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Entrepreneurial Approach Could Help Struggling Schools, Educator Says

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Educators need to learn more lessons from entrepreneurs, and accelerating that knowledge transfer is critical—particularly in rural communities, says Paul D. Knowles, a lecturer in the department of educational leadership at the University of Maine and a retired school superintendent in the state.

Knowles calls for entrepreneurial-style leadership in a recent commentary entitled "Superintendents Who Are Inviting, Entrepreneurial and Gritty" for the American Association of School Administrators.

With shrinking resources and declining enrollments in Maine, "everybody is somehow competing for the same students," Knowles said in an interview. "Some schools are sustaining themselves in the short term by attracting students from China or other Asian countries."

But that solution is a stopgap, in his view.

"Being entrepreneurial is not just saying, 'Come to my school. My school is the best.' It's developing schools that capture the interest [of parents and students] and show what opportunities are out there," said Knowles, who was a superintendent in MASD #11 in Gardiner for eight years, and was an assistant superintendent before that.

While he has not broadened his research to include other states, Knowles said he believes that Vermont, New Hampshire, and Montana, among others, face similar issues of declining enrollments in certain areas, under-utilized schools, and tough decisions about how to cope with the "out-migration" of students and families.

Near Knowles' home, for instance, two high schools within three miles of each other graduate 30 or fewer students. One is less than 10 years old, and places a focus on the arts; the other has a STEM concentration. An entrepreneur would see the opportunities of somehow optimizing each school's strengths for the benefit of both, in Knowles' opinion.

Programs at the University of Maine in Orono, like its wind power pilot project, and the development of lightweight composite materials for military purposes and infrastructure reconstruction, would be a natural for school-to-university partnership programs that could contribute to students' college- and career- ready skills, Knowles argued.

The private sector needsd to play a more active role in student learning, as well, he said, adding that "businesses can say they want a trained workforce, but need to be willing to be part of the conversation."

Districts also need to overcome complacency, in order to bring bold ideas to their work, according to Knowles. "Leadership needs to think about looking to the future, being entrepreneurial, and looking to one another to develop the best program they can with the resources they have," he said.

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