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A School with a Money-Back Guarantee
A School with a Money-Back Guarantee
by Scott Payne
In Lansing, Michigan, one finds a new wrinkle in education: a money-back
guarantee. HOPE Academy, a primary and secondary school operated for
profit by Eleanor Sambaer and Marina Farhat makes this unique offer: Give
us your kindergartner. I f by the end of the academic year, your child can't
read at least on a second-grade level, you get your money back.
The guarantee is one means by which HOPE's founders have given a future
both to their school and to their dream of offering children an education of
the highest caliber. Mrs. Sambaer and Mrs. Farhat began HOPE (Heightened
Options in Private Education) because they believe that public schools
neither challenge children academically, nor support families' beliefs and
That the pair even managed to open HOPE is remarkable. Early on, they
discovered that one cannot set up classrooms in, say, an empty store.
State and local codes require prohibitively expensive retrofitting of
wiring and plumbing, the addition of fire walls and security doors,
removal of asbestos, plus a myriad of other requirements having little to
do with education.
The women sidestepped these obstacles when they found a home for HOPE
in a partly vacated public school dating from the 1930s. Like the school's
oak doors and bannisters, the desks exhibit years of battering, but this
doesn't concern HOPE's owners. "The amount of money public education
wastes on brand-new architecture and pretty new desks is crazy," they
say. "Education takes place in the mind. Old desks and 50-year-old
buildings don't matter."
When the two women opened HOPE in 1985, half of its first 35 students
were black children from inner-city homes-a proportion that persists
today. HOPE's enrollment rose to 68 in 1986 and 80 in 1987.
HOPE Academy's teaching methods were inspired by Marva Collins'
Westside Preparatory School in Chicago. Mrs. Farhat, in fact, attended Mrs.
Collins' teacher-training program and employs some of the techniques Mrs.
Collins has revived from the past:
- minute-to-minute teacher contact with each pupil
- strong non-denominational religious emphasis in the curriculum
- reliance upon timeless Western literature from The Iliad through The
Little Red Hen
- use of phonics in reading instruction
- insistence on mastery of standard spoken English, with enforced use of
complete sentences in classroom discourse
- relentless emphasis on neatness and proper conduct.
But whereas Marva Collins can subsidize Westside Prep with royalties
from her books and fees from her lecture tours, no such resources were
available to Mrs. Farhat or Mrs. Sambaer. By the end of 1988, HOPE seemed
headed for financial collapse, despite holding costs to $3,000 per student
(substantially less than Michigan's public schools). "When I look back on
what we went through," Marina Farhat says, "I'm surprised we were able to
The problem, in part, was that neither woman was trained in business.
Mrs. Farhat is a teacher, and Mrs. Sambaer is a nurse. They were offering a
unique curriculum, but in the manner of public schools: 8:00 to 4:00 daily,
nine months a year. Perhaps the only thing keeping HOPE open was its
founders' sense of mission.
Farhat and Sambaer wanted HOPE to train the intellect. "We want our
children to be able to think and act for themselves in a free society,"
Marina Farhat says. Whereas public education stresses feelings above
reasoning, she says, she and her partner want HOPE to do the opposite. "You
can't expect to lead life based on good feelings," Marina Farhat says. "We
want children to be able to deal with the things that don't make them feel
Many parents would agree with that remark, but debates between liberal
and conservative educators go over most laymen's heads. Accordingly, a
businessman challenged HOPE's owners to stop responding to public
education's feel-good jargon. He suggested instead that they focus on all
parents' instinctive expectation of education: that their children leave
school better equipped for life than were the parents when they completed
their own schooling. And the only way parents can assess that, he added,
is by observing how their youngsters measure up against other children.
The thought chimed with Marina Farhat's feeling that large numbers of
black parents want their children to attend HOPE to acquire the skills and
training the parents themselves did not derive from public education.
Sacrifice and Commitment
Enrolling children at HOPE means sacrifice for most inner-city parents.
One working couple with a modest income pays $710 a month in tuition for
three daughters-a kindergartner, a first-grader, and a third-grader. The
school has no scholarship program, though the HOPE Academy Foundation is
a vehicle through which contributors could assist with tuition. Farhat and
Sambaer oppose full-ride scholarships, however. They believe direct
parental financial commitment contributes to quality schooling.
That impression dovetails with the businessman's perception of preschool
and kindergarten as the keys to the school's survival and growth. If
parents could discern substantial progress in their children at those
school levels, he said, they would not view tuition as a sacrifice-
particularly not in the case of HOPE's year-long preschool which isn't
available at all through public education. He further challenged Farhat and
Sambaer not just to pay lip service to making a profit, but to pursue profit
because it is the most reliable feedback. If HOPE is good, he told them, it
will earn money. The public schools' product is free, he added, so you've
got to show the consumer that their product is not in the same league
Seeing their school through a businessman's eyes surprised HOPE's owners.
They hadn't realized that by adopting public education's 8-to-4 day, they
overlooked the convenience of parents, their sole revenue source. They
also realized that public education's three-month summer vacation is a
remnant of agrarian times that teachers' unions protect as a perk. But for
a private school, summer vacation is a heavy cost. Rent and insurance
payments don't stop in June-so revenue must not stop, either. Thus,
Sambaer and Farhat put HOPE and its teachers on a year-around schedule.
With the help of a consultant, they developed a marketing campaign
featuring the money-back guarantee for kindergartners. They also began
fitting HOPE's schedule to parents' schedules, 6:30 A.M. to 6:15 P.M., so the
school is a home away from home, and HOPE preschoolers and pupils need
not be latchkey kids. Enrollment has climbed to 200-still equally divided
between suburban and inner-city families-and the school is solvent. In
addition to its preschool, HOPE's summer schedule offers remedial
training for public school students and accelerated classes for students
who want to get ahead.
Summer also is when HOPE screens prospective transfer enrollees to
ascertain whether their work habits and academic skills are up to HOPE's
speed-and, if not, to get them there. "Often we find that public school
students just don't have work habits. And their skills aren't at a point that
they can handle HOPE's program," Marina Farhat says. "Sometimes we have
to tell parents that we must hold their child back a year."
In addition, Sambaer and Farhat are thinking about offering a full summer
semester at HOPE. Marina Farhat says parents seem equally divided about
enrolling their youngsters in the summer, but she believes that in a year
or two HOPE will provide the option.
Meanwhile, she chuckles over the year-long debate in the state capitol
about "equalizing" funding for public education's "rich" school districts,
which spend $6,000 per pupil per year, and "poor" districts that spend only
"Boy, with that kind of money . . ." she grins. "Well, we think we're doing
pretty well here with only $3,000."
Mr. Payne is a journalist living in Muskegon, Michigan.
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