George Lucas Educational Foundation
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On June 16, 2007, Envision Schools, a nonprofit organization that manages charter schools in the San Francisco Bay Area, held its first commencement for its flagship school, the Marin School of Arts and Technology. This occasion allowed me to reflect on my journey thus far. As I think back on the successes and challenges of coleading Envision Schools with my partner and fellow CEO Daniel McLaughlin, I pondered these questions: How does a high school teacher become a cofounder of a leading nonprofit charter-school-management organization? And why would anyone want to start an entirely new school system?

Prior to starting Envision Schools, I taught social studies, served as a student-activities director, and was a mentor teacher, a reform leader, and the head of a school within a school, Academy X, at Sir Francis Drake High School in San Anselmo, California. While I was at Drake, my colleagues and I achieved great academic results from the students as a result of a redesign of the school to support project-based learning and by building a strong, professional learning community. Hundreds of visitors came from around the country to see what we were accomplishing. However, many would leave saying, "This is wonderful, but my kids could never do this type of work." I didn't believe them -- their kids can do the work.

In 2000, I left Drake to join the Career Academy Support Network, where I was a consultant to schools and school districts from around the country in school redesign, project-based learning, small learning communities, and school leadership. Though I enjoyed working with my colleagues at CASN, I became frustrated with the slow pace of change in urban schools and even more frustrated when excellent programs were decimated due to change or lack of leadership, budget cuts, and/or seniority rights. I call this the "Bang, bang, bang!" period of my career -- that's the sound of my head against the wall as I tried to change schools from within.

In 2002, I decided to stop complaining and start doing something -- and that's when Daniel and I founded Envision Schools. Our goal was, and still is, to create new types of college-preparatory high schools to demonstrate that redesigned high schools can deliver excellent results for kids, including a college acceptance and graduation. We believed we needed to start a new school system for several reasons:

  • Schools need both support and accountability to implement an educational model built around project-based learning and performance assessment.
  • Schools need operational, financial, real estate, and development support so the focus can stay on teaching and learning.
  • Schools need to be part of a like-minded community.
  • We need to create multiple proof points for our educational model -- no more "Yes, but . . ."

Envision Schools started in an office no bigger than a closet. Daniel and I developed a business plan to support our educational model; central to our plan was creating charter schools not because we believe charter schools are the silver bullet but because we believe the charter structure gave us the autonomy we needed to implement and sustain our design.

Fortunately, the New Tech Foundation, in Napa, California, as well as the California Department of Education and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, believed we had a solid plan, and the expertise to implement it. In September 2003, we cut the ribbon and opened the Marin School of Arts and Technology, and the journey truly began. Four years later, MSAT has achieved great results:

  • The Western Association of Schools and Colleges Accrediting Commission recently awarded MSAT a six-year term of accreditation, the best possible outcome -- and extraordinarily rare for a new school.
  • More than two-thirds of MSAT's first senior class has been accepted to at least one four-year college, receiving more than $800,000 in financial aid. (The average MSAT senior garnered $12,000.)
  • The senior class boasts a National Merit Scholar and acceptances to schools such as Stanford University, the University of California campus in Los Angeles and Davis, Wake Forest University, Northeastern University, and other prestigious colleges.
  • All MSAT graduates met the course requirements for entrance into the UC system. (Statewide, 25 percent of graduates meet those requirements.)
  • Our students have thrived with the school's innovative project-based learning curriculum, consistently producing powerful and creative displays of work through exhibitions.
  • The state Department of Education awarded MSAT a Dissemination Grant to support other schools in implementing the Envision education model. Our school was one of two charter schools throughout California to win a Dissemination Grant last year.

In light of these extraordinary achievements, the following statement may be surprising: Because of an extremely difficult relationship with the Novato Unified School District, which has oversight authority for the school, MSAT no longer exists. This decision came at the end of five long years of trying to work with NUSD to find common ground -- the students. It was the most painful decision of our professional careers and one Daniel and I never imagined having to make when we started Envision and MSAT.

Though the ending of MSAT is sad, we are amazed that more than half of the student body has applied to Envision's San Francisco schools, signing up to commute for forty-five minutes each way just so they can go to another Envision school. People have been fleeing urban areas for years to find "good" public schools in the suburbs, but families of MSAT students are willing to have their children travel to San Francisco for a first-rate, college-prep, twenty-first-century public school education.

Here's a question I'd like to be asked, and another I would expect to be asked, and their answers:

Q: How does a teacher build and lead a charter-school-management organization such as Envision Schools?

A: You just do it!

Q: Why would anyone want to start schools like the one Envision Schools has launched?

A: As I hugged every one of our founding graduates and wished them well on their journey to college knowing that they were well equipped, the answer was more than clear.

Any thoughts? I'd love to hear them.

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Mechel Wall's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As I read your article it brought me to tears as I reflected on how similar yet different our stories are. I am the most unlikely individual to have done what I did - founded a nonprofit organization, started 2 charter schools, manage $10 million in assets, oversee 2 school boards, sit on the founding board as president for 7 years, become a construction management expert, learn all of the nuts and bolts of opening and running a school while raising a large, young family of 8 children. Our success is directly attributable to the skilled, motivated and brilliant people I have surrounded myself with. We are all much greater as a team than as individuals working solo.

Our first school went through every difficulty imaginable and survived charter renewal twice in a state hostile to charters. Our K-8 school is accredited by NCA and test scores are great! We are getting ready to open our high school August 1 and it is such a stressful emotional roller coaster, I kick myself for doing it again!
There is a force that keeps us going - one stronger than the stress, anxiety, fear of failure, criticism from the establishment and the frustrating lack of funding.

I believe it is the thrill of seeing a vision come to life that embodies all of the things we KNOW down in the deepest core of our beings will help students reach heights they only dreamed of. This drive is what made your school successful and we NEED you to continue what you started, share what you learned and once there are enough of us that are successful the scales will begin to tip in our favor and the tragic part of your story will not be repeated!

Please consider making your expertise available to others so the foundation you built can be added upon by others and together we will build something so strong and so solid that no local district can manipulate or dictate our future! We must be the masters of our own destiny - to thrive or die based on our success or failure - not become the victims of local politics.

We are still alive - and hope that in 10-20 years we will have successful alumni returning, telling the stories of their triumphs to the current students and inspiring them to exceed their own expectations! Tomorrow's students are counting on people like us to create and support excellent schools that are designed for learning and have strong foundations and sustainable programs.

You deserve a high five for what you have done - you get two from me! I would value any advice you are willing to give!

M. Wall

Bonnie Bracey-Sutton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is a great watering hole to help us all. I am a teacher who has taught in public schools. private school. helped to integrate schools by being a
person of color in schools that had never had such an entity. One of my best experiences was involvement in a charter school, but it was not called that.

The experience was grueling, but the curriculum, the planning the ways in which we worked were outstanding.

One thing we always have to remember is that politics creates the school, and that those with the most power always have the best schools. Those with the most money sometimes have the best schools. Those of us who have a vision for the future, who think about the reality of schools can be beat upby the public and the press, even the courts.

You do what you do because it makes a difference. You are passionate about real schools and children, Unfortunately in this country the vision of education has been snatched and contorted.

What you do has made a difference in the life of children.

I actually have done things I regret, like quitting my teaching job in a cushy suburban part of Virginia. I don't regret it because I was trying to make a difference in the DC Public Schools. I thought the power of one, as a teacher was important. What I found out is that at that particular time, given that particular leader in the schools, given that particular set of low income children that I was teaching that no one cared much. I worked for three years there. I did my best and finally had to throw in the towel.

Now a young mayor is taking on the whole establishment. I applaud his
confidence , his dream, his vision. Too often we eat our seed corn ( Indian Expression) Too often no one tries.

I applaud you for your work.

Bonnie Bracey Sutton

Caroline's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi. I'm sorry that MSAT students have to suffer the disruption caused by the closure/merger of MSAT, but I have to post a contrarian view. I'm a San Francisco Unified School District parent and activist.

For the first three years of MSAT's existence, California charter school law mandated that districts pay charter schools a set amount per student. In the Novato Unified School District (NUSD), this amounted to $800 per year per student more than Novato's other two high schools (both non-charter) received. This meant that all students at Novato's non-charter high schools were sacrificing to subsidize MSAT students (including the 50 percent, I understand, who lived outside the Novato school district). This inequity was also the case in my school district, SFUSD.

Novato is not a low-income community, but it does have some low-income students. Not at MSAT, though! MSAT lists zero low-income students. Novato HS lists 23.7% low-income and San Marin HS lists 14% low-income. MSAT also has more whites and fewer minorities than the other two schools.

MSAT's parent company, Envision Schools, supposedly has a mission committing to educate disadvantaged students. Yet in Novato, MSAT educates zero disadvantaged students, while the other two high schools educate all of NUSD's low-income students. Yet until fall 2006, the students at the other two high schools sacrificed to subsidize the wealthier MSAT students (half of them from out of district).

That inequity might have had some negative effects on relations between NUSD and Envision.

Back to that $800 per year. NUSD approached state Sen. Carole Migden, who authored SB319, a bill remedying the inequity. It took effect in fall '06, so now school districts don't have to pay charter schools more in district funds than non-charter schools get. (Gov. Schwarzenegger, a fervent charter supporter, signed the bill on the basis that the inequity was discouraging school districts from approving charters.)

After one year of functioning without that extra subsidy, MSAT collapsed. One might speculate that MSAT couldn't function without that extra money -- even though Envision gets plenty of money from the Gates Foundation and other funders. (Envision's two San Francisco high schools lost the additional subsidy too.)

In the first reports of MSAT's collapse, the school was going to sever from Envision and continue to exist, being run autonomously. About two days after that report broke, the story changed, and Envision announced that it was going to fold MSAT and merge it with one of its two San Francisco charter high schools, Metro Arts & Tech.

Suddenly, simultaneous with this new announcement, there was a loud outcry from Envision and from the MSAT community blaming NUSD for the collapse of the school. Envision even took out a full-page ad in the Marin Independent Journal blaming NUSD for MSAT's collapse.

As we might imagine, it would be a disaster if funders and prospective applicants got wind that MSAT collapsed for financial reasons. That might explain the loud blaming of NUSD, which has an orchestrated, staged appearance.

Then Envision announced that MSAT would be merging with Metropolitan Arts & Technology, one of its San Francisco schools, located at the time in a church on the north side of Bernal Heights. Current reports are that 150 MSAT students plan to commute to Metro.

So here in SFUSD, Metro needed a new site. SFUSD offered Metro a facility in the low-income Bayview District, in the heart of the community of low-income, inner-city students of color whom Envision has committed to serve.

But Metro turned down that site, though its rental cost was just over 1/10 the cost of the SFUSD site Metro did choose. The spot Metro chose is in Pacific Heights (San Francisco's wealthiest neighborhood), far more covenient for commuters from Marin, though way across town from Metro's current location and probably from many of its students' homes.

The Pacific Heights site needs $7 million-$8 million worth of work to be occupied long-term by an SFUSD school. That's based on the Lopez settlement, mandating disability access upgrades. Metro has only a one-year lease for the site. Envision's communications don't totally conceal that temporary status, but they barely mention it.

Unlike MSAT, Metro actually does serve a student population that's mostly low-income students of color. Statistically, low-income students of color post lower academic achievement than high-income white students. So the merger will presumably cause Metro's achievement to shoot up, which will be great PR for Envision and a fantastic asset in applying for more funding.

So this leaves a number of questions about this situation.

-- Shouldn't Envision and the MSAT community be thanking NUSD and its students for sacrificing to subsidize the wealthier MSAT students for those first three years, rather than engaging in the orchestrated blame session? (Again, I'm sorry that MSAT students have to suffer the disruption, though at least they're not disadvantaged, low-income students -- like the ones Envision is supposedly committed to serving -- who would likely have a far greater struggle recovering.)
-- Why did Envision turn down a far less costly site for Metro, one that was located in the community Metro is committed to serve, in favor of the Pacific Heights site?
-- Is Envision being clear with the students who plan to commute that the new Metro site is a temporary location for one year only?
-- When Metro has to relocate at the end of the 07-08 school year, is Envision going to go on the attack against SFUSD, making it the new NUSD?

Novato Unified is a middle-class district in a county that supports its schools. It will survive the attacks from Envision. But SFUSD is a challenged, diverse, high-need, high-poverty district that faces many stresses. When our district is battered by outside forces -- as with the battle it fought with now-discredited Edison Schools in 2001 -- it does genuine harm, distracting the leadership from meeting the students' needs and draining resources. If Envision attacks our district as it's now attacking NUSD, our students will suffer direct harm.

Roy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


The Incredible Journey is due in very large part to an incredible leader. A leader with passion and a heart to do what is best for students. A leader with the desire and determination to do 'whatever it takes' to ensure the academic success of each and every student. A leader who realizes the vitality of rigor, relevance, but most importantly, relationships. An incredible leader who is like the boy in the starfish story, making a difference one 'starfish'at a time.

Keep up the wonderful work!


Jimmy Allen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Those are some great achievements! Nice job Envision Schools.

"You just do it".
The best quote ever!

How do we persuade private money givers and parents that "You just do it" is actually a significant part of any plan to achieve a goal?

I am directing a team who is opening an Independent model of learning in Sedona, Arizona and we are similarly committed to bringing about positive shifts in education. I remember reading over the business plan for MSAT and loved it.

We believe that developing children's potentials is the future of education and that the biggest shifts in education will be determined by a new generation of young, creative leaders. Leaders who develop the strong spirit and confidence such as demonstrated by the founders of Envision Schools.

Education for a new generation!

I hope more and more people are motivated by the dedication that groups such as Envision Schools live by.

Big smiles to all r-evolutionary educators and innovators!

Founder/Director, ILA

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