How to know you’re ready to start a school


This piece is a part of Camelback's Ruthless for Good series, sharing different ways that individuals embody the spirit of our manifesto and what they fight for. Applications to the Camelback Fellowship are open until 1/25/2018! We seek innovative school models -- if the stories of our school founders inspire you, please consider applying.

In a three-part series this week, we are sharing interviews with three of Camelback’s incredible school founders. Today, they share their personal journey, starting with childhood education experiences that have stuck with them through to the moment they realize they are ready to start their own school. Over the next two days, they’ll share their best (and worst) decisions in the early days of their school, what to look for in a co-founder, how their school is doing today, and why they recommend doing the Camelback Fellowship.

About the Camelback Fellows featured here:

  • Jacob Allen (JA) - co-founder of PilotED schools, 2015 Camelback Fellow. PilotEd’s curriculum is built around identity-based curriculum, encouraging students to engage openly on topics that are not often given attention in traditional school models. PilotED recently moved from Chicago to Indianapolis and received a 7-year charter, and will open its first campus next year.

  • Hattie Mitchell (HM) - Founder of Crete Academy, 2017 Camelback Fellow. Crete Academy is designed to provide opportunities for students living in poverty. Their academics put students on a path to college, and their wellness program provides medical, dental, and nutrition to students, as well as assistance with safe travel to and from school. Crete Academy opened in Fall 2017 in Los Angeles.

  • Charla Harris (CH) - co-founder of Learning by Design, 2016 Camelback Fellow. Learning by Design is an innovative school model rooted in whole-child education, bringing in all stakeholders, including the students themselves, to develop a personalized learning plan (utilizing technology and hands-on learning). Learning by Design will hear about its charter authorization this month (!) in Los Angeles.

Amanda, Camelback Ventures (CBV): Thank you all for taking the time to chat! Creating and running a school is, understandably, very busy, so it means a lot to get to catch up with you. I want to start by taking it way back -- what was your favorite classroom experience growing up? Does something stick with you, even now, and influence you as you create a whole new space for education?

Jacob Allen (JA): My 7th grade English teacher, Ms. Karla Long, I still talk to her. She taught me how learning existed outside of just school. She told us if we wanted our life to go a certain way, then we should read this kind of book or learn this kind of skill. She made sure the real world was always present for us, and that life happened in and outside of the classroom. She was a role model, not just a teacher.

She also did this amazing practice that I didn’t realize until later how out of the norm it was. She lived pretty far out of the city, and on her way to the school every morning she would pick a bushel of apples and bring them in so that, every day, we had fresh apples in the classroom. She would say, “I’m not here to make money, but I know you can’t learn if you’re hungry. I can’t assume that everyone comes from the same background. Come get an apple, and if you have a quarter, put it in the jar and that’ll help me buy more apples. And if you don’t have a quarter today or if you have one today but won’t tomorrow, that’s okay, you can still get an apple or two.” I know for a fact that there were days I was starving, and I definitely didn’t have a quarter, but I knew at some point I would and I could put more quarters in there later. And I would go up there and take an apple while she was teaching, and she wouldn’t even blink an eye, she’d just keep presenting. She really cared. That’s stuck with me.  


"I know for a fact that there were days I was starving, and I definitely didn’t have a quarter [to pay for an apple]...but when I took an apple while she was teaching, she didn't even blink an eye."


Hattie Mitchell (HM): Definitely kindergarten and 2nd-grade. The thing I remember the most about those teachers is how loving and caring they were; that’s something I want to make sure Crete always emphasizes for our students.

Charla Harris (CH): I did well in school and liked it well enough, but I’ve realized in later years that there was a lot I missed out on because of the way that traditional school is managed, particularly for inner-city public schools. I was drawn to the arts as a student, but there weren't a lot of art opportunities in the schools I was in. I ended up going off-campus, and got really involved in community theater and speech competitions. It was a transformative experience for me, and I realized I was good at it and it gave me confidence. Those experiences allowed me to build talents and interests in a way that my school couldn’t. And I know there were a lot of my peers that didn’t find those opportunities, and students today who still don’t, and that’s just not fair.

CBV: Those are all amazing. You all pursued education during your careers after college, and at some point in your professional life, you started to consider not just school leadership, but school creation. What started to click into place in your mind that led to this? 

CH: For me, it was kind of threefold. First, as a parent, I was adamant that, unlike me, my son would have opportunities to experience and explore different interests and skills. We really struggled finding good opportunities for our kids, and it’s something a lot of families go through. But it shouldn't be. There should be lots of great schools, and not only that, there should be ways for families to actually get their kids into those schools. 

Second, I was a teacher in a high need, low-income area, and constantly saw the limitations at play in a system with a lack of resources. It was an equity issue for me. A lot of teachers put their own money in, but they shouldn’t have to. There are schools in our country where some students have everything, and others that have nothing. Third, I’ve always been an entrepreneur at heart, and have yearned for having freedom and control in my work for a long time. So, all around, it was this combination of personal commitment, a mix of skills and experience in education, a passion for equity and to support specifically students of color -- and a few years ago, I realized that pointed to starting a charter school.


"A lot of teachers put their own money in, but they shouldn’t have to. There are schools in our country where some students have everything, and others that have nothing."


HM: For me, it’s been a longer journey. I’ve known for over a decade that this is something I needed to do. As a college freshman, I was volunteering a lot, and went to Skid Row, an area known for servicing individuals who are homeless. Outside of one of the missions, I saw a baby girl crawling on the sidewalk covered in trash. Her and her mom lived outside, because the shelter was at capacity. That was 14 years ago, but I still remember that so clearly -- and I have had this sense of urgency ever since, to do something about this issue. I knew that there were so many other children like this little girl, and I also knew that there was very little being done. I felt I had a responsibility and an obligation to do something. So my life, since then, has been to pursue the path to creating a school. I started a teacher, and took jobs to continue to learn more about the education system until I was ready to start it.  

JA: I think I’m probably a combination of both of those...I remember two distinct moments. The first was my college graduation -- I looked out into the audience, and I remember not seeing one family member in particular in the crowd...because he had just been booked the week prior and sent to federal prison. I know this sounds cliche, but I realized that education was really the only difference between us. Education was hard for him; he had dyslexia, and in our city, there were really no role models or teachers willing to serve him -- a low-income, special needs student of color -- and he was expelled a lot. It hit my family hard...I remember coming home from college to visit him in prison, and it didn’t feel fair.

The second moment was later, as a teacher in the west side of Chicago. I saw a lot of students that reminded me of myself, and others of that family member in prison. I saw kids who had trauma at home, who were dealing with a lot, whether it was a learning disability or the fact that there were gunshots happening right outside of our school. I remember thinking, outside of teaching 7th grade science, how can I serve students?  I was teaching kids the periodic table, and while it can be transformative, it probably won’t change their life if they’re walking through six different gang territories on the walk home. It just became this sense that I had to do more than just teach science.

CBV: You all hit this deeply personal, profound moment of, “I need to do something more.” However, that’s not the same thought as, “Time to start a new institution to serve hundreds of students!” School creation is definitely not a casual undertaking. So, what was your path after that initial realization? Why a school specifically, and not say an after-school supplementary program?

HM: After that experience on Skid Row, I knew I wanted to start a school and I felt it was critical to have experience in the classroom. Being a teacher was my most favorite job I’ve ever had -- it was joyful, exciting, and different every day. But I knew that if I wanted to still start a successful school, I felt I had to make sure I understood education as a system, at all levels. After two years, I left to get my master’s in public policy with an emphasis on education and the state/local level.


"Being a teacher was my most favorite job I’ve ever had -- it was joyful, exciting, and different every day. But I knew that if I wanted to still start a successful school, I felt I had to make sure I understood education as a system, at all levels."


My path from there was to really continue learning as much as I could. I took positions that allowed me to get up close to both the federal and the local level of education, working at the Obama White House, as a Dean of Students at a L.A. charter, and for the Louisiana Department of Education. The final stepping stone for me was to get a doctorate in educational leadership and work simultaneously for a charter management organization. I’ve known for a long time that my school model would have to be a charter, and the things I wanted to do would be near impossible in a traditional public school, and so CMO experience was key. At that point, I felt I had experience in many levels of education, and I was finally ready to take the plunge.

JA: I met my future co-founder, Marie, through the Teach for America network in Chicago. Marie has her journey and story for how she came on this path, but we both came together at the same moment in our journeys of, “Hey, let’s do something.” We actually started with an after-school supplementary program; we wanted to see if our ideas would even click with students. We said you know let’s try talking about those things that no one usually talks to kids about, even though our students are dealing with these very real issues all the time. Let’s talk about violence. Let’s talk about sexual abuse. Let's talk about socio-economic class. Let’s talk about gangs. Let’s talk about broken homes. Let's talk about sexual identity. Let's talk about race. Let’s talk about all these things in an academic way, so that way it’s not something to be defeated by, and instead, we teach students how to handle it. It was a good way for us to test our workshops, to see if we could talk about human trauma in a positive, productive, open way and to see if it would positively impact academics -- and low and behold, it did. It helped us crystallize our theory of change, and from there, we seriously started talking about a school that was built around identity.

CH: I felt similarly; over the years, I looked into enrichment after-school programs and felt they were lacking in a lot of ways. They’re helping to fill a gap, but they don’t often have a complete, full impact on a student’s life. To me, they’re one off experiences  -- you can touch a few students, maybe make a difference for them, but I wanted to have a broader, deeper impact. I knew that I was very clear on wanting to attack this problem more holistically. It was more than just offering coding or drawing after school. It was about trying to create an environment, and ultimately a culture so that kids could really thrive, something that would have a real impact on their life, and not just for 45 minutes after school.

CBV: So you decide it’s time. Think back to the beginning. What was something you did early in the process that you’re really glad you did? And on the flip side, what was something that you did that was, in retrospect, kind of a huge mistake?

For answers to these questions, check out Part 2 where Fellows share the early aughts of starting a school and their advice for finding a strong co-founder. Part 3 shares how the Camelback Fellowship most impacted their journey and how they (and their school) are doing today.

Are you a school founder or know someone who is? Camelback Ventures seeks school founders for our Fellowship who are ready to take their visionary model to the next level. Click below to learn more our Fellowship and find out how to start your application today. If you have any questions specifically about being a school founder, such as stage or curriculum leadership, feel free to reach out to us at