There's a group of bright, dynamic, highly motivated workers making their mark in education, touching the lives of thousands of children.
They have no teaching degrees, don't belong to any union, and in some cases, have never graded a paper or attended a faculty meeting. They're the new entrepreneurs, an eager crop of idea-generators, many of them finding their way from the for-profit sector into the once quiet backwaters of education.
Ben Anderson is among their ranks. Fresh out of college, he worked as a management consultant, an opportunity he says he's glad he experienced. "You work with extremely smart people in a fast-paced environment and you learn lots of different things and you're well paid to do it," he says. "But my heart wasn't in the end goal of what I was doing."
Eventually he switched to the nonprofit sector. Today he is the director of the magnet program at the Stepping Stone Foundation in Boston, a group that offers economically disadvantaged kids a chance to strengthen academic skills and gain admission to the city's magnet public high schools.
But he and four colleagues have another project under way in Boston: They are preparing to launch the Frederick Douglass Charter School, an inner-city, 5-12 school that will offer a rigorous curriculum aimed at preparing students for admission to the country's most prestigious colleges.
Starting a new school is a challenge, Mr. Anderson agrees, but in many ways his career helped prepare him. "It was important that I had that experience," he says. "That work trained me, gave me skills I wouldn't have otherwise."
Eric Schwartz, cofounder and president of Citizen Schools in Boston, says he sees a rise in what he calls social entrepreneurism. "A lot of people are looking for meaning and are realizing that in the nonprofit field you can be an entrepreneur, have the thrill of building something and dealing with big issues, but still be helping young people and making the community a better place to live," he says.
Some are coming straight out of college or graduate school, says Mr. Schwartz, but others are career-changers, people who may have excelled in other lines of work, but feel that they can make a contribution in education.
Mr. Schwartz was a journalist and political organizer but left to help launch Citizen Schools, a group that helps match children ages 9 through 14 with volunteers who offer to teach the kids their own professional skills.
Julien Phillips was another nonteacher who made the jump from senior management consultant to educational entrepreneur. He is one of the founders of Partners in School Innovation, a nonprofit group that provides the professional expertise required to help strengthen public schools.
The group currently partners with seven schools in the San Francisco area, sending teams of professionals to each school. These teams work to help teachers sharpen their skills and to find ways to increase parental involvement.
Ivan and Hans Hageman share Phillips's conviction that a radical transformation of schools is needed. The brothers grew up in New York City's East Harlem neighborhood, sons of a minister who ran a drug rehab center. They left home and headed to Ivy League schools, but ultimately returned.
In 1993 they opened the The East Harlem School, a low-tuition private middle school aimed at helping inner-city kids win scholarships to private schools and gain places in public magnet schools. Both brothers agree they've found their niche, and feel they're needed. "So many people talk about the importance of education," Hans says. "And so few put their money where their mouth is."