ESA President and CEO Mark Claypool

Mark Claypool is president and CEO of Educational Services of America.

As a former Tennessee social worker, Mark Claypool knows a few things about under served markets.

Namely, he realized that the children he saw come in and out of the state system lacked a basic thing: education.

For the past 13 years, Claypool has worked to change that. He launched Educational Services of America from his dining room table in 1999 with no money. Now, his 1,400-person company is growing fast. Last year, revenue was $96 million, up from $78 million in 2010.

Claypool attributed his company’s success to first finding an under served business niche and then creating partnerships that work in concert with school systems, not against them.

The company, which operates K-12 alternative and special education schools, now serves more than 10,000 students, with programs in 20 states. The company was one of Middle Tennessee’s fastest-growing firms in 2010, finding itself on the Inc. 5000.

“In my opinion, the majority of these companies are really trying to reform public education. They are there to be almost antagonistic to the public system, and we didn’t want to do that,” Claypool said. “We wanted to work within the system to help the lives of kids, but we’re not here to disrupt the public systems or be a competitor to public school systems.”

In an effort to make that work, ESA has bought several decades-old companies and re-fostered those relationships based on the current needs of at-risk youth.

Every year, ESA sits down with public school systems to determine where students need the most help. Two of ESA’s major programs, for example, focus on dropout prevention and special education.

“We find out where they have pain,” Claypool said. “If we hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t have retained those relationships.”

But, as Claypool will attest, it doesn’t always work out like that. In Nashville, for example, ESA lost its contract with Metro schools when Jesse Register took the helm.

“When things don’t work out, I would say the failure that I feel personally is that we didn’t have a close enough relationship with the leadership of that school district,” he said.

It’s a place where ESA will continue to place its focus as it plans more aggressive growth over the next few years.

Claypool said the firm plans to enhance and increase programs for special needs students and dropouts, especially as more national data indicates a growing problem.

He cited a recent statistic as his reason for moving fast: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced last month that one in 88 American children has some form of autism.

“We are really working on solutions… to keep kids in the mainstream so that they have a more normal experience,” he said.