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By Erika Sanzi


Note: This piece first ran as the weekly ‘Coffee Break’ interview at Education Post.  

“It was either move the company or start a school.” —Paul Campbell

Paul Campbell grew up in rural Kentucky and is currently the CEO of a successful aerospace company just outside Oklahoma City in Seminole. He is also dedicated to improving rural education. Campbell helped lead the effort to open a new charter school next fall because he struggles to find local employees qualified to work in his company and credits education for his success as “just a rural kid from Kentucky.”

The school, which faced considerable opposition from the local school board but was supported by many parents and community members, will be the first of what he expects will be a multi-state network of rural charter schools. It will serve middle and high school students with grades 9-12 attending school on a college campus and carrying a load that is, by design, heavily focused on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math).

Campbell describes his Dad’s job transfer, a high-quality school, and a friend’s Dad pushing him toward college as the game changers in his life. He is committed to creating a network of schools that ensures that rural kids like him don’t have to rely on luck but instead have access to a school that is committed to preparing them not only for college but also for STEAM jobs that will be looking for people just like them.

Do you drink tea or coffee? How do you take it and where is your ideal place to enjoy it?

Yes, black. My ideal place is my back porch.

You’re a businessman. A CEO of an aerospace company. Why are you getting involved in education?

We are located in rural Oklahoma. A great place to have a manufacturing company. Our company is growing significantly over the next few years. However, despite making competitive offers to potential employees, we were experiencing difficulty in recruiting and retaining top talent.

As one candidate explained: “My eighth-grader is going to go into high school next year, and the high school he’s going to go into gets an average ACT [score] of 25, and you’re asking me to move my kid into a high school where the average is a 19.”

I realized I could sit by and do nothing, or be a good business person and get involved and try and move the needle. I chose the latter and I had no idea how difficult and rewarding it was going to be.

You’re creating a charter school. Why create a charter instead of working through the existing system?

I didn’t set out to start a charter school. I did what probably any naïve CEO with respect to education may have done and said, “Okay, I’ll go meet with the local school system here and help fix this.” Unfortunately, the local school district wasn’t nearly as willing to partner as I had hoped.

I was met with an overwhelming amount of resistance. But perhaps the most difficult obstacle was that we had a “belief gap” between what I thought we could achieve and what the local school board thought. Most of the school board simply did not believe that more was possible for its students.

As one board member stated during a meeting, “Paul, I don’t think you understand. Your expectations for these people are too high.” That comment is the moment I knew I needed to do something. So I started educating myself, made a great network, and went for it. It being a charter school.

You’ve launched a nonprofit, Advance Rural Education. Tell us why you did and what is your vision?

As I got involved with education reform, I started to reflect on my own story. Growing up in rural western Kentucky as the son of a coal miner, my ideas about my future were limited. College was not talked about and the only thing my dad would say is, “I really don’t want you to go into the mines.” But when my dad lost his job in the mines, our family was forced to relocate to Indiana.

Fortunately, by chance, my parents found a cheap apartment in a high-performing high school district, and I was introduced to friends for whom going to college was a given. In fact, it wasn’t an option for them.

As I reflected more, I started comparing my life to the friends I left behind in Kentucky. I cannot help but notice the stark differences in the way their lives turned out vs. mine. While I was put on a career path that led me to becoming a CEO of an aerospace company, my friends—whom I consider to be equal in talent and intelligence—were not so lucky. Many of them are in jobs they hate, dead or in prison. They simply didn’t have the opportunities that I had. And it didn’t seem fair that the fundamental difference is my dad lost his job and I got exposed to something they never did.

And so my fundamental belief is that there are a lot of rural kids out there that just need this exposure, and they need…somebody to come in and help raise the expectations and the community around their education. So I started a nonprofit, Advance Rural Education and our vision is simple (and daunting): “Every rural child to have access to exceptional education.”

My company’s situation led me to this work but my life story is what has kept me going.

You are committed to having your high schools located on a college campus. Why?

Most rural kids, me included, go their entire education career without spending any significant time exposed to college. Imagine what we could do with their own expectations if rural kids started day one of high school on a campus. Imagine if they graduated high school with a major head start on their bachelor’s degree. It could be a game changer. Plus, in our state and many others, there are funding constraints for higher learning and K-12. In business when that happens, we consolidate. So why not consolidate our resources with local universities? It’s not a new idea, but it’s an effective one.

What are some of the unique challenges facing rural schools?

Dilution of resources. In most rural communities there are too many schools and thus money isn’t being spent in the classroom. It’s being spent on infrastructure and admin costs. And again, I keep harping on this, but it’s such an important point—people have lower expectations of rural folks. I know this. I grew up rural. I saw it every day. It couldn’t be further from the truth. Rural kids are just as talented and dedicated as any suburban or urban child. We just need to help them see that and give them access to better education opportunities.

You have school-age children. As a parent, what is most important to you when it comes to choosing schools for them?

I was focused on outcomes. I’ve moved several times and when picking the area we planned to live, like most parents, we dug into the statistics of the school districts. Who is demonstrating that their actions, culture and curriculum deliver the results parents want? We were fortunate to know what to look for and to be able to move where the best schools were. Not everyone has those opportunities.

JD Vance, author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” grew up around the Kentucky area and with a rural family. Did you read his book, and do you relate?

I have read it and I have given away a couple dozen copies in fact. It’s an important book and it had a profound impact on me. I related to so many of the dynamics that were in his family. It helped me understand where I came from, and more importantly, maybe how I can relate and reconnect to those still there.

WHAT IS THE BELIEF GAP? Too often, students of color and those who face challenging circumstances are held to lower standards simply because of how they look or where they come from. Close the Belief Gap ?

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