Education & Workforce Development and Small Business

' Set the bar high': LESSONS LEARNED KEVIN TEASLEY President, GEO Foundation CEO, 21st Century Charter Schools

December 31, 2007

KEVIN TEASLEY President, GEO Foundation CEO, 21st Century Charter Schools Kevin Teasley didn't have clear-cut expectations when he and a small group of reform-minded dreamers opened 21st Century Charter School in 2002.

The publicly funded-yet-independent schools were brand new in Indiana, and no one really knew what came next. Would 21st Century's one-room schoolhouse approach draw talented teachers? Would students respond to a different kind of education?

Organizers had high hopes, to be sure, but they operated more on instinct than anything else.

"We were brash. We were bold. We had that can-do attitude," Teasley said. "That's probably what you need to start a charter school."

Something worked. These days, he and his staff operate two charter schools in Indianapolis, one in Gary and one in Colorado Springs, Colo. Enrollment is up, and-perhaps more important-students' test scores are following suit.

Like any new enterprise, 21st Century has experienced growing pains: employee turnover, customer complaints.

But somewhere along the way, Teasley had an "aha" moment: If he set the bar high enough, people committed to succeeding would do what they could to clear it. And the schools would be better for it.

It's a lesson as applicable to small business as it is to not-for-profits like the Teasley-led Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation, which sponsors the charter schools. Limited resources don't have to limit success.

Early on, Teasley didn't think he could afford to attract top-quality talent. Now he knows that when he asks more of job applicants, he gets it.

Filling an opening takes a lot longer these days, but he said the result is worth the effort. Applicants are asked to fill out questionnaires, for example, a process that usually narrows the field of candidates by about 75 percent. The pool shrinks further when Teasley evaluates their writing and critical-thinking abilities. Only then does the interview process begin.

"If you want to be a high-performing [enterprise], you've got to start with the hiring process," he said. "Be more purposeful. Get what you really want."

Teasley said the approach has helped him make some high-caliber hires, including an academic leader with nearly 30 years of experience.

But the expectations don't die down when someone joins the payroll. In his business, progress is measured almost daily in the quality of the education the schools deliver to students-many of whom have not been high achievers before.

Which isn't to say that Teasley doesn't set the bar high for them, too. When test scores dropped after the 2004-2005 school year, 21st Century implemented a rigorous six-week summer school to get students back on track. ISTEP results rebounded.

Still, the buck stops with his staff. That's why Teasley twice a year conducts one-on-one meetings with employees at all four schools, asking them to prove to him that "education took place" under their watch.

Most appreciate knowing that the CEO cares enough to get personally involved. Those who don't may not be around for long.

"If we need to replace someone, it's not personal. We don't have time to wait," Teasley said. "We're responsible for making sure students get the education they need now. They're only going to be 7 this year. Next year, they'll be 8."

The stakes may be different for a school than for a neighborhood coffee shop or other small business, but they're no less important. Expect a lot, Teasley advises.

"Take the time to find good, dedicated employees," he said. "You're making a mistake if you resign yourself to accepting the first person who's available."
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