A weekend interview with ...
... Mark Thimmig, CEO of Mavericks in Education, a new charter school firm that's hoping to launch 10 new schools throughout Florida in areas with high levels of dropouts. Thimmig, a former vice president of AutoNation who also ran White Hat Ventures, one of the nation's largest school management firms, spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about his company's plans.
First, tell me a little bit about your company and what you want to do.
The purpose of our applications is to work with local governance boards through nonprofit organizations to establish schools that are specifically designed, developed, research-based to serve a student population that is not succeeding in a traditional educational environment. In particular, our mission is to retrieve students who have dropped out of schools. One of the things that makes us unique as a public charter school is that, unlike many charter schools who are in competition with the traditional school districts, we are focused on bringing students back into the educational system that have left. That's our first and foremost mission, and that makes us quite unique. In the current situation when districts are under pressure with budgets, we are a charter application that I think can get and should get consideration given that we're not competing for those precious dollars that are there for K-8 students or more traditional high school students.
How did you decide on Florida for your venture?
Well, we live here. And Florida is one of the largest dropout epidemic states in the United States. It is projected and published that there are over 100,000 dropouts in our state each year. So we have an epidemic here. And it has not gotten any better in the major school districts throughout the state. They struggle with this problem. We recognize that our public school districts are strapped with challenges and responsibilities, and they need organizations that can come in and without draining taxpayer dollars ... (provide) the kind of very specialized educational program they need for this student population that is catastrophic to our communities.
Statistically, we know that 70-85 percent of all state and federal prison inmates do not have a high school diploma. We know that without a high school diploma, that people are dependent at a far greater level on expensive and valuable social services. So we know that people will turn to things that are detrimental to society. We know they need to survive. And that's expensive for our communities if they cannot work and be part of the productive workforce within our communities. And we also know, frankly, that they cannot have an active participation in our vital democracy if they can't read and write, can't fill out a voter card or can't make analytical and constructive decisions about whether it's local, state or federal candidates. How are we going to hear their voice in our democracy? ... We really see this as a cause.
How do you get the students to buy into your cause?
First of all, I think one of the most profound differences is we are first and foremost completely focused on one student population. We are not a generalist. ... In a traditional classroom we find the student that is often most embraced and recognized by the teacher is the student who does everything well. Turns in their assignments on time, is the perfect in the class. And that is a good thing. But it leaves out the student who may need that love and attention the very most. We are a school who, because we have a different educational process and because we have a different focus, we can put our arms around that student and we can make that student feel welcome and make that student wanted.
Great little example I can give you. We use a lot of technology in our school and we certainly have a good amount of our curriculum on a computer-based structure here. And what we have found, very interesting, is that we can by using some electronic curriculums find the absolute specific academic level in every subject and every component of a subject ... Where that student may need to begin, and proceed at that student's pace - not at the teacher's pace. That's particularly important with students who are under-performers or overage and behind in their credits.
What would make someone want to come back to school? I know they probably need to be there, but what would make them want to be there?
One of the most important reasons is, a place that they can succeed and a place that they're wanted. This is about a place where they will see much more continuous progress and success. We are not a fee-based, credit school. You don't have to sit in the classroom 12 weeks to earn that half credit in math. If you're working, this is a competency-based school. So when you demonstrate that you have mastered the requirements at 80 percent or above for that credit, you can earn that credit. That's incredibly motivating for many young people.
So that would be regardless of whether it takes one week or a year?
Exactly. And when you are in a situation where you are now in control. We are talking about a population of students who have a very maverick spirit, which is why we called it Maverick High School to begin with. ... These are people who don't fit in, oftentimes, in the regimen or the structure or the pace of a traditional classroom. They may have fallen behind. There may be 100 reasons why they don't. But when we deliver education at their level, their pace, and they can earn the credit and see continuous success and achievement - and they'll have one of the instruction team members will be a mentor with them as well. ... We'll have a family advocate who is a trained social worker in the school ... And we're going to have a career coordinator who is going to be providing job skills and assisting them in finding and connecting with employers in the community. ...
So would this be for dropouts only? Or would it be for potential dropouts?
Well, I think the issue from our perspective is, if we're working with the school district that has students they feel we can better serve, and the district is making the decision to refer that student, then of course we're going to accept that student and support that student. We will not target the traditional schools in order to try to attract students from there. That's not our mission. Our mission is the hundreds, and in many communities it's thousands, because it's been years. We're serving 15-21 years old. ...
What makes this different from adult education or a GED program?
First of all, a GED program generally has a lower educational threshold, does not require the state testing to achieve a state-recognized diploma. A GED also does not necessarily combine a workforce development component with it. We have a much more rigorous curriculum and development of the wholistic student. And I think the adult education program is devoted to people who are 21 and above. This is a program where we can even begin with a middle school student who may be over-age, who may have missed a couple of years or been held back and maybe doesn't want to enter a traditional high school, doesn't feel they'll be successful there. That's a big population as well of struggling students that districts and communities are concerned with.
You have proposals in Pasco and Hernando and Hillsborough and what other districts? All around Florida?
What we did is we selected 10 counties and really identified 10 boards of governance in all of those counties with remarkable people who were concerned about this problem and began to work with them. ... I want to give you three little statistics about those three counties. One is, they represent 55 percent of the state's population. Second, the represent 57 percent of the state's high school population. And third, they represent 64 percent of the state's dropout population. And those counties are the south Florida counties of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach, and then as you mentioned we have Hernando, we have Hillsborough. We have Orange County, Osceola County, Pasco, Pinellas and Polk counties.
Do you have any schools that are already up and running?
No we don't. Well, we have a lot of experience in working with these students. But this organization is really an incredible collaboration of researchers, technology people, curriculum experts and so on that took an extended period of time, started from the ground up, built this on a research foundation and have really looked at some things that we've had experiences in but also the latest research and given us really probably the most incredible model out there in education today. We had Nova Southeastern University - we had two executive deans review this application. And Nova is the fourth largest education college in the United States. And they said this was the best application they had ever seen. ...
I also want to point out that while we are making applications through the not-for-profit boards - and it's their application really, not ours - what makes a school local is the local board of governance and the administrator and teachers and employees at that school. Those employees and board members are all drawn and will be drawn from the community and will represent and do represent a balance of ethnicity and other important elements that really make a school unique to that county. ...
How do you afford to open 10 schools across the state in these tight budget times relying on public funds?
Well, first of all, one of the most important things when you've had a lot of experience opening and running schools, as we have, you start out understanding you have to have a brilliant education model but you also have to have a sound and sustainable financial model. And our school has some very very unique aspects to it that allows it to be more financially successful than many other typical charter schools.
First of all, the 500 students or so that we eventually intend to educate in these communities, we do it in three shifts. ... Those shifts allow us to have a 12,000 square foot building and not a 50,000 square foot building. Our teaching organization will ramp up as our enrollment ramps up, unlike a traditional charter school that has a teacher in every classroom no matter how many children show up. Because of how our model is set up, we can flex according to enrollment. Our management fees and costs are a percentage of revenue, so if our revenue is less, our costs are less.
But also, we have some wonderful things that are working for us. Some people might not think they are wonderful, but we do. No. 1, the price of commercial real estate, which is what we will be looking at and what we use. A CVS on the corner with a bus stop and great parking is a high access location. Many more of those buildings are becoming available. The prices in commercial real estate are falling dramatically. ... We have real estate people who want to be involved in real estate investing, may not understand the charter school aspect but do understand real estate and think we make a great tenant and would be happy to buy the property and build out to our specifications, making that more affordable. ...
We will benefit from start-up grants. And we also are not this organization that has this big corporate overhead that all of a sudden sees that now revenues have dropped in the state so, uh-oh, what do we do? We are blessed having developed our model in the market where we clearly understood about what the direction of school funding was going to be. ...
I'm looking forward to seeing you guys show up and make your presentations to school boards around here and talking to you more.
The school boards are in a tough position with budget challenges. And it is tough for some of them to wrap their heads around the fact that we're not a threat to them, we're not there to take students out of their schools. I think if you mention the words "charter school" they think we're going to take students away. I think we have to continue to make it clear in everything we do that this is an add-back. It's not a take away. We cannot leave these kids on the street without a solution.
Related stories: New charter school proposed for struggling Hernando students, St. Petersburg Times, 8/14/08; Education company banking on Heat star to fill charter schools, Palm Beach Post, 8/14/08