For more than two decades, Bob Hagin taught in public schools — first as a kindergarten teacher, then with fifth and sixth graders in the Northshore district and later, at an alternative high school. But in 2008, convinced that the rigidity of the system was thwarting many students, Hagin decided to start his own program — with an unusual twist.
Q: The website for your Northwest Liberty School says: “As a private school, one of our unique missions is to support public education.” What does that mean?
A: The Jim Collins book “Good to Great,” talks about the tyranny of “or.” You are either going to make a lot of money or you’re going to be consumer-focused. When I read that, I thought that’s what education is like — it’s either going to be public education or private education. Why can’t they be partners?
Q: Should they be?
A: I think so, yes. Education is a marathon, but sometimes kids look at every quarter as a sprint. So kids who are maybe AP or IB or honors students and need to take a health class to graduate — they can do that through us. Then we’ve got others who show up saying, “I can’t pass the state tests to graduate.” So they go all through public education — 13 years — only to find out at the end that they can’t earn a diploma.
Q: What do you do to help them?
We offer a menu — maybe they come in for an English class, but can do social studies online. Whatever works for the student. I don’t want to compete with any school district. Instead, I’ve been able to create this partnership where, if students need an option, their counselor will say, “Go talk to Bob.” I want to give students a choice, without taking them away from the public schools.
Q: How is this different from tutoring?
We are a fully accredited private school, and we issue credits that are transferable to any district in the state. Ninety-eight percent of our students are still enrolled in their home districts. But 20 percent of our local school district seniors have taken at least one course at Northwest Liberty, and there seems to be a correlation between our increased enrollment and improved graduation rates in the public high schools.
Q: What led you to this unusual model?
Frankly, I thought I’d become a high school principal. But an insightful assistant superintendent told me, “Bob, your problem is that you’re an alternative person with traditional experience. Most school districts want a traditional person with alternative experience.” So it became clear that if I was going to impact education, I’d have to develop my own model. I know public education, but now I’ve got some flexibility so I can create solutions. I don’t turn my back on public education — I’ve lived the system, and I wear that proudly. But I can also see other avenues.
Q: What’s the reaction from your former public school colleagues?
Some think I’m crazy for doing this, for stepping out of the safety net. I’m making two-thirds what I did as a teacher or summer school principal.
Q: Do any students earn full diplomas from Northwest Liberty?
Yes, last year we had 12 kids graduate. With the state raising the bar and not expanding student supports, I think we’ll only get busier.