Special report on teacher entrepreneurs: Leaving a classroom, starting a school

Shiren Rattigan, foreground, founded Colossal Academy in the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale area for curious and active tweens and teens. The experiential learning microschool aims to utilize inquiry and students’ natural curiosity to help them navigate their learning.

Editor’s note: This report was compiled by Ronda Dry, Lauren Barlis, Paula Nelson and Ron Matus at Step Up For Students, and Mike McShane and James Shuls with EdChoice. Five of the six authors are former classroom teachers. You can read the full report hereTo see a short video about the report, click hereTo see a slide deck summary, click here.

When advocates talk about school choice, children and families are usually in the foreground. This makes perfect sense. School choice exists to give students more and better options.

But school choice isn’t just about students.

Teachers benefit as well.

School choice creates the opportunity for entrepreneurial educators to start and operate schools aligned to their strengths and their beliefs about how children should be educated. Oftentimes teachers are stuck in the very same schools that children are.

Poor management, bad decisions around curriculum or teaching methods, misuse of technology – the list of things that frustrate children and families are the same things that frustrate teachers.

School choice can free teachers from such circumstances.

That is what our new white paper is about.

Florida is full of gutsy teachers who left district-run public schools to create their own diverse, distinctive learning models in line with their visions and values – and are catering to growing numbers of Florida families who now have the power to choose these models, or not.

Florida’s income-based choice scholarships are now worth about $7,700 each, and available to roughly 70% of students. Florida’s education savings account for students with special needs, meanwhile, are worth about $10,000 each.

We gathered 10 of these teacher entrepreneurs to ask them about their experiences. We wanted to know what their motivations were, what hurdles they faced, what solutions they think might help overcome those hurdles.

Their answers were surprising and insightful and have lessons for policymakers both inside and outside of Florida.

One focus group participant – a former Teacher of the Year in her public school district – told us she had a crisis of conscience as she was on the verge of becoming a principal. She balked at the thought of leading an entire school into a test-heavy regimen she had come to view as problematic.

At the same time, she was torn by the prospect of leaving a profession she had aspired to since she was a child and had worked so hard to become outstanding in.

She asked herself, “How can I stay in it but not stay in it?”

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BY Ron Matus

Ron Matus is director for policy and public affairs at Step Up for Students and a former editor of redefinED. He joined Step Up in February 2012 after 20 years in journalism, including eight years as an education reporter with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times). Ron can be reached at rmatus@stepupforstudents.org or (727) 451-9830. Follow him on Twitter @RonMatus1 and on facebook at facebook.com/redefinedonline.