Q&A with Thomas E. Darden Jr.

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Thomas E. Darden Jr.

Photo by John Booz

Thomas E. Darden Jr.

As a young man growing up in Indianapolis, Thomas E. Darden Jr. remembers attending low-performing schools. But good teachers helped him succeed in school and helped spark an interest in public education, says Darden, who is managing director of Reliant Equity Investors and a member of the Board of Directors for the Chicago Public Education Fund. Darden, who believes community involvement is part of being a good businessman, is also a member of the Board of Trustees at National-Louis University. He talked with Associate Editor Debra Williams about the importance of school leadership and how schools can get corporate support.

Tell me about your school experience.

My 4th through 8th- grade teachers turned me on to education. In my high school, the math and science departments had great teachers, but the English department was really atrocious. I went into high school with pretty solid, I thought, reading and writing skills. But when I left high school, I could not write a coherent paragraph because they didn’t ask me to write.

So what happened in college?

My freshman year, I went to my English composition teacher and told her very honestly that I couldn’t write; I didn’t have the skills anymore and I knew I needed to be able to do it. She worked with me, and I did a lot of extra work. Rather than write one assignment a week, I would write two or three.

I knew what good writing was since I was able to write when I was in 8th grade. But for [a student] who doesn’t know what good writing is or hasn’t had a series of good teachers, how do they know?

How did you get involved with the Public Education Fund?

About two years ago, I asked a few friends how I might become involved in public education. I saw the Fund as a potentially good platform for my skills because it uses a venture philanthropy model and my firm is a private equity and venture capital firm. Also, my business model is to focus on the managers and leaders of the businesses that we buy and invest in [because] I believe that I win, and my investors win, when we can find the best talent. The Fund does that too. It invests in principal preparation and leadership development, as well as National Board certification and getting master teachers, to insure that the best teachers are in front of children in the classroom.

Have you had a chance to visit schools?

Yes. This year I visited probably seven or eight.

What did you see?

I asked one area instructional officer to take me to one of his top-performing schools and then to one he considers the most challenged and low-performing. I wanted to see that contrast. I’m on two boards that are trying to have an impact, and I wanted to understand the difference between schools that are only three miles apart—why one was making great strides and the other was struggling.

Could you tell the difference?

Yes, within five minutes of walking in the door.

Tell me what you saw.

In a business that’s well-run, you see a culture of performance. For instance, when you walk into a restaurant and go up to the hostess and you’re greeted a certain way, it tells you something about that restaurant. Schools are no different. Any business that has good processes and good culture stands out pretty quickly. I also saw the difference in leadership. It was pretty evident, without the area instruction officer telling me, which leader was better. That is key—a good leader. Everything else flows from that. A good leader with mediocre resources can still do some pretty impressive things. If you put a good leader with good teachers, and the right resources and support, they can do amazing things.

What do principals need to be successful?

Any leader needs a clear vision of what they’re trying to achieve, the ability to assess the situation they’re in and to develop a plan for achieving their vision. When you get people that are aligned toward a common mission, you can achieve the results that we’re seeing in some of the better-performing schools in CPS.

Is there anything schools can do to entice businesses to support them?

I encourage principals to reach out to business leaders themselves and have one-to-one interaction. Principals have to figure out what’s right for them. Is it an advisory board? Or maybe reaching out to local businesses or the broader business community [and saying], “Here’s how you can be helpful.” It doesn’t have to be a lot of people. One or two business people in a school can make a difference.