Center for American Progress

14 Education Entrepreneurs that Are Making a Difference

14 Education Entrepreneurs that Are Making a Difference

Profiles of charter schools, human capital builders, and service providers that are changing the way we look at education.

Read the full report: Stimulating Excellence: Unleashing the Power of Innovation in Education

Charter Schools:
Aspire Public Schools | The Knowledge Is Power Program | Ascend Learning | MATCH

Human Capital Schools:
New Leaders for New Schools | Teach for America | The New Teacher Project | New Schools for New Orleans

Service Providers:
Citizen Schools | College Summit | K12 online high school | SchoolNet | Wireless Generation |

Charter Schools

Aspire Public Schools

Aspire School

SOURCE: Flickr/mister mugatu

A student at the Millsmont Academy, on of the Aspire Public Schools in Oakland, California.

California passed a law in June 1992 that allowed local school districts to authorize the creation of charter schools, and in 1998, it followed up with legislation that removed the cap on the number of these schools in the state. The same year, Dr. Don Shalvey, who started the first charter school in California, recruited San Carlos area principals Mary Welch and Elise Darwish to help create an organization with a mission to open more charter schools. That organization became Aspire Public Schools, which opened its first location in East Oakland in September 2000.

Today, Aspire serves more than 6,000 students at 21 schools in the Bay area, Central Valley, and Los Angeles. Shalvey describes the organization’s mission saying, “We want to change the opportunity equation for every family we serve by preparing them to become college bound and college ready.” Indeed, the school’s website reports that 93 percent of Aspire students say they will achieve at least a bachelor’s degree and 91 percent believe their principal expects them to “do well academically and go to college.”

Aspire’s model utilizes expanded learning time and small class sizes to optimize student learning. Aspire schools have a longer school day and year, which gives them approximately 15 percent more learning time than the average California public school student. Aspire schools also work on a modified trimester calendar when possible to decrease learning loss during long recesses. Mandatory half-day Saturday classes are scheduled at the beginning of the year and allow parents to attend school with their children.

Aspire School

SOURCE: Flickr/miricaro

Students and parents participate in a book fair at Aspire’s Summit Charter Academy in Modesto, California.

Saturday classes are just one way that Aspire encourages parent involvement. The schools require the teacher, parent, and student to sign a compact at the beginning of the school year that outlines each person’s responsibilities. They also offer counseling to parents on educational support at home and include parent representatives on their advisory boards.

This strong community approach is incorporated into the classrooms, as well. Aspire schools are small schools with small classrooms. The elementary schools typically enroll no more than 360 students, and secondary schools have no more than 400 with class size ratios of 1-to-20 for Kindergarten and third grade and 1-to-28 for fourth grade to senior year. Students in grades 6-12 also participate in daily advisory groups of 15 students that meet every day through graduation and provide a bridge between the school and student’s other communities. These secondary school students have the option of simultaneously earning a high school diploma and an associate’s degree or up to two years of credit toward a tuition-free bachelor’s degree through the Early College High School Initiative.

More information: Aspire Public Schools website

The Knowledge Is Power Program

In 1994, after completing their work in the Teach for America program, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin launched a fifth-grade public school program in inner-city Houston, TX. Soon after, in 1995, Feinberg remained in Houston to lead the KIPP Academy Middle School, while Levin established the KIPP Academy in the South Bronx, NY. The first two KIPP academies experienced fast success in providing education to students in severely underserved communities, and the program hopes to reach more than 25,000 students in 100 schools by 2011.


SOURCE: AP/Susan Walsh

Students in Spanish class at the KIPP DC KEY Academy.

The two original KIPP academies have become a hallmark of transforming the lives of students in under-resourced communities. While only one in five low-income students attending college nationwide, nearly 80 percent of KIPP’s eight-grade students achieve college matriculation. Collectively, the students have earned millions of dollars in scholarships and financial aid.

More than 16,000 students have passed through the 66 KIPP public schools in 19 states and the District of Columbia. The great majority of KIPP students come from disadvantaged background≠s—more than 90 percent are African American or Hispanic-Latino and more than 80 percent are eligible for the federal free and reduced-price meals program. While the program is competitive, students are accepted regardless of prior academic record, conduct, or background.

The success of the KIPP schools is due in part to the unique partnership formed with Doris and Don Fisher, co-founders of Gap, Inc. The Fisher’s KIPP Foundation seeks to replicate the achievement of the two original schools by opening new, locally-run academies in high-need communities. While the KIPP Foundation does not manage the schools, it is responsible for funding and supervising school quality across the education network.

KIPP’s model is built on high expectations and an expanded learning community that emphasizes teacher, student, and family partnerships. By building a network outside of the classroom, KIPP reaches out to parents to ensure that their children are succeeding academically. Since entering a KIPP academy is a choice, the KIPP academy asks students, teachers, and parents to enter into a contract, providing each party with unique responsibilities.

Also, KIPP has altered the leadership at their schools to give local school principals the ability to make swift budget and personal changes. By allowing principals this flexibility, they are able to focus their energy on creating exceptional learning environments for children. Extended school hours also provide students with adequate time to learn at their own pace. While most KIPP academies are currently 5-8 grade middle schools, in the coming years, KIPP hopes to expand its reach to college-preparatory schools across the nation.

More information: KIPP website

Ascend Learning

On October 11, 2007, New York City Schools Commissioner Joel Klein approved the proposal for the Brooklyn Ascend Charter School, a K-12 college preparatory public school operating under charter from the state. The school opened in September 2008 at the Ocean Hill-Brownsville-Remsen neighborhood (Community School District 18). It currently serves students in grades K-to-2, and will grow by a grade a year through grade 12. The New York State Education Department recently approved the Brownsville Ascend Charter School—the second school in the Ascend Learning system—and will open in the fall of 2009 to students in grades K-1 in Community School District 23.

The mission of Ascend Learning is to develop a scalable solution to the underachievement of economically-disadvantaged children—a system of urban, college preparatory charter schools that, operating with widely available resources, creates post-achievement levels equal or superior to suburban schools educating students from middle-class families. Beginning in the early grades, Ascend students steadily build a strong foundation of learning habits, critical thinking skills, and knowledge; excel academically in middle and high school, mastering high-level math and science; and graduate as confident young adults, prepared to succeed as college students, citizens, and leaders.

Ascend is the first education program to license a teaching model from SABIS, an international operator of high-quality English-language schools. The SABIS system includes a cumulative, mastery-based curriculum; interwoven weekly electronic assessments; and an ingenious pedagogy. The schools combine the SABIS system with leaders and skilled and devoted teachers who show a commitment to the intellectual and social development of their students.

The program hopes these elements will fuel new charter schools in New York City that transform the lives of hundreds of children, yet it cost no more than surrounding school districts. Because their schools won’t rely on the so-called “anomalous resources”—funding levels, teaching time, or human capital—Ascend plans to offer a new schooling model that can be sustained and brought to scale.

More information: Ascend Learning website


The MATCH Charter Public Schools prepare inner-city Boston students to succeed in college and beyond, including those who have no family history of college attendance. Courage, discipline, and perseverance are MATCH’s core values, and they reverse underachievement through a combination of innovation, relentless personal academic attention, and an old-fashioned “no shortcuts” ethic. They are tuition-free, independent public schools, and receive two-thirds of their operating support from the state. The rest must be raised privately.

MATCH High School

SOURCE: Flickr/apchang2004

A MATCH High School teacher, center, poses with some of her 11th and 12th grade students.

The first MATCH high school opened in September 2000 and currently serves 220 students, chosen by random lottery, in grades 9 through 12. The MATCH middle school opened its doors in Jamaica Plain, MA in August 2008 with 90 sixth graders. The student body is currently 63 percent African American, 30 percent Hispanic, 4 percent white, and 3 percent Asian. Seventy-three percent of students live in poverty and arrive at the school well behind grade level in math and reading.

MATCH’s ambition is to fulfill traditional notions of a high school graduate: one fluent in math, English, science, and history. All seniors must succeed in at least two Advanced Placement classes and two Boston University classes in order to graduate. A set of non-negotiable rules creates a consistent culture with a focus on academics. Faculty and staff know every student, and families are an integral part of the school’s work, receiving a check-in phone call every week.

The schools also employ a MATCH Corps of 48 recent graduates from top colleges across the country who dedicate a year to improving the lives of MATCH students in exchange for a modest living stipend and housing in the school’s third-floor dormitory. Corps members prepare students for college success by providing them with two hours of personalized tutoring every day, received in addition to regular classes taught by experienced teachers.

The results: 99 percent of the first five graduating classes—2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008—have been accepted into four-year colleges. Together they received approximately $2.75 million in four-year, need-based grants and $800,000 in four-year loan commitments. Their selections included Boston College, Brown, Dartmouth, Duke, Georgetown, Notre Dame, Smith, and Spelman College.

More information: MATCH website

Human capital builders

New Leaders for New Schools

Since its inception in 2000, New Leaders for New Schools has attracted, prepared, and supported a new generation of principals with the skills to dramatically improve school performance and drive educational excellence on a national scale.

Jon Schnur


New Leaders for New Schools CEO and Co-Founder Jon Schnur speaks at CAP.

The organization was first conceived by a team of five graduate students in business and education. Throughout the planning and design phase, the team drew upon their extensive interviews with school leaders and district superintendents, their own experiences as classroom teachers and leaders, and the most current thinking in education and policymaking. The result is a unique model that trains aspiring school leaders in instructional, transformational, and organizational leadership through a combination of coursework and practical application.

New Leaders for New Schools has rapidly grown in two key dimensions—the number of individuals trained and number of district partners. The team began to train a cohort of 13 individuals in New York City and Chicago in 2001. Since then, the total number of New Leaders has grown to 431 school leaders in 2006. At the same time, New Leaders for New Schools has added one new city partnership each year: Oakland in 2002; Washington, D.C. in 2003; Memphis in 2004; Baltimore in 2005; Milwaukee in 2006; and both Prince George’s County, MD and New Orleans in 2007.

The organization is committed to using data to drive organizational learning, assess programmatic impact, and serve as a source of accountability in working toward its goals and mission. Since the program’s inception in 2001, it has been collecting data on the implementation of its model and impact, as well as gathering formative information about the program and participants. From collecting survey data from participants and staff, to conducting focus groups, to formally enlisting the RAND Corporation to conduct a comprehensive, five-year evaluation testing the impact of its model, New Leaders is constantly looking to test theories and analyze information to improve its work and the impact on the students it serves.

In addition, New Leaders for New Schools is affecting the public education system. After introducing the New City Competition in 2002, there has been an increasing demand from districts for New Leaders principals and programs. At the same time, both city partners and more than 20 other cities have adopted elements of the New Leaders for New Schools model in developing their own principal training programs. Looking forward, the organization is poised to achieve change in a number of cities, where New Leaders already make up a significant percentage of the public school leaders.

More information: New Leaders for New Schools website

Teach for America

TFA training

SOURCE: AP/David J. Phillip

Soon-to-be Teach for America teachers sit in a training session in Houston, Texas.

Teach for America recruits outstanding recent college graduates of all majors and career interests—as well as working professionals—to commit for at least two years of teaching in urban and rural public schools. The program invests in the training and professional development necessary to ensure their success as teachers in the nation’s highest-poverty communities.

TFA operates rigorous five-week summer preparation institutes for corps members in Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, and Phoenix before sending them out into schools around the country. Through opportunities for practice, observation, coaching, and study—as well as careful planning and thoughtful reflection—corps members develop the foundational knowledge, skills, and mindsets needed to be highly effective beginning teachers.

TFA ceremony

SOURCE: Flickr/monsantofund

New Teach for America teachers attend a grant presentation in St. Louis, Missouri.

School districts hire TFA corps members through state-approved alternative certification programs, which require that corps members meet specific requirements and demonstrate proficiency in the grades and subject areas they will teach.

In many cases, the ongoing coursework that corps members take as part of their region’s alternative teaching program leads to full certification by the end of their two years. In other cases, corps members choose to take additional coursework beyond their two-year commitment to become fully certified. Corps members receive the same salaries and health benefits as other beginning teachers, and they are directly paid by the school districts for which they work.

In addition, the program’s regional support network provides ongoing professional development to corps members throughout the two-year commitment to ensure that they succeed as teachers. Each corps member is assigned a regional program director who serves as a source of support, guidance, and feedback during the corps experience.

Since its creation in 1990, the Teach for America network has grown to include more than 20,000 individuals. Currently, some 6,200 TFA corps members teach in 29 urban and rural areas profoundly affected by the achievement gap. In addition, the more than 14,000 alumni leverage their corps experience to improve outcomes and opportunities for low-income students and to fight for systemic reform.

More information: Teach for America website

The New Teacher Project

The New Teacher Project believes that effective teachers can close the achievement gap between students from lower and higher socioeconomic backgrounds. According to TNTP, research shows that schools serving urban and low-income communities with large numbers of poor and minority students—the very students who need the most help in school—are far less likely to be staffed with effective teachers. Therefore, they partner with school districts and states to develop programs that will attract high quality teachers to urban and high-poverty schools.

Since its foundation in 1997, TNTP has established 70 such programs in 28 states, and it has trained or hired approximately 33,000 teachers with a benefit to about 4.8 million students nationwide. The TNTP model begins with recruitment, but it also focuses on selecting candidates that will have a high probability of success, preparing those who are selected through an intensive pre-service training program, placing them in supportive environments, and then managing and tracking those teachers over time.

In addition to its recruitment programs, TNTP also offers staffing tools for school districts. For instance, TNTP conducts principal training workshops that cover topics, ranging from early and effective hiring to how to market a high-need school. TNTP also has a Model Staffing Initiative, which uses a subset of a district’s lowest-performing schools to implement a model for effective teacher hiring that the rest of the district can then follow.

TNTP conducts policy research into teacher hiring as well. It profiles states and school districts to pinpoint areas with the most need, and also pushes for policy changes that will encourage more open and efficient hiring processes. For example, TNTP worked with former Sen. Jack Scott (D-CA) to pass Senate Bill 1655, which eases hiring delays so that schools can have more control over who they hire.

More information: The New Teacher Project website

New Schools for New Orleans

New Orleans charter school

SOURCE: AP/Alex Brandon

Fourth graders walk into their class at a charter school in New Orleans, Louisiana.

New Schools for New Orleans was established in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to ensure that every child in New Orleans has access to excellent public schools. The non-profit focuses on four key areas: recruiting high-quality teachers and administrators, opening new open-enrollment charter schools, providing charter schools with grants to promote quality, and building connections between schools and the community.

New Schools for New Orleans has worked to spur the human capital pipeline in New Orleans by partnering with other entrepreneurial organizations including TeachNOLA—a program of The New Teacher Project—Teach for America, and New Leaders for New Schools.

New Schools for New Orleans recruits and selects education entrepreneurs through its charter school incubation program to launch or replicate schools in the city, and it provides extensive financial and operational support to help them prepare for opening day. The organization also provides leadership training to support new charter founders, as well as operational assistance, legal assistance, board development consulting, and a charter application review. New Orleans now has the greatest proportion of charter schools of any city in the United States.

New Schools for New Orleans also works closely with the state-run Recovery School District and other community organizations to inform New Orleans parents and the community about New Orleans public schools, and to coordinate a unified effort toward the common goal of improving student achievement and quality.

Once ranked among the worst school districts in America, New Orleans public schools are now transforming into a national model for urban education reform. New Schools for New Orleans is working alongside other key education organizations, governing institutions, and community groups in New Orleans to ensure that the changing landscape of New Orleans schools is fueled by great people and resources.

More information: New Schools for New Orleans website

Service providers

Citizen Schools

citizen schools

SOURCE: Flickr/Urban AdvenTours

Citizen schools students out on an "urban adventure" in Boston.

Citizen Schools provides after-school programs for 4,400 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students at 44 different locations in California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, and Texas. It emphasizes hands-on learning projects that allow students to put their education into practice and are meant to complement classroom learning. The projects are led by over 3,200 adult volunteers and also staffed by professional educators.

The organization was founded in 1995 because, as its founders explain, “Children spend just 20 percent of their waking hours in school. But a child’s capacity to learn doesn’t end with the final bell. After-school programs can do so much more than what we so often expect of them—just keeping kids off the street—and make real impact on their education.”

citizen schools

SOURCE: Flickr/mki photos

A Citizen Schools student gives a presentation on astronomy.

Students attend Citizen Schools for three hours after school from Monday to Thursday. Every student takes part in at least an hour of daily homework and study time called AIM: Aspire, Invest, Make the Grade. They also participate in “apprenticeships” for 90 minutes twice a week. These hands-on lessons focus on leadership, teamwork, oral communication, and technology. When students do not have their apprenticeship days, they spend such time doing explorations that take them out into the community to learn new cultures, traditions, and ideas.

Each Citizen Schools semester lasts 11 weeks and culminate in a WOW!, a presentation or performance given by the student at the end of the semester and can be anything from building a website to publishing a newspaper or building a solar car.

More information: Citizen Schools website

College Summit

College Summit partners with schools and districts around the country to help ensure that students, particularly those in low-income areas, leave high school ready for college or a career. Director J.B. Schramm started the program in 1993 with just four students at a teen center in the basement of a low-income housing project in Washington, DC. Now, College Summit works with over 15,000 students in 87 schools in California, Colorado, Missouri, West Virginia, New York, South Carolina, and the District of Columbia.

College Summit’s primary goal is to infuse a college-going culture in schools by focusing on the transition process from high school to college. Program leaders have found that, “High-achieving, low-income students often lack many of the resources and information available to their more affluent classmates when applying to college, such as test prep courses, college visits, and application guidance. College Summit equips schools so that all students can be supported through this application and transition process.”

college summit

SOURCE: Flickr/college.summit

College Summit students with their teacher in class.

School partnerships are vital to College Summit’s success. College Summit offers a regular, for-credit class at its partner schools that brings together teachers and counselors, as well as peer leaders, to teach students how to navigate the application and financial aid processes, and get them excited about college. College Summit trains peer leaders at a four-day orientation hosted by a local college, and teachers and counselors have access to lesson plans and resources.

Since 2003, the percent of students in College Summit schools who apply to college has increased significantly. Participating schools in College Summit’s first cohort saw a statistically significant increase in college enrollment rates school-wide. Moreover, College Summit freshmen are staying in college: those who participated in the program made it to their sophomore year at the same rate as students from all income groups across the country.

More information: College Summit website


virtual school


Billy Jenkins sits at his computer, where he takes his high school classes virtually.

K12 was founded in 1999 to assist all students whose needs were not met through traditional education models—those struggling with classes as well as those excelling beyond them. Its goal is to provide children with an exceptional and meaningful curriculum and tools that allow them to maximize the potential for success in life, regardless of their geographic, financial, or demographic circumstances. The company provides individualized online education curriculum for full-time online public schools, families who home-school their children, and some public schools that use it to supplement normal classroom activities

K12 offers classes in a broad range of subjects, including English, Math, History, Science, Art, Music, Health, and Physical Education, plus AP courses and electives for high school students. Some schools and families use the classes to supplement students’ learning time, while others use it for the entire curriculum. Both methods harness technology to reach children through an individualized approach, whether it’s full-time schooling outside of the traditional brick-and-mortar school, or through part-time or supplemental options available both inside and outside of the traditional classroom. All classes are online, but students only spend about 20 to 30 percent of their time in front of a computer; the rest is spent reading, solving math problems, doing experiments, and other hands-on tasks.

More information: K12 website


SchoolNet uses web-based technology to bring parents and educators together to improve student achievement, including both software designed for classroom use, and a website that serves as a networking site for parents and teachers.

The SchoolNet software provides real-time data, reports, tools, and content to help teachers, schools and districts assess students’ reading progress and individualize instruction. SchoolNet tools have been adopted by some of the nation’s largest school districts such as Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

SchoolNet’s website allows educators of all kinds to share information and find reputable learning tools, resources, and research. The primary goal is to ensure that users can find the best and most relevant education information possible. A search engine aggregates trusted education sites, links to important education research and reports, and articles on proven strategies for administrators, teachers, and students. A networking portion of the website also allows users to interact with each other and share ideas. Educators and parents can post a “viewpoint” page on the site that acts as an online profile, and they can participate in discussion forums, share links and resources, and review teaching materials.

More information: SchoolNet website

Wireless Generation

Larry Berger and Greg Gunn founded Wireless Generation in 2000 under the premise that “the right technology in the hands of the right educators makes all the difference.” The company has pioneered the adaptation of emerging technologies to improve PreK-12 teaching and learning, and today it serves more than 2 million children and hosts one of the largest databases of longitudinal student data in the country.

handheld education device


Wireless Generation allows teachers to use handheld devices similar to this one to provide real-time student assessment.

The company’s core program is software, which allows teachers to use a handheld device—rather than paper—to assess and collect data on their students. The data teachers collect can be used to immediately create web-based reports on individual students, classrooms, schools, districts, and even demographic subgroups. The better and more immediate data allows teachers and administrators to easily monitor student progress and tailor their instruction to students’ needs. The online nature of the data also allows teachers with similar classroom issues to find each other and collaborate on solutions. Because they can track students’ progress over time, it is easy to see what is working and what’s not.

Wireless Generation has also created a K-3 reading intervention that uses technology to analyze assessment data and produce sequences of lessons for each student, helping teachers to match their instruction to varied learning needs.

In addition, the company provides consulting, design, and development services for state and district systems that centralize student data and integrate social networking tools enabling educators share solutions to specific problems in their classrooms. A partner to thousands of school systems, Wireless Generation is widely regarded as a leader in using technology to address the challenges of education and reform.

More information: Wireless generation website was founded in 1998 by former teacher Bill Jackson to encourage and enable parents to get more involved in their children’s education. The website provides extensive school profiles and ratings, allows parents to connect and share with one another, and publishes articles tailored to parents on a broad range of education topics.

GreatSchools website

SOURCE: GreatSchools website

The GreatSchools.met website helps connect parents. provides a centralized source of school profiles and ratings for more than 90,000 public elementary, middle, and high schools—including charter and magnet schools—in the United States. Profiles offer information on school contacts, grade levels, student demographics and enrollment, student-teacher ratios, and detailed academic performance data on state standardized tests. The website also provides information on preschools and some private schools, and aggregates this data to make recommendations on the best cities and school districts for children.

The GreatSchools Parent Community is a social network housed on the organization’s website that enables parents to discuss their child’s education issues and share success stories. It allows parents to discuss local issues and topical issues in groups, or browse discussion topics. Users also have profiles that help parents find others who are dealing with similar issues or have children in similar situations.

The education articles provided on the site are written by staff members and consultants and cover topics ranging from how to choose the right school, to dealing with behavioral problems and designing science experiments you can do at home.

More information:

Read the full report: Stimulating Excellence: Unleashing the Power of Innovation in Education

Event information: Stimulating Excellence


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