Oct 31 2006

Front & Center

National Heritage Academies operates 51 K-8 schools and takes a different approach to education.

Melissa Solomon

WITH ONLY THREE WEEKS BEFORE ITS opening in September 1995, Excel Charter Academy was launching its marketing plan. With such a short window, the marketing had to be creative and effective. It was.

The Grand Rapids, Mich., school rolled out a guerrilla-marketing effort to connect with prospective students and their families. Its faculty fanned out around surrounding neighborhoods to distribute fliers inviting families to a barbeque at the school.


Excel, the first of many National Heritage Academies (NHA) schools, had received approval to open just two months earlier. To make the situation even more challenging, the building was still under construction, and charter schools were a relatively new and unproven concept. Regardless, 174 students filled Excel’s hallways when the school opened its doors after Labor Day.


“We were beating down the neighborhood doors trying to get students to come to the school,” recalls Bill Knoester, who has been Excel’s principal since its opening.

But it is NHA’s academic success that has caused it to grow to about 27,000 students today. The Grand Rapids, Mich.-based organization runs 51 K-8 schools in Michigan, New York, Ohio, Indiana and North Carolina, with more added each year.

In 2004, NHA opened 12 schools, and its goal is to ramp up to 20 openings each year, according to NHA IT Director Max Hunsicker.

“[Traditional] schools open a new building every five to 10 years,” he says. “We do that any given summer, and in some years, we’ve opened as many as 12 new schools at once.”

Automating Everything

As a school is planned, Hunsicker’s office steps in. His team has automated everything from equipment purchases to maintenance, upgrades and support. NHA even created a Curriculum Center, which houses a significant portion of the K-8 curricula on its student information system portal, which is called AtSchool.

Teachers at all 51 schools can look up lesson plans based on specific subjects and grade levels. AtSchool also contains all the administrative tools needed by the faculty and staff, including grade and attendance books, calendars and e-mail.

Each school has a technology facilitator to train and support teachers as they integrate technology into the classroom. Those facilitators, in turn, are trained and supported by a central technology facilitator coordinator.

“Being able to replicate our model helps us do what we do with the same dollars [as traditional schools],” Hunsicker says. “All onsite personnel at every school are dedicated to educating students. That’s it. They are not working on traffic plans or human resources.”

Some claim that the organization is turning schools into assembly lines and focusing on profits, but founder and CEO J.C. Huizenga insists that isn’t the case.

Huizenga says all schools should operate in a businesslike way. By rising to the challenge of competition, schools will have to provide an outstanding education or lose the right to exist.

“People accuse us of building cookie-cutter schools, but why would we build a school another way once we determine the most successful way?” Huizenga asks.

Class Act

In sixth grade, Excel Academy students create fictitious travel agency brochures to lure customers to exotic locales. They spend weeks researching countries and taking pictures with digital cameras, and then they use Microsoft Word and Publisher to design trifold brochures plugging their destinations, says Barbara Brooks, Excel technology facilitator.

Down the hall, technology teacher Ryan Winter’s seventh- and eighth-grade students create their own businesses—restaurants, a video game store, pet shops. They organize and market them using Microsoft Word, Publisher and Excel.

Such lesson plans are available to all NHA teachers in the AtSchool online Curriculum Center. Teachers can create their own lesson plans, but the Curriculum Center can come in handy, especially for new teachers who are trying to meet the objectives set by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Three times a year, Joan Rhodes, NHA’s technology facilitator coordinator, holds a two- to three-day training session for all the technology facilitators, where they focus on a specific topic that relates to integrating technology into the curriculum. For instance, a recent training session addressed technology plans: how to set school goals, how to devise plans to achieve them, and how to revisit and revise those plans as needed.

In addition to the regional meetings, Rhodes holds a training workshop in August for new technology facilitators. At the workshop, they learn to use the tools within AtSchool, including the Curriculum Center.

The facilitators are also told about the technology standards that NHA teachers are supposed to master year to year. By year five, teachers are expected to serve as technology mentors to their peers, and it’s up to the technology facilitators to deliver that training and keep track of the teachers’ progress.

The training sessions also bring the facilitators together to talk about their experiences. “We like to share each other’s successes, but we also like to commiserate because we’ve been there, too,” Rhodes explains. “Each [facilitator] is the only one in their school, but they’re one of 50. It’s really important that they recognize that they are not on their own.”

Measuring Up

NHA schools ask a lot of parents. For instance, they don’t provide transportation, so parents have to drive their children to and from school each day. “We have to be better than traditional schools, otherwise parents won’t send their kids here,” Knoester points out.

The numbers speak for themselves. Like most other schools in the state, Excel gives students the Michigan Educational Assessment Program exam, and the school has always received an A on the MEAP school report card, Knoester says.

But NHA doesn’t stop there. Three times a year, the organization delivers electronic standardized tests from Lake Oswego, Ore.-based Northwest Evaluation Association to its students in all 51 schools.

Results are available within 24 hours of the test administration, giving teachers, administrators, parents and students a nearly real-time picture of where children are academically compared with their peers.

Traditionally, teachers with 24 or 25 students (which is about the size of NHA classes) had to teach to the academic middle. If their lessons were too advanced, some students would fall behind; if they were too basic, some would grow bored.

With immediate electronic test results delivered throughout the year, teachers can drill down to specific skills that correspond with state standards and determine if students need extra help in those areas. Hunsicker’s team has been working to get the appropriate technology in place for the assessment, while the education department is training teachers to use that data to customize their classroom instruction toward individual students.

Once most NHA schools are established, they have three sections for each grade from kindergarten through eighth grade. So a student who scores poorly in math or reading may be placed in a novice-level class where his entire day is spent on those core subjects. As his skills improve, he may move to a higher level, where he can take more elective courses, such as art. NHA’s goal is for all three sections in the upper grades to be at the advanced level.

“We truly believe that every student can get to grade level in reading and math,” Hunsicker says. “The aim is to get them there quickly.”

Parents also use technology to gauge student achievement. All of the parents have AtSchool accounts, where they can see their children’s attendance, grades, publications and calendar events, and they can send e-mail to school staff. Some schools also have “Did You Know?” sections and online polls.

Parents can customize their accounts so that specific information is automatically e-mailed to them, Hunsicker says. They can request updates when newsletters are added or when events are coming up. They can also have academic updates sent on a weekly, biweekly or monthly basis. They can even use the computers in NHA schools’ computer labs to log into their AtSchool accounts.

Huizenga believes that such tools will transform education. A century ago, doctors didn’t always have the resources to make specific diagnoses, so their remedies weren’t very precise. Similarly, he says, traditional schools don’t get enough information in time to address gaps in learning. However, with rapid assessment tools, schools will be able to constantly adjust a curriculum to ensure that students learn the necessary skills.

“A computer, through its analytical software, can understand what’s going on inside a child’s brain,” Huizenga explains. “Then it can offer exercises and remediation to mitigate a child’s learning gaps.

“We’re not quite there yet, but we’re getting there. Who’s going to be the quickest with the solutions? Do you think it’s going to be the government? I don’t think so. I think the private sector is more resourceful.”


Last summer, the IT team at National Heritage Academies (NHA) upgraded 3,000 computers in 39 schools from Microsoft Windows 2000 to XP in two weeks. This summer’s to-do list included taking out 700 computers and installing 900 new ones. And all that work was done without an NHA employee laying a finger on a computer.

The organization retires computers after four years, so by labeling them with different colored dots to indicate the year they were installed, NHA’s vendor partners can handle the PC refresh program on their own. Each year, CDW•G ships new computers to NHA schools that automatically load the organization’s software package the first time they’re plugged in. CDW•G also puts a power strip, a pair of headphones and a network cable into every computer box it ships, so it’s entirely plug-and-play.

If NHA schools run into problems, they can call an 800 number that is staffed by NHA’s outsourced help desk. For more serious issues, the Grand Rapids IT office taps its support contract with Hewlett-Packard (HP) or Ricoh. Otherwise, the Grand Rapids office will ship new computers or equipment to schools from its extra stock.

NHA’s IT efficiency is largely due to the fact that it has standardized on all its technology. It uses HP desktops and switches, Ricoh printers, the Windows XP operating system and a suite of educational software with about 10 to 15 titles.

“And that’s really it,” says NHA IT Director Max Hunsicker. “We question the way we spend money and look for maximum value at a very high quality level.”

One of Hunsicker’s biggest challenges is to continue to provide technology services that can scale with the growth of the organization. For instance, NHA’s desktop model works today, but Hunsicker’s not sure it will hold up in the future.

So his team is working on an initiative called Reinventing the Client Experience, in which they’re exploring everything to do with computers: how they’re configured; where they reside; how students and faculty interact with computers; how to leverage the wide area network; and the potential benefits of shifting from traditional desktops and notebooks to centralized computing using thin clients, blade PCs and handhelds in the future.

Another challenge is managing growing customer expectations, Hunsicker says.

“We no longer need to drive technology projects,” he explains. “Our customers are bringing technology-related projects to the table at record paces, and it’s something we’re getting our arms around. It’s refreshing because the organization is realizing the power that technology can bring.”

Melissa Solomon is a New York-based freelance writer who specializes in information technology.