More than 360 education entrepreneurs, investors, computer specialists, writers, foundation staff, and policy experts gathered on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia on July 25-27 for the EDVentures 2002 Conference, organized by the Association of Education Practitioners and Providers.
The timely theme of the conference—”Education as you know it is finally changing”—was established before the U.S. Supreme Court’s favorable June 27 ruling on vouchers, and before the City of Brotherly Love became the site of one of the nation’s largest experiments in contracting out educational services.
“I can think of no economic, moral, political, or social reason why the government should maintain an effective monopoly over secondary and primary education,” Philadelphia School Reform Council member Daniel Whelan told conference attendees. Whelan is president and CEO of Verizon of Pennsylvania.
The challenges faced by new educational options like charter schools, home schooling, and private school vouchers are “the growing pains of an organization that needs change,” according to Scott Clegg, president and COO of Nobel Learning Communities, the largest operator of private schools in the U.S. We are in the latest phase of the evolution of education, he explained, shifting from the idea of mass education to more individualized education.
That point was most evident in a conference session on cyber-charter schools, an area where Pennsylvania is leading the nation, according to panelist Melanie Burke Reiser from the state’s Charter School Resource Center. With cyberschools, the traditional classroom model of variable learning within a fixed time period is superseded by an individualized model of fixed learning within a variable time frame, explained panelist Gregg Vanourek of K12, Inc.
“Virtual schools are helping to redefine public education,” said Vanourek. “Education is no longer a function of your Zip Code.”
Education isn’t a function of state lines, either, for high school students in Midland School District in western Pennsylvania, who attend public school a few miles away in East Liverpool City School District in Ohio. Midland’s high school was closed after the local steel mill closed in the 1980s, but nearby districts didn’t want the Midland students. The Ohio district agreed to take them.
When EDVentures panelist Nick Trombetta became Midland’s superintendent in 1995, he was concerned about what would happen to the high school students if the Ohio district decided not to take them any longer. He called a group of experts together to come up with possible solutions, and one speaker suggested a cyber-charter school. So Trombetta set up the Western Pennsylvania Charter School as a safety net for his Midland students, anticipating about 25 students would enroll.
But when the school was launched, 150 children from outside the district applied, swelling to more than 500 by year’s end. Since he didn’t want to be hypocritical by refusing to accept students from outside the district, Trombetta decided to take the out-of-district students. His school became the first statewide charter school in Pennsylvania. It now enrolls 1,500 students. However, until legislators recently settled the issue in favor of Midland, superintendents in the sending districts fought the idea of sending as much as $11,000 per student to the small western Pennsylvania district.
“The debate about cyber-charter schools is not about education,” Trombetta told EDVentures 2002 attendees. “It’s about who pays for it.”
With two conference sessions dealing with international issues, education no longer seems even to be a function of national boundaries. Topics covered in other sessions included private school development, tutoring, charter school financing, the issue of for-profit vs. not-for-profit, investing in education, the role of entrepreneurship in education, special education services from the private sector, online learning, technology in the classroom, multi-site ownership issues, accountability, student achievement, school improvement programs, and details of the No Child Left Behind Act.
One of the best-attended sessions was titled, “So You Are Thinking About Starting an Education Business,” which provided the perspectives of four businessmen running successful tutoring firms: Nick Imperato, who started a Sylvan Learning Center in New Jersey; Cliff Richmond, who started Richmond Tutors in Tennessee; Jim Giovannini, who started the Scholastic Tutoring Center in Illinois; and the chairman of the session, Dan Ascher, who started the A+ Tutoring Service in Philadelphia.
Through a wide-ranging discussion of scope of services, marketing, independent contractors vs. employees, screening tutors, and finding quality tutors, all agreed that delivering a quality product was “providing quality at all times.” Despite the 12 to 14 hour days and six-day weeks, the entrepreneurs obviously got a great deal of satisfaction out of their work.
“We get to see success in children who don’t normally succeed,” summarized Imperato.
Imperato also pointed out the importance of communicating frequently with parents. He contrasted this with the public schools the children attended, where parents often hadn’t been told anything about why their child was a year or more behind in reading or math. He said about half of his students come to the Center to improve their reading ability—both in mechanics and comprehension—while another 30 percent come for help in math.
For more information
Audiotapes of most of the EDVentures 2002 sessions are available from Master Duplicators of Garden Grove, California. A listing of the sessions and an order form are available at the AEPP Web site at http://www.aepp.org/2002tapeorder.pdf.