“Life is about creating and living experiences that are worth sharing.”- Steve Jobs

Meet Mark Claypool, a pioneer in the public-private education sector who exemplifies Steve Jobs’ quote everyday through his pioneering advocacy work for youth.

I had the opportunity to talk with Mark about his extraordinary work in the public-private partnership sector of education. Mark Claypool is the epitome of a leading social entrepreneur who took a chance, made an unyielding difference, and continues to change the lives of countless children across the country.

1. Looking back at the beginning of your career, what was the motivating factor that moved you toward social work?

The motivating factors that resulted in pursuing a career in social work started at a very young age. I was raised in a family that was dedicated to a life of service. My father was a minister and for as long as I can remember it was instilled in me the importance of giving back. I always wanted to make a difference which is why I chose to earn my master’s degree in sociology.

My personal philosophy has always been that “one can do well while doing good for others” and I’ve used that same philosophy in my professional life, which led me to social work and then starting a company with a social mission to offer hope.

As I’ve noted within my philosophy of this mission, “Only a fool would try to build a business on public private partnership’s in education.”

2. In 1999, you noticed a great lack of resources and services for students with different learning needs. You founded Educational Services of America (ESA) in 1999, which is now ChanceLight Behavioral Health Therapy & Education. Can you provide us with some background about this great movement? Was there a defining catalyst that moved you forward toward such an incredible goal?

As a social worker, I interacted with some of the most neglected kids in the education system—foster children. Bouncing from school to school, sometimes as often as six times in one academic year, foster children had lower standardized tests scores, many had undiagnosed learning disabilities, and all were twice as likely as their peers to drop out of school before graduation. Unfortunately, those same kids often landed in jail. I was frustrated by decreasing resources for foster children and all children with learning differences, so in 1999, I sat down at my dining room table and founded Educational Services of America, now ChanceLight.

3. I know great value is added to the lives of children when public schools and communities (including private institutions or companies) work together. However, I am aware that others do not feel the same way. When do you believe this social stigma or negative attitude toward public and private partnerships began?

There has been a common misconception that private organizations can only work in competition, instead of cooperation with their public school partners. It is important to understand that specialists who have expertise in educating at risk-students and children with behavioral health issues like autism, and who can concentrate solely on them, help students succeed and improve graduation rates. Whether the education specialist comes from a public entity or a private organization should not even be a consideration. The focus should remain on the student and the best education-delivery model is public-private partnership, which is proven to achieve meaningful results for special and at-risk students.

4. Why do you believe the public-private partnerships bridges are broken and how can we possibly fix them?

Public education today finds itself burdened beyond belief. With so many roles to play beyond academics, public schools are finding it almost impossible to perform all of them equally well and without assistance. Coupled with the growing number of responsibilities, public schools face high dropout rates and an increased need for special education programs. The American Youth Policy Forum estimates that at least one student drops out of school every nine seconds, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 68 children has been identified with autism-spectrum disorder. This means that special and at-risk students are no longer the exception; they are becoming the rule. To make matters worse, schools also face mounting economic pressure from state and local funding sources, requiring that district leaders do more with less. The truth is, we’re asking too much for our public schools to go it alone. To rise above the pressure, district leaders will need to seek creative and cost-effective solutions to provide for their students. An effective solution is for public schools to partner with private education companies to meet the needs of some of the nation’s most challenged and challenging students. Schools can benefit from the expertise of groups that focus solely on alternative or special education.

5. Also, do you think certain parts of the public education sector resist private partnerships because it may be an admittance of lack or resources, challenges, failures or all of these factors?

There exists an unspoken but fairly pervasive belief among district leaders that school districts must do everything themselves, and with their own employees. Anything less may be an admission of failure. The truth is, we’re asking too much for our public schools to go it alone.

6. Congratulations on your recent Indie Award for your new book, We’re In This Together: Public-Private Partnerships in Special and At-Risk-Education. Along with co-author, John M. McLaughlin, did you write the book due to culminating factors or was there a specific event that left one of you possibly saying, “Enough, this story needs to be brought to a broader audience?”

We continued to watch the challenges of the public education system because public schools are expected to play so many roles beyond academics. Schools must be a safe harbor for neglected children, instill social values, be a warrior against drug and alcohol abuse, develop students’ financial literacy, provide sports entertainment for the local community … the list goes on. Each role is important, but there are too many roles for public education to perform all of them equally well, and without assistance. Schools also face mounting economic pressure from state and local funding sources, requiring that district leaders do more with less. We wrote the book because we wanted to draw attention to this critical issue that many people are either unaware exists or they don’t know how to fix it.

7. As the title of your book defines the answer to an ongoing problem, where do you see the greatest resistance as well as the greatest growth in reference to building public and private partnerships?

As I mentioned, some school districts believe that asking an outside organization to help it address a specific academic issue is an admission of failure. In my opinion, it is a demonstration of its commitment to meeting the need of its students, no matter how diverse and challenging. While some might be concerned about loss of control, in many ways entering into a public-private partnership (PPP) increases control by the school district. PPPs are contractual arrangements in which the school district holds the balance of power, and the private organization acts as the contractor. As such, the district has the opportunity to create the service or solution it seeks and the contractor acts at the behest of the customer. It’s that simple. With every partnership comes an obligation on the part of the private company to meet or exceed expectations and to be accountable to its customer.

The truth is, public school districts already take extensive advantage of public-private partnerships for transportation, food and custodial services. They enter such a partnership every time they need something that cannot be provided with district personnel, including legal services, health services, building and grounds maintenance, environmental management, facilities construction, risk and insurance management, after-school care and many other functions.

Moving forward, these partnerships have the potential to make a real difference to an important part of our society: students struggling for an education, whether that includes students with academic, emotional or behavioral issues that can put them at risk of school failure.

When a partnership works efficiently and successfully, what the district, the community and students get out of it is invaluable. Done correctly, it creates opportunities for students, improves outcomes, maximizes cost benefits, and increases enrollment and retention. Public education has the opportunity to change the narrative and shift the view of public school from a tax burden to a revenue generator. Great public schools are great for the community. They foster higher tax revenue, happier parents and employees, safer communities and better community engagement.

8. Despite graduation improvements, unacceptably low levels of minority, low-income, English-language learners, and special education students are graduating from high school. In addition, high school dropouts commit about 75% of crimes in the United States. Can you share your thoughts about how we can better assist these students and guide them toward successful paths?

I believe all children have the right to an education and should remain hopeful because their future can be better than their past. But in order for them to do that, they will have to modify their behaviors and learn to be productive members of society, and that is where we can help. We have students with autism, learning disabilities and mental health issues, and we have a lot of students who are in terrible situations because of their home-lives or upbringing. It’s just too hard for them to get out and attend a traditional school, preventing them from graduating and then moving on into the workforce. We provide a big safety net of achievement for all of these kids so they can have a nurturing place to focus and meet their potential. We help them move on to the next stage of their lives and contribute to society. We know we are making impact because of the numbers of students we work with who are graduating with a high school degree and going on to lead successful lives.

9. What guidance or additional resources can you share with us for parents who are struggling with getting the help they need for their children?

Being the parent of a child with special needs is the hardest job in the world. Not only do these parents have the responsibility of providing for the needs of their children, but they also have to become experts in their child’s rights under federal law, particularly the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). I would encourage parents to know and understand these rights and demand that the school district make available every service that is necessary to meet the needs of their child, even if those services are not currently available in the district.

For parents who are struggling with a child who is at-risk, I encourage them to visit with their child’s school or the school district to learn about all the available options. Parents should ask if the district offers a program that specializes in providing alternative education programs for middle and high school students who are at risk of dropping out of school due to social, academic or behavioral issues.

10. Finally, as a social entrepreneur, how would you define this term and what advice would you give to young people who want to move into this field?

Social entrepreneurs are simply people who use business expertise to create paths for people who might not succeed without their help. The goal of a social entrepreneur is to try to provide solutions for some of society’s most critical problems…like preventing children from “slipping through the cracks.” Some people ask why I didn’t try to operate ChanceLight as a not-for-profit and I tell them that would have required an endless pursuit of fundraising that would have diverted attention from the company’s mission. As a social entrepreneur, I formed ChanceLight as a private company, giving me access to capital and other resources that allow ChanceLight to focus on its mission in the most effective and sustainable way possible. It is incredibly rewarding to lead a company that has a social mission to offer hope and I would recommend this career path to anyone who is motivated by making a difference.