designed to provide a year’s worth of education in two quarters, Reiners said.

By late November, 12 students were enrolled at Yorktown, but Reiners said he expects the school to grow quickly to 200. Half the families who hear a presentation about Yorktown enroll their children, Reiners said.

Tuition is $4,170 per year, split into monthly payments, plus a $2,000 one-time membership fee. Upon graduation, the membership can be sold to another family—much like a country club membership, Reiners said. Families also must provide laptops for students.

Reiners hopes to win wider acceptance of the concept throughout Plano and the surrounding communities. His plan is to open other facilities, five to 10 miles apart, with a maximum enrollment of 200 in each.

“All the teachers I tell about it are very excited,” Fisher said. “All the parents I tell about it are very excited, too.”

Phillip J. Britt ([email protected]) writes from Illinois.