After years spent directing the distribution of more than $1 billion from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation into hundreds of schools across the nation, Tom Vander Ark set his sights on the New York area, with a plan to create a network of charter schools of his own.
Mr. Vander Ark, the foundation’s former executive director of education and a national leader in the online learning movement, was granted charters in 2010 to open a high school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and two others in Newark. The New York school, Brooklyn City Prep, also got space in a public school building — a precious and controversial commodity — hired a principal, and welcomed applications from 150 eighth graders this spring.
But after spending more than $1.5 million of investors’ money on consultants and lawyers, Mr. Vander Ark, 52, has walked away from the project, and the schools will not open as planned this fall, leaving others involved stunned and frustrated...
“He’s flying 30,000 feet on the air, but can’t do it on the ground,” said Joshua Morales, a former official with the New York City Education Department who was hired by Mr. Vander Ark to develop the schools...
While many new charter schools are asked to take a year for planning, it is relatively rare to require two, and unusual for a founder — in this case, a well-known figure in education reform — to walk away.
A former businessman and superintendent of a Washington State school district, Mr. Vander Ark doled out more than $1.6 billion in Gates Foundation money from 1999 to 2006, much of it to create and support small high schools. In 2008, he founded City Prep Academies, a for-profit organization intended to create and operate charter schools that combined traditional classroom teaching and online learning. He said the group was financed by $1.5 million from Revolution Learning, a venture fund where he is a managing partner.
But City Prep Academies immediately ran into problems. Its first application for a New York charter, made in summer 2009 as a close copy of the NYC iSchool that opened in SoHo the year before, received a tepid response from the city’s Education Department. Like the iSchool, Brooklyn City Prep promised to blend traditional classroom teaching with online learning, but many who read the application found it lacking in details...
The city and state approved the charter the next year, on the condition that Brooklyn Prep take an extra year to ready itself, with the opening scheduled for September 2011. At the same time, the first of the Newark schools, Vailsburg Prep, had its opening postponed to 2011 from the requested 2010, and the second, Spirit Prep, applied in 2010 for a 2011 opening but was also delayed a year.
After the initial $1.5 million investment from his own venture fund, Mr. Vander Ark found himself unable to raise the money — up to $500,000 per school — that he said he needed to open them. He switched strategies and asked the Charter School Growth Fund, a nonprofit investment fund based in Colorado, to help him start a charter management organization, City Prep Academies Northeast. He also changed the name of his for-profit organization to Open Education Solutions...
All they needed was a management agreement with City Prep Academies Northeast, which Mr. Wiley, the school’s board chairman, said he was negotiating with Kathi Littmann, the president of OpenEd Solutions.
But in April, Mr. Wiley came to an unsettling realization: City Prep Academies Northeast existed in name only.
In a phone call on April 21 that Mr. Wiley characterized as “explosive,” Mr. Vander Ark and Ms. Littmann acknowledged that City Prep Academies Northeast had no money to pay for Brooklyn City Prep’s opening costs and would not sign a management agreement.
Mr. Vander Ark had been unable to get any money from the Charter School Growth Fund or other similar national organizations. He had basically abandoned the idea of beginning a charter management organization and left the three schools-in-progress to find outside help on their own...
Now, Brooklyn City Prep has lost its claim on the Marcy Avenue space, and is applying for a second planning year, with the hope of opening in 2012. Mr. Lawrence is still the principal, though he is not being paid. The two Newark high schools are also looking to 2012. All three boards are seeking new management organizations, and their members are no longer in contact with Mr. Vander Ark, who as chief executive of OpenEd Solutions travels the country evangelizing about online education and writes for the EdReformer blog...
A former official with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation who was in charge of distributing education grants has abandoned plans to open three charter schools of his own in New York City and Newark, N.J.
Tom Vander Ark was granted charters in 2010 to open a high school in Brooklyn and two others in Newark.
But The New York Times reports that after spending more than $1.5 million of investors' money, Vander Ark has walked away from the project and the schools will not open as planned this fall.
Vander Ark blamed the weak economy and the difficulty of establishing charters.
But those he had been working with to open the schools said they were blindsided.
The schools may open in 2012 without Vander Ark.