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Starting a School 101

It takes people, planning, patience -- and money

Ellen Cressey's first two children, now 19 and 21, did just fine at their public schools in the Lake Washington School District. But for her "second set" of kids, ages 11 and 12, Cressey longed for more than just fine. She was after excellence.

"I wanted them to learn to be critical thinkers, to be actively engaged in their world -- and to know that they can do anything," she says.

Cressey took a close look at her options. Her younger kids had attended a private elementary school, and Cressey liked what she saw. In spring 2002, she began searching for a top-notch independent secular middle and secondary school in the Bellevue-Redmond-Issaquah area.

What she found was The Overlake School. Period. It turns out that Overlake is only non-denominational, independent middle-through-high school on the Eastside. What's more, getting in to Overlake is no slam dunk. Admission rates vary by grade level; but overall, just one of every three applicants is admitted.

Faced with these odds, Cressey did what any committed, bold, exceptionally optimistic parent might do: She helped found a brand-new independent school.

Cressey joined a small cadre of similarly committed parents, headed by former Eastside residents Alice and Tom Strong. At their first meeting -- there were four people attending -- the group adopted a set of bylaws for their dream school.

Next, they staged focus groups and solicited ideas from teachers, education experts and parents: What components, they wondered, merge to produce a top-quality school with passionate teachers and engaged students?

The modest parent gatherings -- they'd meet at Jitters in Bellevue -- grew into a board of nine. Gradually, with the help of consultant and former Lakeside School head Dr. Terry Macaluso, the board hammered out the vision and mission that would define Eastside Prep.

The mission statement includes words like "interdisciplinary," "experiential" and "inquiry-based." Translated, this means "you learn better by doing than by listening to someone telling you something," explains Janet Levinger, a founder and current board president. The school's credo, "show your mind to grow your mind," means learning is built upon prior knowledge.

"We didn't want a lot of lecturing," Levinger says. "We feel children learn better when they reflect on their own thinking and learn to ask questions."

Armed with a vision, a logo and a program model, plans for the school began to take shape. But it would take dollars -- around $375,000 -- to hire a school head and teachers, and to hang up a shingle.

Fortunately, the trustees -- 80 percent of them had ties to Microsoft -- could look within their own ranks for capital. "In three days, we had a financial commitment, mostly from prospective parents," Macaluso says. "Other donors were community-oriented people who feel strongly about education."

The funding enabled the board to hire former Lakeside instructor Judy Lightfoot as school head. Next, site planners found a location in Kirkland, and Lightfoot began hiring teachers.

By fall 2003 -- barely a year and a half after the original founders had first gathered -- Eastside Prep opened its doors to 12 sixth-graders, four seventh-graders and four full-time teachers.

This year, 44 students attend the school, which has added an eighth-grade class. Macaluso and Cressey replaced Lightfoot as executive head and school administrator.

Eastside Prep has six full-time instructors, a range of extracurricular activities, a waiting list, and the exhilaration that accompanies the knowledge that the school successfully survived that challenging first year.

And the trustees don't meet at Jitters anymore.

Grooming leaders

Just a few years earlier, a set of Seattle parents began thinking about educational alternatives for their daughters. This group, headed by Seward Park resident Sharon Hammel, decided they liked the idea of a private middle school -- girls only.

They'd read the studies: Girls do better in middle school without boys around to distract them by acting up in class, motivating the girls to focus on appearance, and often, dominating discussions. "Boys just get more attention," Hammel says.

Hammel wanted to make sure her daughter continued to enjoy math and science -- subjects girls start to pull away from in their teens.

In 1999, Hammel, along with several other parents, began holding meetings for potential parents. She and her small board developed a mission statement, conducted focus groups and, in August 2000, hired a headmaster.

They secured a $250,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with the promise of an equal amount if the founders made significant progress within a year. They did.

Marja Brandon signed on as Seattle Girls School head in August 2000. She had a year to create a curriculum, gather students and hire a faculty.

The planners raised more money -- this time, by tapping into the Seattle community -- and SGS was able to open its doors in 2001 with 31 grade-six students and a staff of four.

Some observers say this start-up was particularly attractive to students and supporters because of its unique mission. At the school's core is its deep commitment to diversity. SGS founders positioned the school in the heart of Seattle's Central Area, with the intention of attracting students with a mix of races and socio-economic backgrounds.

The curriculum is also a departure from the norm, according to Brandon. "It is very original and based on the latest neuroscience -- how the brain grows and learns," she says. "We develop critical and creative thinking skills; it's all about applying what you do to the real world."

The school highlights science, math and technology and, says Brandon, "practices bold thinking."

Sometimes this might mean the students are asked to build airplanes. Other times, it means they study the human body, then face a panel of doctors who fire questions at them on "Grand Rounds."

Always, these girls are told they will be world women leaders. "We say, you're all going to graduate at AP level," Brandon says. "We hold the bar really high."

Not too high for last year's graduating class. They went on to attend high schools such as Lakeside, Garfield's honors programs, University Prep, Forest Ridge, The Bush School and Seattle Prep.

Today, 128 students attend SGS, which includes grades five through eight. The $13,250 annual tuition is on the low side for secular independent schools (Eastside Prep costs $17,300), and 30 percent of the students receive need-based aid. That's 200 percent more aid than other independent schools typically offer, according to Brandon.

SGS students love school, she says. "They come in with a buzz; they want to be here. We make learning fun and cool."

The Seattle Girls School team thinks big. They boast a $2 million endowment, which they hope to multiply. They network with community movers and shakers who act as mentors and volunteers. Says Brandon: "We want to be a model school for the nation."

If you're thinking that starting a private school looks easy -- that with a few instructions, you and a couple of friends could put one together between trips to Costco and carpools to football practice -- think again.

The independent school landscape is laden with start-up failures, says Jeff Moredock, former chief executive officer of NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools). "Many schools don't make it because planners haven't really thought through the process," Moredock says. "There is a naivety about what it takes to start and sustain a school; you need financial energy, psychic energy, planning and patience."

Mark Hofer's been trying to get Legacy High School off the ground for some time. He interviewed private school heads, found out what made their schools work and wrote curriculum. He and his fellow board members -- there are four of them -- figure they'll need $500,000 before conducting a search for headmaster. "We're not even close," says Hofer, a former Seattle area teacher.

Still, independent schools keep cropping up around the city, including five new ones since 1999, according to Meade Thayer, executive director of PNAIS (Pacific Northwest Association of Independent Schools).

"The independent school trend -- always big in the East -- came later to the West Coast," Thayer says. "There has always been a very strong public school and public university orientation here. But as more people come into the area, more decide there's a need for independent schools."

The reasons vary, Thayer says. Sometimes instructors become unhappy with where they're teaching. Sometimes parents become unhappy with schools their kids attend. But always, the central issue is the same: There's a need that's not being met -- and there's a rarified collection of determined parents or educators who target that need and take action.

How it's done

Ellen Taussig knows a thing or two about launching a school. The one she helped found opened on Sept. 5, 1980 with 230 students, grades six through 12. Today, Taussig's undertaking, The Northwest School, enrolls 430 students, enjoys a stellar reputation and turns down between six and seven students for every applicant.

Taussig, now Northwest School head, often gives guidance to other start-up founders. "Don't try to become all things to all people," she tells them. "In the beginning, you're tempted to have more income and warm bodies. You want to survive so you say, 'I'll take this kid.' But it's crucial to define who your population is -- and stick to that. Reputation and image are very important."

Find people who specialize in different fields -- finance, technology, marketing, curriculum -- and seek their advice, she says. "There are many challenges in start-ups. As parents or teachers, you will only have expertise in a narrow area -- and you'll have blinders in others."

Make sure your financial house is in order, Moredock adds. "Often, there's a groundswell of interest and commitment from parents, but once their child has moved through the school, people check out."

Don't get involved in a start-up unless you're in it for the long haul, cautions Terry Macaluso, who acted as a consultant to the Seattle Girls School as well as Eastside Prep. "Your motivation should be making good education possible; your own child's education can't be the only reason you're involved. This is a community contribution for the future."

Assemble a committed board, she says. "You want people who are willing to do what it takes to get the school to the point where it will make it during that first crucial year."

Be sure that parents serving on a school's board understand their roles and priorities, Janet Levinger advises. "Generally, people are good about saying, 'I've got my parent hat on now.'"

Find families willing to be the first to enroll in your school. "You need considerable pioneer spirit -- and a vision that encompasses something different for your child, that makes it worth giving up the sense of security that comes with a tried and tested school," says Julie Rushton, whose son was in Eastside Prep's first seventh-grade class last year. "It's a leap of faith."

Finally, be patient. "Really believe in the mission you set," Macaluso says. "Work hard at deciding what you are going to be...and then be that."

Linda Morgan writes frequently on education issues for ParentMap.

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