A tale of two schools.
That’s what prompted Baker Mitchell to embark on a journey to bring more education options to families in coastal North Carolina.
The story began in the early 1990s, when Baker lived in Houston, Texas, with his family. He had recently sold his computer company and was looking for a new pursuit to spice up retirement. Baker decided to use his affinity for science to volunteer as a teacher in elementary schools.
“At the time, Barbara Bush Elementary School in the suburbs of Houston was the big deal,” Baker said. “It was a brand new school with all the gadgets, using all the new education fads, with all the wealthy students. But their scores were terrible. I began to ask why.”
Soon, Baker got an answer. A friend suggested that he volunteer at Wesley Elementary in north Houston. In contrast to Barbara Bush Elementary, Wesley’s roll comprised almost entirely African-American students enrolled in the free and reduced-price lunch program.
“I pulled into the school’s parking lot and immediately noticed a 6-foot barbed wire fence around the school,” Baker recalls. “It was in a rough area of town.”
“Yet each student was well behaved and advanced educationally,” he added. “In the 4th grade, they were reading and studying Shakespeare. Kids weren’t allowed to use calculators. They had to learn phonics and memorize their multiplication and division tables.”
The result: Stellar scores from students, to the point that an overly ambitious school superintendent tried to shut down Wesley for an unfounded accusation of cheating. (The superintendent was soon let go.)
According to Dr. Thaddeus Lott, Wesley’s past principal, there was no magic to his school’s success: rely on traditional instruction, maintain discipline, use solid curricula, and believe — truly believe — that neither poverty nor skin color should stand in the way of achievement.
“If a teacher starts off thinking that maybe these little kids can’t learn, they probably won’t. Dr. Lott knew that every child can learn when properly instructed and when teachers are held responsible for their students,” Baker said.
And that made all the difference.
Baker moved his family to Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1997. As a retired successful entrepreneur, Baker could have spent his free time boating off the beautiful Tar Heel State coast. Instead, he wanted to replicate Dr. Lott’s success.
His method: Charter schools.
“As I happened to read about the charter-school law passed in North Carolina in 1996, I realized that I could do that — by copying everything that Dr. Lott did,” Baker said.
Charter schools are funded with taxpayer dollars but don’t operate under many of the restrictions imposed on traditional public schools. As a result, demand for students to attend the schools is high, often resulting in lengthy waiting lists.
In 1999, Baker and a like-minded group of volunteers formed Charter Day School, a nonprofit corporation. They submitted an application to the State Board of Education for a charter school in Brunswick County. The school opened in July 2000 with 52 students.
Over the next 13 years, Baker and the board of Charter Day School oversaw the creation of three additional charter schools: South Brunswick School, Douglass Academy School, and Columbus School (scheduled to open in 2014).
“The charter schools quickly morphed from a hobby to an all-consuming endeavor,” he said. “I set up another company, the Roger Bacon Academy, to handle day-to-day management of the schools under the direction of the Charter Day board.”
Today, these schools serve over 1,700 students in kindergarten through 8th grade from six counties. Many graduates go on to enroll in early college programs.
Baker wants to use his energy and charitable dollars to change education for the better — to drive education paradigms back to more traditional, classical methods with their proven records of accomplishment and success.
“That’s why I give major financial attention to groups like the John Locke Foundation and the John W. Pope Civitas Institute,” he said.
Beyond education in reading and arithmetic, Baker also emphasizes the importance of instructing students in the classical virtues.
“Montesquieu observed that republics cannot survive unless they promote a virtuous citizenry through education,” Baker said. “There are ways of living your life that contribute to society and should be encouraged. There are other ways of living that people should be allowed to do in a free country, but we shouldn’t be in the business of promoting it or subsidizing it with our tax dollars or our education system.”
To him, the first attribute of a conservative is prudence.
“How you manifest prudence is by looking at history and learning from it,” he said. “Don’t change for the sake of change, but be willing to evolve in appropriate ways. The balance between stability and vitality must be maintained.”