Q&A with Errol Stone

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Errol Stone

Errol Stone

Instead of a courtroom or Loop high-rise, Errol Stone now spends most of his workday in classrooms and hallways at Legacy Charter in North Lawndale, the school launched in 2005 by law firm Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal to commemorate its centennial. Sonnenschein pledged to spend $1 million to get Legacy off the ground; now, Stone says, the firm plans to put an additional $3 million toward construction of a new building for the school, which shares space with Mason Elementary. Sonnenschein is so far the only corporate institution to take up Mayor Richard M. Daley’s challenge to the business community to sponsor new schools under Renaissance 2010. Stone, a managing partner with the firm, talked with Deputy Editor Lorraine Forte about the rewards and challenges of starting a school from scratch.

You spend most of your time at Legacy. Did you expect it to be so much work?

In a word, no. I practice law just a tiny bit. I did not anticipate this being a full-time job [with] so many things to deal with simultaneously.

Give me an example. You’re a lawyer, so you’re used to dealing with complex issues, yet you’re saying running a school is more complicated.

It’s not just running the school. It’s starting the school, because what you’re doing is starting a small business and having to hire all the people, who are really the most critical piece of a school. And schools are themselves very complicated, in terms of trying to figure out what it is you want to be doing and matching long-term and short-term goals with resources.

Talk about some of the work you do at Legacy.

One of the treats of doing this is getting to work with the children. I tutor a 3rd-grader. I go around and visit classrooms. Most of the children know me and say hello when I come in. I also help plan special events. This year’s 2nd-graders are studying slavery and the Underground Railroad, and the founders of my temple, Chicago Sinai Congregation, were involved in the Underground Railroad. I mentioned that to the teachers and we ended up having a field trip of the entire 2nd grade to the temple, which was a wonderful experience.

What about your charter board? How active are your parents?

Parents are not on the charter board. But our parents are involved in a number of other ways. We have a parents [advisory] council, family literacy nights and other family learning events at least once a quarter. We’ve talked about whether to have a parent on the board and we might at some point do that.

What advice would you give other businesses that are thinking of doing what Sonnenschein has done?

For one, figure that it will take more time, more energy and more money than you’d guess. But the main advice that I would give, and have given to a number of people because lots of people talk to us about doing this, is to be clear on what role the business wants to have in the school. Certainly there are businesses that have contributed more money, that do tutoring or have various consulting services [for schools]. It’s the combination of what we’re doing that is really unique. And if that’s what a business organization wants to do, they really have to have somebody who is very much devoted to this project like me.

Your firm has provided a business manager to help handle day-to-day operations, right?

Yes. Sonnenschein deals with a lot of the business aspects to take that burden off the school. We do the payroll, all of the accounting and financial work. Our treasurer is a key financial person at Sonnenschein. The school typically would not be able to afford somebody at that level.

Renaissance 2010 has brought more business involvement in schools. How do you sustain that?

The thing that’s necessary to keep businesses involved over the long term is the same thing that’s needed to keep people involved in any project on a long-term basis: They have to find it gratifying. The firm has great pride and satisfaction in what we’re doing, that we’re really making a difference in this community. I see no waning of interest in it.

Legacy has a longer school year and day. Was that important?

Yes. We set out to have more instructional time. Equally important is that we have an enormous amount of professional development time for the teachers, roughly 30 full days a year. That’s very important for developing their talents and for attracting first-class teachers.

Have you had a lot of turnover of kids or teachers?

Very little. In our first year we had 11 teachers and 10 of them came back. And we had a very high return rate for the children. We’ve had families move a significant distance and still continue coming.