Businessman Ben Navarro goes 'back to school' for DI Speaker Series event
Ben Navarro has dipped his toes into several ventures, but is best known as a businessman and philanthropist. The entrepreneur’s career began in the finance market, took him to Citicorp and Goldman Sachs, before he began Sherman Financial Group, the business that would make him a billionaire. The company pulls an estimated $3 billion in revenue and employs over 2,000 people internationally. Navarro recently acquired ownership of Charleston Tennis LLC, which oversees operations of the Family Circle Tennis Center, Volvo Car Stadium and the Volvo Car Open.
But, instead of the wealth of business experience he could impart to young entrepreneurs, he focused on his successful education endeavors at the Daniel Island Speaker Series event on Wednesday, November 7. Navarro founded the Meeting Street Academy in 2008, and the school has branched out into campuses in Spartanburg and North Charleston.
At the event, Navarro informed his attentive audience that the school operates differently than the usual district institute. Meeting Street Academy has attempted to provide students from impoverished communities with the same education that privileged youths receive by teaching them side-by-side.
“We found a way, with the same number of staff, to teach to each group of kids, the lower kids, the medium kids, and the higher kids,” said Navarro. “And it wasn’t a dumbed down curriculum. It was just a different and more concentrated approach.”
The methodology that Navarro described was based on a scale: the greater help children need, the smaller the student-teacher ratio is. This gives more specialized attention to children that need it, and Navarro swears by the results.
“I saw kids that were energized and excited about learning,” he said. “The same kids that I had seen weeks before or months before looking around, not interested, trying to do anything other than their work, because they knew they couldn’t do it.”
Additionally, Meeting Street Academy attempts to reach kids earlier, by giving them the tools to succeed in elementary school before they go to middle and high schools. Navarro mentioned that some area high schools have a majority of AP students failing their AP exams.
“You look at these numbers and there are a lot of folks in the status quo who say ‘how do we fix this problem? We send more people to Academic Magnet.’ We don’t have to prepare them,” he said.
Navarro believes that the education students receive prior to high school is the best way to prepare them for high school and beyond.
The two Meeting Street Elementary Schools in North Charleston are considered public-private schools. Students in the same zip code as the education facility can enroll in it.
“We have an enrollment zone just like everyone else,” Navarro explained. “The district sets our enrollment zone. We take all comers, all kids who come to that school from that neighborhood. The district funds the portion that they would normally fund anyway for a school like this and we put a layer on top to do some of the things that are important to us.”
Sarah Campbell, principal of Meeting Street Elementary at Brentwood in North Charleston, attended the speaker series event and was invited by Navarro to address the audience about some of the unique aspects of her school.
“The things we do aren’t crazy different,” said Campbell. “Just some things we know that kids and families need. For example, every Friday, every kid at our school gets a brand new book, so they can build their own home library.”
Campbell’s school also provides an extended day program that gives students the opportunity to get involved in the arts, the humanities, and clubs.
“The heroes of this story are Sarah and people like Sarah,” said Navarro.
After concluding his remarks, Navarro participated in a Q&A from the audience. One participant inquired about what the plan was for students once they leave Meeting Street Academy.
“Our private school’s been around for about 10 years and we’ve been able to place every one of those kids in amazing schools,” Navarro claimed. He remains hopeful that students in Meeting Street’s public-private schools will also be successful.
One attendee asked how the schools were scaled, considering they can only take 1,200 students among the three campuses and there are thousands of students in Charleston County School District.
“The only way I know to fix a problem is to start somewhere,” Navarro responded. “Put a stake in the ground and say ‘I know we can do better as a community.’”
He added that one of the most painful parts of the job is turning down applications when the school rosters are full.
For more information on the Meeting Street Schools, visit www.meetingstreetschools.org.