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Business Observer Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021 3 months ago

Charter school leader overcomes resistance, obstacles

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With a fearless entrepreneurial spirit, Erika Donalds tackles change in a what has become a polarizing part of the community: education.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Erika Donalds never set out to be a change maker — and now a statewide rainmaker — in the area of charter schools.

But she got there the way many entrepreneurs do: she saw an unmet need and figured out a way to fill it. That goes back to 2013, when she and her husband, Byron Donalds, struggled to find schools with a classical , broad-based education in Naples for their three sons. First she served a term on the Collier County School Board. (Byron Donalds is also in politics; a Republican, he’s a two-term state representative from Naples who ran for and won a seat in U.S Congress in 2020.)   

When Erika Donalds soon discovered facilitating change from a five-person elected political board was, at a best, a frustrating experience, she changed directions. She founded the Optima Foundation, a nonprofit with a mission to support and help charter schools statewide.

While each Optima-backed school’s curriculum and focus is customized for the community, the foundation works under the Hillsdale College Barney Charter School Initiative. Serving K-12 students, the initiative is based on a classical education in liberal arts and sciences, with instruction in the principles of moral character and civic virtue. The approach also utilizes the Socratic method of instruction.

“We are educating parents about what’s possible and we are raising the bar on what’s possible,” says Donalds, 41. “Public schools have been a monopoly for years, for decades, and parents really didn’t know they had other options.”

The Naples-based Optima Foundation, with 13 employees and $905,000 in revenue in its most recent fiscal year, helps new and potential charter schools with everything from the application to initial fundraising to hiring principals. Donalds, a CFO and COO of a New York investment firm in a past career, says most charter schools fail from that lack of business experience — not academics.

The foundation’s revenue comes from a student enrollment fee, which it uses, in turn, to provide executive administration, back-office, IT, compliance and more for a charter school.  (A charter school, different than a private school, is a tuition-free public school created through an agreement, or charter, between the school and county school board. The agreement, according to the state Department of Education, “gives the charter school a measure of expanded freedom relative to traditional public schools in return for a commitment to higher standards of accountability.”)

'We are educating parents about what’s possible and we are raising the bar on what’s possible.' Erika Donalds, Optima Foundation 

Optima currently has three schools, in Naples, Jacksonville and Stuart on the Treasure Coast. All the schools have waiting lists for students, and expansion plans are already underway while Optima looks at opening in other markets, including possibly Lee County. The target is to launch at least one school a year for the next decade. “We want to be the standard-bearers of choice school and learning education in Florida,” Donalds says.

Donalds says one key to Optima’s early success has been not only hiring smart people and getting out of their way, but hiring at headquarters-like levels from the beginning. Donalds calls that strategy a must-do when leading a change-based mission. “I didn’t start with the staff accountant,” she says. “I started with a higher level person.”

Donalds thought she might have some trouble finding people for Optima but she found it was the opposite: when she went to some trusted advisors with her plan and mission, they quickly bought into her plan and signed on. Donalds says finding teachers has also been easier than she anticipated, once she and her team have gotten the Optima mission out. “They say there’s a teacher shortage, but we have a flood of teachers coming in here,” she says.

Of course, in education, which has grown increasingly political, not everything has gone as smooth for Optima — reminding Donalds that big change doesn’t come easy. She cites Treasure Coast Classical Academy in Martin County, the foundation’s first school, as one example. Charter school opponents, she says, put up several obstacles, from permits to traffic concerns. “They were trying to throw anything to block us from building our building,” she says.

Donalds says a big takeaway from that experience, which she and her team have used again, is to turn negatives to positives. “We talked about the school and what we are going to do to help the kids,” she says.

Going back to how she went from business to education in the first place, Donalds says her advice for others seeking to create big change is to keep the solutions paramount. “I take it in stride,” Donalds says. “I get that there are forces out there who don’t want us to succeed. It’s like, OK, what does our solution tree say?”

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