A lot has been written about the need to apply business principles to the process of teaching youngsters. Lisa Iverson says she didn’t have any choice.
“The biggest difficulty in starting a private school is that I wasn’t trained to run a business,” she says. “We knew how to teach children.”
Fortunately, her father, Charles L. Trowbridge, had faith in her ability to learn a new business. An actuary by trade, he agreed to help finance Nova School in Lacey until it could get on its feet.
He bought a former day-care center at 30th and Ruddell in Lacey and helped convert it into classrooms that would accommodate up to 50 students. Iverson’s husband, Dennis, also helped out by supervising renovation of the building.
“I think it actually helps that my husband isn’t an educator,” she says. An electrician by trade, Dennis works for the union, IBEW # 76.
“He’s got a good perspective on the school since he’s not immersed in it,” his wife says. At one time, she adds, he considered going into business for himself but after she started the school, they agreed that it probably wouldn’t be wise to have two businesses in the family.
Immersion is what it often felt like to run the school in its early years, she confides.
“Managing the business end of the school has been the most difficult part,” says Iverson, who has divided her time between teaching language arts, directing the program and developing the business skills necessary to make Nova flourish.
Like many an entreprenurial undertaking, Nova began as a labor of love.
“I had taught in public schools for18 years and always had dreamt of something smaller, a school designed for really good students,” she says.
She’d been teaching gifted classes at Yelm when she took the plunge.
“I was interested in developing a school where bureaucracy didn’t hinder goals, a problem common anywhere else in the business,” she says.
Public schools have to serve everyone, she says. Nova would have a narrower focus.
“Many people probably thought I was embarking on something that was going to be very difficult,” she says. “They were right. It has been difficult, but it also has been very rewarding.”
But not in the financial sense, at least not at the beginning. The first few years were highly subsidized by volunteer efforts, she says.
“Most of us weren’t getting paid what our efforts were worth,” she says. In fact, Iverson didn’t take any salary at all during the year Nova opened with a total of 25 students in four grades—5 through 8.
“It was three years before we managed without subsidies,” she says.
It didn’t take that long to realize that some fine-tuning was in order.
“We quickly realized fifth graders were too young for what we were trying to accomplish,” she says. As a result, the number of class levels was reduced to sixth through eighth grades—the middle-school years.
“We’ve kept our costs low as possible,” she says. “There’s no food service, no bus service and no janitors. We prefer to put everything we’ve got into the program.”
The school has a faculty of nine, she says, but only two teach full time.
“Most choose to teach part time,” she explains. “Some have other occupations that are the source of the expertise they share in the classroom.”
The art teacher, for example, is a professional artist. The PE teacher is a soccer coach. Some of the part-time teachers whose courses are academic in nature teach part time at other schools as well.
“We offer the full range of courses, everything that’s taught at the public middle schools except shop and home economics,” Iverson says. “There are no electives. We require students to take everything that is offered. Our philosophy is that everyone should take art and music, as well as computer training. We also require that students take Spanish, and we require community service and an individualized eighth grade project .”
The range of sports is limited, but Iverson says Nova is competitive in the ones it does offer.
“We compete in regional track meets where the only requirement is that a team sign up,” she says. “We also have a competitive science team in Science Olympiad and compete in Math Counts.”
Now that the school is running at capacity—50 students—everyone on the faculty is paid reasonably well, she says. The non-profit enterprise is producing the funds it needs to survive, as well as students Iverson believes teachers at area public high schools are pleased to have in their classes.
The school now owns the building, which Trowbridge bought for $150,000 and donated to Nova three years ago. Renovations over the years have dramatically increased the building’s value, Iverson says, but declines to speculate how much it might be worth today.
In its seventh year of operation, Nova will charge $6,600 tuition per student, but the parents of students who go there don’t complain.
“Nova School is what every school should be,” says Bob Kagy of ABC Printing in Olympia. “Excellence is expected. When substandard work is submitted, the student is required to do it over.”
Kagy’s daughter will attend school there this year. His son is an alumnus and was a freshman at a public high school last year.
“He’s not good at learning by rote,” Kagy says of his son, “so he did well in some classes but not so well in others.”
But well enough to end the year with a 3.5 grade point average.
“He says that what he found most disturbing about being in the public school system was how many students don’t go to school to learn—and how many teachers don’t seem to care,” Kagy says.
Nova does care, says Iverson, who points out that 16 percent of its students receive some sort of financial aid. Funds to cover the financial aid comes from fund-raising efforts throughout the year, she adds, and from the school’s general fund.
What’s important is that the student be capable of benefiting from his or her experience at Nova, Iverson says.
“The term we use is academically talented,” she explains.
“We have a fairly comprehensive admissions process that takes into account previous school history, recommendations from former teachers, a review of whatever standardized tests the students have taken and parent information,” she says. “We also require a writing sample and ask applicants to come in and take a school aptitude test we administer. We use this test to fairly measure the qualifications of the various students since they come from different educational experiences. We’re looking for kids we consider to be in the top 10 percent academically, and many are exceptional students. We also consider motivation, work habits and attitude. Most of all, we are seeking students who want to attend a small, specialized school.”
Asked where Nova goes from here, Iverson says: “We’ll be looking seriously next year at whether it makes sense to try to expand. There are some aspects of the school that would be more beneficial to the students if it were a little larger, but it’s very important for us to keep serving our original mission.”
By George Pica, Business Examiner staff