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How To Start A School In 10 “Easy” Steps

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012 | Posted by Jon Kolko

When I describe what I’m doing at Austin Center for Design, the common reaction is, “You started a school? How do you do that?” I’m not exactly sure, honestly, because the process only seems logical in retrospect: I sort of made it up as I went along. However, I thought it might be informative to describe the steps I went through in a purely mechanical manner, as an example of the process one might encounter in trying to bring change to a regulated industry like education. Some of these steps are unique to the state of Texas, and others are general to forming any new company.

1. Forming the organization. l created a new organization, and had a lawyer craft bylaws and articles of incorporation for the non-profit corporation. The decision to act as a non-profit was important for a few reasons. First, as a non-profit, AC4D can receive grants and donations. Next, non-profit status for a school offers an indication to the world that our goal is on the production and distribution of knowledge. What I didn’t realize, however, is that a non-profit doesn’t actually have an owner. Once you create a non-profit, the entity exists, but no human actually has control of it; instead, a legally appointed board of directors assumes control of the organization. So, when people say things like “Wow, you own a school”, that’s technically inaccurate. For what it’s worth, this cost $300.

2. Getting an EIN. I visited the IRS site, and registered for an EIN number. This is the corporate equivalent to a social security number. It’s the easiest interaction with the IRS I’ve ever had.

3. Applying for tax-exempt status. While you can declare yourself a non-profit in Texas (and, I would assume, in other states), that doesn’t get you the benefits of non-profit status, which include a tax-exemption from the IRS and the ability for your supporters to receive tax-deductions for any donations they make. Achieving tax-exempt status is straight forward, but extraordinarily time consuming. I worked on the paperwork (a form called the 1023, which is 29 pages long) for close to two weeks. A few examples of the things I wasn’t expecting:

  • I needed to run a print advertisement in a local paper, articulating our non-discrimination policy, and include a physical clipped copy of it with my form
  • I needed to predict revenue and expense for two succeeding tax years, which I suppose is easy if you have an existing company, but extraordinarily difficult for a brand new entity
  • I needed to include a copy of the Secretary of State Filing Certificate
  • I needed to pay $750 to file the form.

I sent the package to the IRS, and received a response in about five months. A unique representative was assigned to review my proposal, and she requested a few corrections, changes, and clarifications. I received my exempt form (a simple one page letter) approximately six months after I started this process.

4. Developing curriculum. I developed the courses, outcomes, pedagogy, and other academic materials over approximately three months. This includes writing a comprehensive course plan, individual course descriptions and sequencing, the various outcomes and assessment criteria for each course, and then beginning to develop the content in each actual course. A course is 8 weeks long, and has either 8 or 16 sessions; each of these requires planning and attention, and so once the entire structure is developed, I methodically created a framework for each course. When I create curriculum, I treat it like a design problem. I use big brown butcher paper and a sharpie, and I start by considering my audience. I try to map out their wants, needs, and desires, and visualize some of the opportunities for design-led change. Once I have a sketch of the curriculum structure, I use a tool like Excel to create a more formal illustration of how quarters, classes, skills, and outcomes align.

5. Getting certified. AC4D is approved and certified by the TWC, a state organization in Texas. They review our curricula, our faculty, our policies, and so-on. The process to receive certification is straight-forward, but time consuming; the initial package I provided to them has 50 individual word and excel documents, ranging from a description of activities in each class, to profiles for each faculty member (including their transcripts, resumes, etc), to the expected and proposed budget for the school. This certification process (from completing the forms, having our finances audited, having various forms notarized, and having the program approved) took approximately five months. It required me to have a formal audit conducted by a CPA; this cost $1500. The filing fees for the forms cost $1170. We’re up to $3720, and I haven’t actually done anything related to education yet. Yikes.

6. Creating the website. I developed the initial site and all of the content.

7. Recruiting students. Legally, I couldn’t advertise for the program until all of the above had been completed. In reviewing the timeline of creation, it took approximately a year from me telling my wife “Hey, I think I’m going to start a school,” to the point where I actually began telling people that we existed. I then started recruiting, using my academic writing and public speaking as a platform to spread the work about the school. The very first time I spoke publically about AC4D was at interaction’10 in Savannah, February of 2010.

8. Receiving my first applicant! I received my first application for enrollment on April 1st, 2010 (about two months after I started advertising). 78% of my applicants waited until the last 48 hours before our application due date, giving me a mild aneurism.

9. Filling out enrollment paperwork. There are a number of records that are required by various agencies to substantiate our operations. This requires a careful catalog of things like student application forms, payment records, evidence that they toured the school and spoke with a registered representative, and so on.

10. Celebrating the first day of school. We started on August 30th, 2010, with an orientation session on August 28th, 2010. The first day of class was one of the proudest moments of my professional career.

As I reflect on this process and experience, the “hardest” part was also the most fun: writing the curriculum, structuring the academic program, crafting a series of learning interactions that result in a competent interaction designer and a visionary entrepreneur. The majority of the startup process was not hard, but rather, long: it required paperwork, and communications, and conversations, and meetings, and organization. Through this process, I recall countless conversations with my wife, questioning the intent. Would anyone apply? If they did, is the curriculum any good? Would the program be successful?

I observe the same dialogue occurring in my students, as they start their own companies. Will people use the service? Will it be successful? Am I doing it right? How can I do it better? These questions are important, because they indicate a reflective entrepreneur: they show that the students have the ability to observe themselves from afar, rising above the tedium in order to have a “meta moment” of self-evaluation. But these questions can also be poisonous, because they can balloon into a never-ending spiral of self-doubt, which can be crippling for forward momentum. I found the most success when I continually focused on actions, the methodical steps above: what can I do, and what can I control?

I hear that education is ready for “disruption” – for the conservative, traditional structure to come crashing down. As entrepreneurs tackle new educational paradigms, I hope the pragmatics of my own experience serves as a useful point of reference.

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