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A Champion For Children

3 June 2010 No Comment

With his can-do attitude and compassionate heart, entrepreneur John Zitzner ’77 transforms the lives of inner-city youth in Cleveland, Ohio

championEvery fall, approximately 50 million students walk through the doors of 99,000 public elementary and secondary schools around the country. Of those schools, 4,100 are public charter schools. With the new administration putting resources into replicating successful charter schools, there is renewed examination of how they might be an engine for reform – especially for urban schools, which many believe to be in crisis.

And no city school system knows more about crisis than Cleveland, Ohio: out of 100 public high school freshmen, only four will go on to graduate from college. For years, Wittenberg alumnus John Zitzner ’77 had been watching from the sidelines, not knowing what – if anything – could be done about it. A business major who founded and ran a successful software company for 15 years, education was certainly not his field. Little did he know he would one day become a champion of school reform in Cleveland, and a leader on a mission to revolutionize urban public education.

How? First, you have to go back quite a few years to a series of serendipitous events and encounters. Zitzner traces his journey to education back to hearing Steve Mariotti, the founder of the Network For Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) speak at a conference. Mariotti shared his experiences teaching innercity kids how to start a business as a way to break out of the cycle of poverty.

Zitzner was so impressed with the presentation, he remembers walking away saying to himself, “If I wasn’t so busy with this software company, maybe I’d like to do that someday.”

Nearly 10 years went by, but during that time, Zitzner found himself at two more conferences that featured Mariotti, and each time he came away with that same feeling. By the third time, he had sold his company, and he was looking for meaningful change. After speaking with Mariotti, he ended up opening E CITY, an afterschool program in Cleveland using the NFTE model. E CITY was very successful, and Zitzner was pleased, but after a couple of years, he knew it wasn’t helping enough kids. He wanted to do more.

“After spending time in the schools myself, I saw firsthand that our schools were failing our kids,” he says. “I didn’t know anything about education, but I did know that there had to be a way to do better.”

Taking the same can-do attitude, hard work and enthusiasm that made him a successful entrepreneur, Zitzner flew into action. Within a couple of years, he had met with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District and gotten them to sponsor his charter school, met with charter school experts, and traveled the East Coast to visit 12 high performing urban charter schools. “I was blown away by what I saw – these were schools just like ours in Cleveland, but the difference was the students were attentive and engaged,” he recalls. “That’s when I knew we could do it here.”

So began the journey that continues today. In 2006, he and his co-founder Marshall Emerson III opened Entrepreneurship Preparatory School, or E Prep, with 125 sixth-graders. When they entered, most students were at a third-fourth grade level; by the end of the year, they were all performing at grade level. Last year, the school graduated the f irst class of eighth graders, and 100 percent of them went into college-prep high schools. And the school was rated “effective” two years in a row, and named a “School of Promise” by the Ohio Department of Education.

Zitzner attributes these accomplishments to the hard-working people he surrounds himself with, his partnership with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (E Prep was the first charter school in Cleveland to be “sponsored” by the district), and the education model his schools replicate. E Prep shares similar characteristics with other successful urban charter schools, such as longer school days, longer school years, uniforms, strict discipline, high academic rigor and a “no-excuses” attitude.

For Zitzner, success has left him wanting more. This year, he opened Village Preparatory School, a K-5 school, and he plans to start another school in 2011-12. To grow, however, Zitzner has worked hard raising money and building support on the ground and throughout Ohio for charter schools. He helped form Breakthrough Charter Schools, a non-profit made up of E Prep and two other high-performing charter schools in the city. Together, the group is planning to grow its collective schools in five to 10 years from 1,000 kids to 5,000 to 10,000.

Recently, he has taken his cause to a bigger stage, trying to change the way charter schools are funded in Ohio and working on a state bill that would allow successful charter schools to open additional schools. Recognizing that the issue is still polarizing, he hopes to move the conversation away from charter schools, and toward a more productive examination of what makes great urban education.

Despite how busy he is, Zitzner calls his work today the best job he’s ever had.

“When I see those lost, troubled sixthgraders turn into eighth-graders talking about college, I just know they are going to be okay. And I can’t tell you how good that feels.”

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