Good Work: Committing to Place

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who stand in the line and haul in their places
–March Piercy

Early one July morning in 1996, two years after the explosion of the World Wide Web began, I became convinced that we needed to start a school on the Internet, a school that would serve home-schooled students and students that wanted more options than their school could provide.  Despite numerous obstacles, it was a business that we need to be in to remain competitive in a changing world.  It was becoming increasingly clear that private enterprises would soon enter the same game and time was short.  Development funds were limited to the reimbursement for enrollment that we hoped to receive from the state if we were lucky enough provoke a change to antiquated state laws during the first year of operation.
An amazing team of teachers made that early morning dream a reality just a few months later.  The Internet Academy was in business with a few courses in September.  By 1998 we were serving over 500 students from around the state and a few from other countries. The Internet Academy meets the needs of a segment of students and families with new technology and creative teaching strategies.  Creating a new school, watching it develop, and seeing it meet student needs is an unparalleled thrill.
In a situation more typical of public education, our School Board postponed approval of a school construction bond owing to lack of staff support.  Because over 70% of school bonds failed to pass as a ballot resolution, staff support was deemed to be critical to passage.  Twelve months worth of work, conversation and creation was down the drain.  I reluctantly admitted defeat and had to back up and attempt to gain sufficient staff support to move forward.  While school choice was gaining support nationally, I saw my own colleagues dig their heels in opposition to a system I thought would serve families better. They knew I’d be gone in a few years and most of them were there to stay.
Despite a few creative bursts, public education is an uphill battle. Always a slow grind and frequently frustrating, the late John Stanford of Seattle and I agreed that the superintendency was the hardest thing either of us had ever attempted.  With immense complexity, the weight of tradition, and the burdensome weight of responsibility, the constant push taught me patience.  I learned to mark progress, appreciate the little things, and enjoy the journey.
I’m back to consulting and thrive on the creative rush and a little of the “Pro from Dover” reception.  But I deeply appreciate teachers and administrators that make a long term commitment to making a place better, to watching kids and a community mature, and to being part of the fabric of a community.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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