Company’s ambitious goal: Redefine high school; New curriculum to include college credit, career focus

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 8A

Of all the new education companies funded by Randy Best, the least developed is Early College, which was formed as a Delaware corporation last June.

But the early stage of its development doesn’t mean its ambitions – to reimagine the American high school – are any smaller.

“The day that this program is introduced in a high school, people will have the sense that 21st-century education didn’t arrive over a period of time – it arrived that day,” Mr. Best said. “It redefines school.”

Early College’s goal is to tie the final years of high school into a college education and preparation for a career. Students enrolled in the college’s programs would be able to graduate with both a high school diploma and up to 60 hours of college credit, or roughly two years’ worth.

Company officials say it is too early to talk about their plans in detail. But they say their programs will be in schools this fall. Mr. Best said his company is in talks with a handful of rural Texas school districts, along with some of the largest urban districts in the country.

Like Mr. Best’s previous education company, Early College seems tied to the national mood in education reform. His Voyager Expanded Learning flourished at a time when education leaders were searching for new ways to teach reading. Early College comes as President Bush and others are talking more about the need for systemic high school reform.

“A lot of this is informed by the current administration’s agenda,” said Trace Urden, an analyst at the investment banking firm Baird who tracks the education market.

About 80 Early College employees have set up shop in a low-slung office building near the Trinity River, writing an entire curriculum from scratch. And while some criticize the commercialization of public education, Mr. Best does not apologize for channeling his work through a for-profit company.

“I’m going to spend here to create our program about $40 million,” he said. “Who can afford to do that and take that risk on an unproven program? Only big publishers or big for-profit companies. There’s not a not-for-profit I’m aware of, other than the Gates Foundation, who can take that risk and pull together the expertise to do that.”

How, exactly, that $40 million curriculum will reach students is still unclear. Mr. Best said his company is not interested in managing schools on its own or on a contract with districts. He said that Early College will sell a “learning system” – “it’s more than just a curriculum” – to districts.

To lead Early College, Mr. Best hired David Irons, whose background is in management of textbook companies such as McGraw-Hill and Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

“It has been a much stickier issue than we’d ever imagined,” Mr. Best said. “We’ve had to come up with a far more elaborate response to the problem than we ever imagined going in.”

A major focus of Early College is career training. For example, a draft version of an Early College internal Web site illustrates the focus on a career path. One page on the site tells theoretical students how close they are to achieving their goals: “Welcome back, Mark. You are 20 percent of the way toward becoming a High School Principal.”

“It makes a huge amount of sense to say, ‘You’re a junior now; it’s time to start thinking about what you’re going to do,’ ” Mr. Urden said.

Early College matches up well with the work of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which ranks high school reform as a top priority.

“We have been in conversations with his organization,” said Marie Groark, a senior policy officer at the Gates Foundation. “He seems to have combined a number of good ideas into one program. And he clearly is creating a product that many urban superintendents may find appealing.”

Mr. Best said the Dallas Independent School District would not be one of the initial sites for Early College, even though a number of top former DISD officials are on his payroll. But he said he is talking to a number of the nation’s largest urban districts, including Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and New York.

The basic idea of Early College is not new. Many Dallas-area students can already take classes at local community colleges that earn both high school and college credit. Richland College is launching the Richland Collegiate High School this fall, and the University of North Texas received a $1.8 million grant in February to develop similar schools.

But those are all public institutions, and some analysts say it will be harder for a for-profit company to crack the market.

“Blending public schools with for-profit colleges, that’s oil and water,” Mr. Urden said. “But if they can crack the code of how to reach into high schools without freaking out the public school establishment, that could be a very big innovation in the career colleges area.”

Mr. Best isn’t daunted. He said his years of experience with Voyager have given him the knowledge to navigate the public school world. And he said the moment is right for a radical change in high schools.

“The greatest problem, I think, in education is inertia,” he said. “And in my judgment, America is ready for high school reform. I think our model that we will share soon is a transformational model.”