Part 1: How One Man Continues To Support Youth With Special Needs

August 12, 2016
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John was recently profiled on The Huffington Post by education writer Robyn Shulman. John had a lot to say so I decided to share it based on different subjects. For the original article please visit Shulman’s column.

John, thank you so much for taking your time to chat with me today. You are a social advocate who has been fighting for the rights of disabled kids since you were 25. I’m very honored to have you here today and congratulations on your recent Indie Award for the book, We’re In This Together: Public-Private Partnerships in Special and At-Risk-Education, along with co-author, Mark Claypool.

Thank you. In America, I believe we publish close to 4,400 books a day. Indie presses are niche oriented compared to the big publishers. It’s very exciting to receive this Indie award.

Let’s start from the beginning of your career. You have an exciting background as an educator and entrepreneur, or what we now term as the edupreneur. Can you tell me about your education journey?
My education journey began in the social era of the 50’s and 60’s. My parents and excellent teachers had a significant influence throughout my educational journey. My social conscience and interest in social justice began early. I grew up in Alabama in the 50s and 60’s; it was a pinpoint of everything that was wrong in the American South paralleled with high racial tensions. Events like the Birmingham Bombings and the Selma March were part of my early life.

I went to George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville, which is now a part of Vanderbilt University. After Peabody, I attended the University of Chicago. I went through a Master’s program and received another degree in geography. At the time, I lived in Kenwood, which was just north of Hyde Park, about two blocks from Muhammad Ali. Although it was a tough area, I loved living there. Then the University of Chicago gave me a scholarship to earn my Ph.D.

I also received an offer to teach at a small school in a Presbyterian church that worked with Special-Ed elementary students. Eventually, I left the University of Chicago, went back to Tennessee, and taught 8th grade for a couple of years. My job was to prepare students who had disabilities to go to the next step of private high school or to get back in Nashville public schools.

At that time, I noticed these students didn’t have a welcoming place to go after 8th grade. Nobody was excited to take these kids into secondary education. Some students had trouble in school, learning disabilities, emotional challenges, or behavioral challenges. That’s when I said, “I’ll create the school.” When I was 24, I decided to establish and run a school, and I opened Benton Hall Academy.

Can you tell me more about Benton Hall Academy?
It was nothing but a wing and a prayer. Today, it’s celebrating its 40th year. The private schools of Nashville were not interested in kids with disabilities, behavior issues, diabetics, or those with Tourette syndrome. I created a school for the children who needed a welcoming and reliable support system.

And the key ingredient in the school was always love. We did not build it with a particular curriculum. We built the school with a caring foundation and a focus on communicating with the families. And it worked for the kids. They were accepted as they were, and we helped them become who they wanted to be.

Benton Hall has always been a labor of love. And it reflects the way I established it, which was centered upon kindness rather than upon building an institution. It’s centered on giving everything we have to the kids who need it most. When I opened the school, it positioned me to understand how American education was going to evolve in an ever-changing period.

Can you tell me about the motivation behind your book with Mark?
There are three or four different streams that helped create the book. In 1987, I left Benton Hall after running it for its first ten years. I met my wife in Nashville, and we moved to Minnesota where I became a tenured associate professor at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, teaching school administration, the infrastructure of schools, logistical organization, and the training of principals and superintendents.

And that’s when I began writing about the power of the private sector and about the challenges in the public school sector; this was the beginning of the education reform movement, and I believe we can still say we’re in it. I wrote about the fact that I thought public school was ill designed to reform itself because it reforms on incrementalism. It was not open to radical change or to big ideas; it was not structured in a way to change.

Public school has 4 million employees and 50 million children to educate, and it’s not something that turns on a dime or can innovate very effectively. I believed that the private sector was going to become the innovator. I envisioned it could offer different ways of schooling, different values, and a better focus on what you got for your money. I had a lot of faith in the early 1990’s.

Can you tell me about the The Education Industry Report?
As a professor, I wrote about this topic. In 1992, I created a publication entitledThe Education Industry Report and ran it out of my basement at home. I felt that there was this bubbling urge of the private sector to help kids who needed it the most. Also, I believed Wall Street should respond to a public system that spent millions of dollars in education and left us with a needle that didn’t move very much. The Education Industry Report ran for eight years and was influential; it helped shape the education space.

We took a chance, and we sized the education industry. And through this publication, we invented the term Education Industry, which rolled off my tongue like a piece of gravel. It was so uncomfortable to say at the time. It was the Education Industry, and I said it. When we put the numbers together, it deserved the title. We rolled education up to be about a $650 billion industry, and this included K-12 public education, private K-12, preschool education, and secondary education. It also included on-the-job training, such as taking classes through General Motors University. And we said the number, $650 billion. Today, most people would call it a $1 trillion industry. Nobody had looked at the figures like that or even spoke of such characterization.

When we made that claim, we realized education was the second largest economic sector in America’s economy.

What was the response from the public school realm and colleagues when you gave a name to education?
As a professor at a state university, my colleagues said, “What are you doing? You sound like the barbarians at the gate, and you’re encouraging these guys to come in.” It was an interesting time to argue with my colleagues. I said, “No, look at what we have here, guys; we have a system that allows 50% of African-American kids to never graduate high school, and we’re proud of that? That’s what we’re going to continue to do? And you’re defending it and saying that I shouldn’t be able to bring in free enterprise notions?”

It was a great era while I wrote this report, and the subscribers included investors who began to appear. I spoke all over Wall Street. If you look at history, I was frequently quoted on public schools and free enterprise.

It was such an exciting period; every major newspaper in America was interested. Eye On America did a series and CBS Evening News covered this movement.

Every major investment group invited me as a conference speaker to talk about how education was going to shift. I also spoke at the National School Boards Association, and the School Superintendents Association hired me to talk to superintendents about the coming of more investment activity into education.