The smartest person in education you haven’t met? It’s Tim Knowles.

He’s not on the conference circuit. He’s not on social media. He has been head down running the University of Chicago Urban Labs, an interdisciplinary effort to help civic leaders address challenges in crime, education, health, poverty, energy and environment.

Knowles is giving up his tenured post (his mom is bummed) and his cherished title as the John Dewey Clinical Professor to launch The Academy Group: “A new enterprise designed to prepare young people from under-resourced communities to own and operate successful companies nationwide; reduce economic disparities; and serve as a human capital engine, built on a sustainable business model, to unlock human potential at scale,” according to UC.

Before we unpack that fanfare a little backstory is in order. Knowles launched his teaching career in Botswana where he taught African history (interesting, right?). He was founding director of TFA NYC and then developed as an EdLeader working for Tom Payzant in Boston (when that was the best urban in the country).

Let’s dive into the audacious new initiative. First, Knowles and his partner Shayne Evans (former CEO of the five-campus University of Chicago Charter School) are building a giant human capital engine. Their team will identify kids from age eight and support them through college. No hand picking here–selection will be randomized (Knowles is a researcher after all). The Academy team will invest a lot in every student, probably $15-20,000 every year.

Students will attend their home school but will receive intensive support after school, weekends and summers. Elementary students will receive high dose academic tutoring four or five days a week. Summers will include deep dive sessions. Middle school students will engage in Harkness discussions. High school students will participate in leadership seminars and try out Harvard Business case studies developed by Steven Rogers with protagonists of color, and have pre-college experience on campuses across the nation.

A justice strand will run through the whole program, so tomorrow’s leaders aren’t only successful but moral. Students will work in groups to learn basics of business strategy and design their own business. Perhaps most valuable, secondary and college students will gain valuable work experiences in professional environments (but more on that later). Knowles and his budding team are dreaming up some unusual alternative learning experiences for their students–perhaps including travel to faraway places.

The Chicago Academy will kick off with about 250 kids next year with both elementary and secondary students and will grow to about 1,000 students. The enrichments and supports sound remarkable, but the really unusual thing about The Academy is the financial engine.

With an initial investment from Mark Walter, CEO of Guggenheim Partners, The Academy will acquire equity stakes in commercial companies in 10-15 sectors. A portion of the free cash flow from these ownership stakes will fund the human capital pipeline.

In the first transaction, The Academy invested $160 million to acquire a 25% share of Chicago Fundamental Investment Partners, an investment management firm with approximately $850 million in regulatory assets under management. CFIP committed to further the mission of the Academy Group by using its platform to expand into other asset classes and to train, hire and provide partnership opportunities.

The portfolio of equity stakes is expected to spin off enough cash to fund the student support services and will provide internships, mentorships and eventually employment opportunities. In the future, Academy Group graduates may even lead and operate Academy Group companies nationwide.

The Academy Group, which is applying for nonprofit status, seeks to build a flywheel that will underwrite enrichments needed to provide youth from low-income backgrounds with the skills, dispositions and social capital to thrive in society and careers.

Knowles is thinking big. “We expect to start multiple Academies in cities across the nation in the years ahead, building an institution that will serve up to 20,000 young people.” The goal is a persuasive model of a new social mobility engine leveraging the best of the social and private sector.

“Educators tend to use college graduation as a proxy for success,” Knowles said. “However we know that while young people from underserved communities may finish college, they lack the social networks, experiences or opportunities to find great jobs. This has nothing to do with capacity and everything to do with access.” The Academy will be a large scale experiment integrating K12, college and career preparation into a coherent whole.

“The goal is to create a legitimate American Meritocracy,” Knowles said. “Rather than Waiting for Gadot, we want to tap not just corporate philanthropy but the big machine of corporate America, and in more productive ways.”

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