The great American scholar, John Dewey, said, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” It is a principle that Mark Plitzuweit has embraced and upheld for the better part of three decades. Comparable to Dewey in both character and purpose, Mark has made an equivalent impact on learning through the assemblage of a school system that can only be described as The Unicorn of Education. His magnum opus is Edkey® Inc., a 501(c)(3) support organization, consisting of 26 schools and programs, each with their own individual missions and visions, operating exclusively in Arizona.
Edkey schools provide K-12 learning environments to more than 11,000 students, an enrollment number that grows exponentially each year. Their unwavering ambition to provide better academic opportunities that will produce future leaders has resulted in a well-deserved reputation as the most diverse family of charter schools in the world. Complemented by a skillful and dedicated staff, the Edkey Inc. Family of K-12 schools is, quite simply, the paradigm for what education can and should be.
As Edkey is the archetype for academia, Mark is the paragon of educational leaders. As president and CEO of the flourishing enterprise, he has not only increased student outcomes and fiscal stability, but has empowered his teams to be the best versions of themselves by providing professional autonomy paired with personal accountability across all levels of the organization. In doing so, he has accumulated a throng of formal recognitions and awards and created an environment in which both students and educators can thrive. In his own words: “Our journey through education is not measured by perfection, but by progress.”
We spoke with Mark to learn more about his journey, what the future holds, and a topic he considers especially vital—his staff.
Mark, let’s delve into Edkey and how it is different from other charter school organizations.
The best way to describe our organization is as “the unicorn of education in the world.” There isn’t another charter school organization like ours on earth. Because we are a public school, we accept any prospective student, regardless of their economic status or demographic. Just as there is nobody like us, there is nothing “cookie-cutter” about what we do.
The primary differentiator for us, when it comes to student growth, is that we’re very mindful of the individual—when schools get too big, students get lost. We don’t have overly populated schools and our class sizes rarely ever exceed 28 students. I think this is what parents are looking for—the smallest class sizes and programs that align with their objectives. In addition, district schools can’t pivot quickly enough to support the community's needs—whereas here, they have a voice and can contribute ideas.
How are you increasing educational options for all students, and why is this important?
Learning is specific to the individual—students acquire knowledge at different paces and in varying ways. There are also certain cultural standards that parents value, and by understanding those principles, we can reach more students and ensure they are engaged. For example, we offer a bilingual STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) curriculum, so students can choose to learn in Spanish and/or English. We have schools with a fine arts focus, schools that are based on Founding Fathers principles, schools where 100% of the students are hearing impaired, and a school that serves those without a fixed residence, where 80% of the students are homeless. In short, we will not allow any student to fall through the ever-widening cracks of the school system.
One of your responsibilities is supervising and mentoring supporting staff. What are some of the key elements in building a powerhouse leadership team?
People must be appointed to the most suitable role for their skill set. That’s it—that’s all it takes. When I was hired, that wasn’t the case. Some were stressed out, and others simply weren’t optimally placed to thrive or capitalize on their areas of expertise. I stepped in and changed it all. First, I watched and listened; I gave people a chance to show who they were. I didn’t open a single personnel file because I wanted to form my own unbiased perspective. Once I had a firm grasp of everyone’s strengths and weaknesses, I strategically assigned more appropriate roles. Many executives start off replacing employees with their friends or former colleagues, which can create a very toxic environment. I didn’t brin in my own people. I wanted to give current employees the chance to grow along with me.
Your goal is to not only empower the students of today, but to build future educational leaders. How are you accomplishing this?
One way we do this is by encouraging our principals, assistant principals, and teachers to actively participate in their communities and to be involved with critical decisions for what happens in their schools. This creates leaders organically. That leadership becomes a model for our students. We also find that if education is enjoyable, and it has enough rigor and engagement, students will benefit both short- and long-term.
Since taking the helm as CEO, you’ve reduced voluntary employee turnover. How did you accomplish this?
Teacher turnover is at epidemic proportions across the country. In my first year, we had 185 open positions—last year, there were just 30 and many of those were new positions to meet the growing student population. I think our retention success is based on our model—smaller classrooms, more administrative support, and an environment conducive to growth. We don’t employ a management structure, but rather a support culture where teachers are given the resources they need to be effective. That’s what it’s all about. Each one of our communities is different, each has their own mission and vision. This really helps the teachers feel an ownership in their work and want to stay with us.
You also turned around the financial stability of Edkey. Tell us about this.
Edkey was in the red for two years before I started. When I came on board, the deficit was $3 million. In my first five years, the financial strength of the organization has improved by $7 million and we’re poised to finish $4.3 million positive this year. This is the strongest the organization has been in its history, thanks in great part to our tremendous team, from the custodians to the teachers. The focus is all on what’s best for the students, and this is what sets us apart from some of our peers. We don’t compete for students; we compete for the quality of our programs.
What do you enjoy most about your work, or what drives you?
What really motivates me is watching everyone around me succeed. I enjoy providing positive reinforcement and seeing the result of that guidance as staff ascend to higher levels and students go on to graduate and attain their goals. It’s also rewarding to see the progress we’ve made in operations and revenues. It means that we can continue to improve and evolve, provide jobs, educate, and perpetuate success.
Lastly, Mark, you wanted to designate a significant portion of your feature to the staff. Why is that?
As I mentioned, our people are the very foundation of our success. I wish I could include each of their stories, but I believe these five individuals exemplify our mission, values, and goals.
Peter Hill: Teacher, 24 Years, Sequoia Charter School: 1200 students
You’ve been with the organization over 20 years. How has the culture and climate changed at Edkey since Mark took over?
Mark is a really great leader to work with. I have seen seven or eight different administrations come and go over the years. Mark has brought a level of professionalism, clarity of the organization’s mission and vision along with transparency in his communications that have been unprecedented. He also brought in our yearly Edkey Institute that in cooperation with Grand Canyon University does two great days of professional development for all Edkey staff at the beginning of each year.
How would you describe the level of support that teachers receive from leadership, both on campus and from Edkey administration?
The support is the best it’s ever been. Edkey administrators know the pulse of the school—we have a great technical and maintenance team, and HR is always great at getting back quickly with answers to any questions.
How would you describe the organization to a fellow teacher applicant?
As a charter school, we have much more of a “family first” feel and a 95% teacher retention rate. Admin is supportive of personal and professional development and is empathetic and great at coaching teachers to be the best they can be. We use the acronym TICK: Transparency, integrity, communication, and kindness. Mark is very much a model of those four elements, and the attitudes of teachers, principals, and staff really reflect that leadership.
How has student engagement and faculty morale increased under Mark’s leadership?
It has dramatically increased. Mark has done a great job at executing the organization’s vision and getting it to really be a living vision instead of just something on paper, and he hires personnel who will support and instill that vision. At our campus, our principal has a strong sense of emotional intelligence and leadership that promotes higher morale, and promotes a team that gives more, does more, goes the extra mile to do what’s best for the students, and the students can very much feel this. Some of our kids have returned to public district schools, and then come back to our school after experiencing the difference. We want every student to be successful, and we help them find and foster their passions and their missions to help them achieve their greatest potential.
Dr. Paul Kremer: Controller, 4 years with Edkey, 24 years combined experience in academic administration and teaching.
What are the main differences between a public district and Edkey?
A charter school is a public school that has a charter, or contract, with the state to provide educational services to all students who attend. They were created to provide parents greater choice for their children. They’re tuition-free and open to any student, and allow parents, teachers, and the community to transform our public school system. Edkey schools are held to the same state standards state-mandated testing requirements as every other public school in Arizona, but our curriculum and delivery methods can vary from school to school, and, in many cases, classroom to classroom.
How is Mark’s leadership style different from what you have experienced in your past?
First and foremost, Mark listens. He seeks input and values collaboration. Because of this, employees always feel heard and are willing to share their thoughts and feelings. While he holds everyone accountable for high-quality work, he doesn’t tell employees how to do their job, he empowers them to do so. All his decisions are centered on what is best for students and families.
What would you tell anyone who expressed interest in working for Edkey?
Edkey is transparent and an organization with integrity. We are fully accountable and look to maintain a high legal and ethical position. I have also found leadership and all employees that I work with to be kind, and as an organization, we value kindness to students, families, community members, vendors, and all other stakeholders. It’s really wonderful to work for an organization that is truly driven by the mission to help all kids to succeed.
What brought you to Edkey?
What really attracted me to Edkey is our diverse portfolio of schools—urban/rural, arts/athletic, elementary/secondary, hard-of-hearing, ESL, gifted kids, those with disabilities, etc. We support all kids—not some kids. I view us as the most unique charter school organization in the world. Other charter schools serve all student populations using the same curriculum. Ours are different in that each is designed for that specific student body. It’s really exciting to be part of something like this. Many charter schools go into a community and tell them what education will look like. We’re the opposite. Communities come to us and say, “This is what we need,” and then we provide it.
Jamie Beth Kulish: Principal, George Washington Academy: 207 Students
Educator, 10 years, Recipient of the Edkey Principal of the Year Award
Can you describe the support you receive from Edkey leadership?
District leadership believes in strong communication. Our assistant superintendent often reaches out to check in with any needs we may have, and I can contact Mark at any time. Edkey leadership also makes regular visits to our campus, and we discuss building and campus needs. One time when Mark was here, I mentioned the idea of adding the 7th grade, and without hesitation, he was open to finding ways to make that happen.
It’s my understanding that your school went from an “F” letter grade to an “A” letter grade. To what do you attribute your school’s success?
I attribute that success to the great team here at GWA, and the support that we received from the Edkey leadership. Most specifically, we were able to incorporate a new reading program called Success For All. With that program, we were able to provide differentiated instruction to all our students, as well as interventions and enrichment time. This helped us to further reach those students needing extra support.
What changes have you seen across the organization since Mark took over?
When Mark joined the organization, it was like a breath of fresh air. We never saw the previous leadership, and before he came, we felt like the “forgotten Edkey child,” but Mark came to our campus and got to know the staff, and he visits us regularly. Since Mark joined, there has been more support for things that we need to be successful. For GWA, we added a new building, a gym, and more technology. He encourages teamwork and makes everyone feel valued. He’s an amazing leader, and I’m so grateful work with him.
Has Mark’s leadership helped to transform teacher and student morale and engagement?
Yes, absolutely. Mark is very down-to-earth and really cares about both the GWA team and the kids. He’s definitely raised staff morale here, and student engagement has improved, and with this came an improvement in grades. A kindergartener could walk up to him and say, “I want a new swing set,” and Mark will do what he can to make that happen. I once called to tell him we had a soccer game that evening. He said, “I’ll be there!” He drove three hours to attend!
Laurie Ainge: Director of Human Resources, 6 years with Edkey.
As part of the interview committee, what was it about Mark that made him the correct choice for the CEO position with Edkey?
His responses were dynamic, and he was confident and relatable. There was an ease about him that put others at ease. The backstory of how we were fortunate enough to enlist Mark is an interesting one, and that alone says a lot about who he is. He never actually applied for the job. Some glitch in the job search engine sent his information to us when we were searching for a CEO. I called him, and he didn’t even know who I was. On his way to the interview, Mark got in car accident—but he came anyway. This is a true testament to Mark’s character, passion for education, and professionalism. He’s one of a kind, and I look forward to working with him until I retire.
How would you compare Mark to other leaders you have worked with/for?
I have worked for many great leaders, and Mark is by far the best leader I’ve ever worked with. He hires people, supports and trusts them, and lets them succeed and/or fail, then continues to work with them. He is an excellent communicator.
How have the Edkey systems and processes improved under Mark’s leadership?
He has given the green light to continually innovate and improve, not just for innovation-sake, but to improve efficiencies and work/life balance. He is very strategic. He stabilized us financially before focusing on growth to ensure that we had the systems and processes in place to support that growth.
How has his leadership style had a positive effect on staff and work culture?
Overall, it’s been a huge impact, because he’s supportive, hands-off, trusts his leaders, and gives them extra support when they need it. Expectations are clear, and then he just lets you run with what you’re doing. He intervenes when he sees someone struggling or he asks us if we need help, but he’s just a brilliant human and he’s got such good insight and instinct with people. He knows what we need before we do, oftentimes. Mark likes to say that each principal is the captain of their ship, with autonomy, because they know what their students, staff, and culture need.
Tamara Becker: Former Asst. Superintendent, President of the Children First Foundation
How did the culture and climate at Edkey change when Mark took over?
Prior to Mark's arrival, the culture and climate were toxic and unwelcoming. It was a difficult place to work, and I was actively looking to leave. After meeting him, it was apparent that he was the change agent that Edkey desperately needed. I continued with Edkey because I believed in him and valued his purpose and commitment. Thanks to Mark, I saw the organization that I had served for eight years grow and thrive, and become one of the premier educational options for students and parents across that state of Arizona!
What is one trait about his leadership that stands out the most?
Integrity drives him and thus his passion. His beliefs are rooted in what is best for students and staff, and every decision is made with those individuals in mind. Yet, he is business smart and knows how to calculate each decision precisely and accurately to ensure that the best outcome for students is always achieved. He is by far the most visionary, strategic, and purposeful leader I have ever worked with. His ability to quietly evaluate, create, and execute is masterful. He is personable, visible, and engaged, which is not typical for most in his position.
How was Mark able to support your growth and development as a leader?
I can say honestly say that his guidance and leadership helped me to better serve administrators, teachers, staff, and students. He challenged me to think outside the box while giving me the autonomy to make my own decisions. All great qualities of a great leader. He encouraged me to take the next step in my career, and as a result of his guidance and support, I became the superintendent of the largest online school in the state of Arizona. Most recently, I opted to leave my position and partner with Mark and Edkey to I start my own educational company to support students in Arizona. Mark's vision for Edkey and passion for education has helped my dreams become a reality. But I am most grateful for the fantastic progress that Edkey, Inc.-Sequoia Charter Schools has witnessed over the last 10 years, because without Mark, it would not have been their reality!