How a former hedge funder built a life-changing school in the world’s No. 1 failed state

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How a former hedge funder built a life-changing school in the world's No. 1 failed state
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This idea had been with me for a long time: to start a school for really talented kids who have great potential that will otherwise go wasted. Over a decade earlier, when I was still in college, I’d entertained the idea of finding the brightest inner-city children in America and providing them a great school where they could excel. I’d even dreamed up a business plan. The significant expense of this school was to be repaid by taking a percentage of the students’ future income. This was the plan of an economics student looking to put the principles I was learning into action. I thought it was an investment beneficial to all sides. The students would know the school had every incentive to make them great because their success was required for its own survival. That it was probably “indentured servitude” and illegal was not relevant because I had just been an undergraduate tossing around ideas with my friends during a summer break.
The Abaarso School started as a blank sheet of paper I could fill in however I wanted. On the asset side, it had me, my starting donation of $500,000, more if necessary, and all my passion. That’s really all I knew I could count on. Among the liabilities was my impatience. I was set on a September 2009 start, which was just sixteen months away from my decision to build it. As there were infinite directions that I could take a school—starting grade, size, students per class, background of teachers, boarding school versus day school, curriculum selection, just to name a few—I needed to choose one.
A favorite author of mine, John Irving, once said he couldn’t begin any book until he knew the last line. From there, he worked backward to the last couple of paragraphs. He needed to know how the book sounded at the end so he could know how to get there. That’s how I filled in my blank sheet. I started at the conclusion and worked backward.
Somehow, I already knew my last line. I wanted an institution that produced great future Somali leaders for decades and even centuries to come. I wasn’t interested in a large school, and I wasn’t interested in mediocre quality. Working backward, this meant developing all-around excellence of academics and character. Given what I’d seen and heard about the Somaliland universities, this could only be fully accomplished if my students were able to continue their education abroad. The long-lasting institution part of the plan also had implications. It meant financial sustainability and independence, meaning that the school could not rely on me forever. I had my last couple of paragraphs, and with that ending the rest of the plan would fall into place. I just needed to fill in my knowledge gaps so I could write it.
There are people who get PhDs in education and work for years before running a school. I had taken one undergraduate education class at Emory, which meant I had a lot to learn. Hopefully, I could accomplish this by talking to experts. I consulted with many individuals and groups, starting with someone I knew and then following his connections as far as I could. I had a professor friend at Boston College, Gil Manzon. Gil set me up with people there. Those people led me to people at other New England colleges, and then to talented teachers at New England high schools.
One day, I gathered a group of reputable science teachers to talk through all aspects of that curriculum. Other days, I talked to college admissions officers about how they look at admissions and financial aid for international students. All of these meetings filled in my knowledge base and ultimately helped me build the business plan. I was listening to their ideas and deciding which parts contributed to reaching my specific goals, and which were legitimate ideas but not for my school.
People would like to think that there are easy right and wrong answers about best practices in education. While there were no doubt some, I was realizing that the vast majority weren’t so black-and-white, which was not to say that there weren’t right answers for your situation. New Hampshire’s Phillips Exeter Academy, a very prestigious prep school, had its own math curriculum that did not involve a single textbook. There weren’t any explanations for how to solve problems, nor did the teacher start with an instructive lecture. Rather, students learned by taking on various problems that challenged them to discover the mathematical principles.
Such “discovery learning” was a wonderful way to understand the essence of math, and it developed critical thinking throughout. On the other hand, it took longer to cover material, required a motivated student, and could only be pulled off by an excellent teacher. It also was far easier in Phillips Exeter’s small, twelve-students-per-class setting than it would be in a thirty-student-per-class public school. “Phillips Exeter Math” wasn’t the right answer for every school, but it was the right answer for Phillips Exeter. I had to consider what approach would work best for us.
I loved the idea of discovery learning, particularly because future Somali leaders were going to need great critical thinking skills. My meeting with the science teachers stressed this point, as they noted the common conflict of pushing through more content versus understanding scientific concepts. These teachers were generally against the Advanced Placement tests in science, which they believed took the joy out of science. I took this point but also needed to balance it with my desire to send students abroad for college. APs were a way to prove their ability on an international exam.
While pedagogical planning was critical, I had many other things to do. During this time of preparation, I was reading my Somali language book, studying up on Islam, and communicating with Somalis I’d met on my trip, including one who promised to take care of all local issues. From these conversations, I was planning all of the nonacademic components critical to a school, from the daily menu to student life. Here I used my end goals to produce a general framework. First I asked, “Does this contribute to developing the future leaders of the country?” Then, “What does this do to our finances?” One early conclusion from this was that our students would be eating a lot of beans.
In general, “bells and whistles,” such as gourmet food, a fancy student center, and really nice dorms, would not contribute to creating future leaders. They did, however, most definitely create a financial burden, nixing them on both of my criteria. Private schools were often heavy on the perks and extravagant “curb appeal” facilities; even SOS Sheikh School had more expensive food than I was interested in offering.
My new students would not have those perks. Even if fancy dorms and a student center were free, I didn’t want them, as I considered them more distracting than beneficial. Students should be spending time in the classroom, studying, doing extracurricular activities, playing sports, and performing community service. At the end of those activities, they could pass out in their pedestrian dorm rooms.
In the course of my investigations, I sifted through plenty of information that did not fit my end goals. I met with a woman at Harvard Business School who had been involved with the funding of schools in the Middle East. When I outlined my plan, she advised me that I was on the wrong track, saying that for $20,000, she could build a school and pay for five years of its operations. As I dug in, I realized that her financial model would essentially add another public school to the system, great for students trying to gain access to some education but impossible for the academic excellence I sought.
One clear direction was the need for highly educated teachers. I knew we needed them, but could we afford them? Finding such teachers would provide the first major challenge to my plan, pitting my goals of educational excellence and financial sustainability against each other.
The average salary for teachers in the United States was about $60,000 annually, which was completely untenable for my budget. After running various numbers, I decided that I could afford to pay only $3,000, which essentially made them volunteers at under $1/hour. In addition to this, I would cover their main expenses, flights, food, medical insurance, and housing, so the $3,000 could go toward paying down college loans or providing a little bit of savings. It wasn’t a lot of money to offer, but it was necessary to keep our costs low so that we could maximize our impact and be financially sustainable. I was sacrificing, they’d be sacrificing, and we would expect the students to respect this and give us their all. My zero-dollar salary and the teachers’ volunteer salaries would set the tone.
I didn’t fully realize it at the time, but I had stumbled onto a “virtuous cycle” financial model, which directly contrasted with the “vicious cycle” of education costs occurring in the United States today. Many in the United States have heard about and possibly gone into a panic about the rapidly increasing costs of tuition. Many colleges are also in a panic, as they know they are becoming less and less affordable. Their answer, which has its logic, is to add all the features that help compete for full-paying students. That’s why we see the five-star cafeterias, the environmentally conscious LEED certified buildings, the state-of-the-art gyms, and all the other amenities that didn’t exist a few decades ago. Of course this all leads to higher costs, which once again push up the tuition rates. The answer of college administrators is to go after the full-paying students—and the vicious cycle runs again.
What I proposed was the opposite: pay very low salaries to keep the school’s costs down and use the low costs to ensure that we get the most deserving students without worrying about their financial impact on the school. This will help the students and teachers excel, which will make it a satisfying job for teachers. Such a satisfying job means they’ll continue to take low salaries. The model could be great if I could get just a handful of takers in the first year. And if I couldn’t, well, then I figured I’d take fifteen students and teach every class myself.
There were many decisions colored by financial constraints, and I was quickly getting the sense that financially I was mostly going to be on my own for a while. At this point, potential donors just weren’t believers. I thought I could run the school for under $2,000 per student per year, which was off-the-charts low when compared to high-end international schools, but even at this low price I couldn’t imagine that the school could ever break even from tuition. Even a few hundred dollars per child was a lot for a Somali family to afford, especially since Somali families had many children.
Monetary considerations were the main reason I decided to start in ninth grade. From the standpoint of developing future leaders, I would have preferred to start younger, but I knew it would take until our students reached twelfth grade before I could show convincing results. To my knowledge, no Somaliland or Somali citizen had gotten a scholarship to a U.S. college since the ’80s. Every donor was a skeptic now, but I was betting that that would all change once the first Abaarso student stepped off the plane in America.
This post has been adapted from IT TAKES A SCHOOL: THE EXTRAORDINARY STORY OF AN AMERICAN SCHOOL IN THE WORLD’S #1 FAILED STATE by Jonathan Starr. Copyright © 2016 by Jonathan Starr. Excerpted with permission of Henry Holt & Co. For more, visit ItTakesASchool.net

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