IAEE's 2014 Educational Entrepreneur Patricia M. Roberts, M.Ed.
Founder and Executive Director AIM Academy
Conshohocken, Pennsylvania

It is a privilege and an honor for IAEE to name Patricia M. Roberts, M.Ed., as the Educational Entrepreneur of the Year Award for 2014. The following information about Pat Roberts' entrepreneurial background and experience comes from the AIM Academy's brochure:

"Patricia M. Roberts is uniquely qualified to serve as the head of AIM Academy. Pat is both a passionate educator and successful businesswoman. Her lifelong commitment to education began as a graduate of West Chester University of Pennsylvania where she received both her undergraduate and graduate degrees in education. Her career began in the demonstration school at West Chester University where she taught both regular and special education settings. Through federally funded dissemination grants, Pat was able to further expand her educational outreach to include conducting teacher in-service workshops and seminars nationwide.

The experience ultimately led to the incorporation of her first of three successful businesses, Primak Educational Foundation. Along with a business partner, Pat was able to continue the work of research-based curriculum development begun at West Chester University. A commitment to the power of technology as a unique learning tool led her to spearhead the development of cutting-edge educational software as part of her second business Early Learning Associates. The software developed by this company was ultimately sold to Houghton Mifflin.

Pat then continued her commitment to ongoing education by launching PTS Learning Systems, Inc., providing corporate training and learning support software to both small and large businesses in the region. Pat and her partner, Mike Levinson, grew this multi-million dollar business to include 250 employees in the US and abroad. She sold her company to Global Knowledge Network, Inc. in 1999.

In the year 2000, Pat became an adjunct faculty member in the College of Education at West Chester University supervising student teachers in the field. She also launched the Institute for Educational Excellence and Entrepreneurship (3E Institute) with the belief that corporate and community partners needed to collaborate with schools to enrich the programs for students and engage students in the opportunities of the 21st century workforce. Identifying and rewarding entrepreneurial educators as part of the Educator 500 program became a cornerstone of the 3E Institute … Pat Roberts is the Executive Director of AIM Academy and continues to promote and expand the vision to create the AIM Institute for Learning and Research. The AIM Institute presents workshops, seminars and its Experts Series to disseminate best practices for students with learning differences. Collaborations with area universities such as West Chester University, Temple University, Drexel University and St. Joseph's University bring this learning to both undergraduate and graduate level educators and professionals in the field."

IAEE's Interview with Patricia M. Roberts, M.Ed., Executive Director of AIM Academy

IAEE: Describe AIM Academy and its history.

PMR: AIM Academy was launched in February, 2006, with the vision to create a world-class school model for bringing extraordinary experiences to students in grades 1-12 with language-based learning disabilities. AIM Academy, originally incorporated as the Academy of Manayunk due to its original location, combines the unique focus of infusing the latest learning research into the classroom in an arts-based, experiential model that allows students to immerse themselves in problem-based learning using language skills as the focus. Modeled after the Lab School of Washington®, AIM Academy was inspired by one of the original pioneers in schools for children with learning disabilities, Sally Smith. Ms. Smith won the President's Award from West Chester University's 3E Institute in 2004. AIM Academy opened its doors to 24 students in grades 2-7 that first September and now has 285 students in grades 1-12. AIM Academy has 100% college acceptance of its seniors who apply to college with over one million dollars of merit scholarship earned each year. The mission of AIM Academy expanded at inception to also include a focus on the dissemination of best practices and top research via the AIM Institute for Learning and Research. To date, over 3500 teachers have participated in the professional development offered. AIM's Research Advisory Board boasts the top researchers in the field of dyslexia, literacy and learning disabilities.

IAEE: What were some of the forces that encouraged you to develop and market your ideas?

PMR: There were three main forces that encouraged the development of AIM Academy. The first force involved my personal experience as a mother of a daughter with dyslexia. Even as an educator, I found the experience as a parent navigating the educational path for my daughter quite daunting. There were tutors, reading interventions, speech and language therapy, assessments and progress monitoring to cobble together and understand. There were no clear exemplars in the Greater Philadelphia Area which required travel to other top centers at Yale and UNC where learning research on dyslexia was being conducted. The need for AIM became quite clear.

The second force was meeting Sally Smith with a colleague and realizing that there was another way to provide quality education to children with dyslexia, dyscalculia and dysgraphia. Sally Smith had begun the Lab School of Washington® in 1967 in Washington, DC and had developed a Blue Ribbon School model that gained national recognition. Having the good fortune to meet Sally Smith and then to go on to recognize her as an entrepreneurial educator as part of the Educator 500 program of the 3E Institute at West Chester University sealed the deal. I mentioned a colleague, Nancy Blair, who became my co-founder at AIM Academy. I learned from my first business partner that having a partner, a complementary and passionate partner, can often be the key to the success of the organization. I believe in that concept. Nancy shares my experience as a mother with a daughter with dyslexia. Her background in the medical world provides a platform for her interest in brain research and the science of reading and learning which is so critical to our field of work.

The final force is having had the amazing opportunity to attend West Chester University as an undergraduate and graduate student at a time when funding for educational research was at its peak and lab schools were being developed on college campuses to attract top researchers and practitioners in the field for the sole purpose of school improvement. It was magical and developed in me and others the sense that education is not static. It taught me a true sense of entrepreneurship as I watched research initiatives become practice models through technology, curriculum and teacher training initiatives. From there I went on to launch my first of four businesses in education both for profit and not for profit. My first two businesses developed both services and products for children and teachers which included curriculum and student software, quite a feat in the mid-1980's after the release of the PC in 1981. My second business, PTS Learning Systems, took me into the corporate world with a business in educational training on computer technology for the Fortune 500 companies. After selling that company in 1999, I went on to launch the 3E Institute at WCU and ultimately to begin AIM Academy.

IAEE: What/who do you recognize as encouraging you to pursue your ideas?

PMR: I have mentioned some individuals including Sally Smith who became my original inspiration but I have had the good fortune to meet some of the most positive, creative and entrepreneurial people in my career, many who went on to become life-long mentors including my first business partner, Mary Alice Fellleisen, with whom I worked at the Demonstration School at West Chester University in the late 1970's. An educator herself, she had such a vision and passion for education and she had the confidence to believe we could launch our first businesses. I really had no predisposition to become an entrepreneur. It was not in my family history and I had not majored in business. But I saw very quickly that education was at the center of every business. My 3E partner and co-founder, Dr. Judy Finkel has more energy and commitment to people than anyone I have ever met. She is the great connector and I was able to see very early on that collaboration held the key to success in a business model. My co-founder of AIM Academy, Nancy Blair, is a passionate and "failure is not an option" partner. Again, our skills complement one another and we inspire each other every day.

IAEE: What were some of the money issues you had in establishing AIM and how did you resolve them?

PMR: I promised myself that when I sold my third business that I would never start a business from scratch and with no money. That resolution did not last long when the opportunity for AIM Academy was developed. We had no funding but what we did have was the understanding that it would require money to start the school. We were able to attract the attention of a grandfather whose granddaughter could benefit from AIM. We approached him to help us find funding and he ultimately went on to be the Founding Board Chair of the Academy in Manayunk. We did not have a million dollar donor at any time, but what we did have was a passion and the ability to attract those individuals who believe in the power of education. The fund-raising focus on AIM began from inception and to this day, we successfully raise a combined $1 million annually to support the mission of AIM. AIM has never had a budget that operates in the red. The goal of a positive annual income statement has driven the focus of AIM from the start. We have developed diversified revenue streams by charging for the professional development, tutoring, speech and language and testing services that we also provide as part of AIM Academy. We are now marketing and selling online teacher training in the form of webinars and are implementing our unique research-based AIM Integrated Literacy Model in two schools in the School District of Philadelphia. This pilot project will reach over 700 students in grades K-3.

IAEE: How did you advertise, market and grow AIM Academy?

PMR: All students who attend AIM Academy must have an updated psycho-educational evaluation within the past two years. Thus it is important that area psychologists are well aware of AIM Academy and the population it serves as they are often the professionals who will make recommendations for school placements. We reached out to these professionals throughout the growth of AIM holding annual professional open houses as a way of insuring that psychologists were aware of our ever-expanding course offerings and grades. This has worked well for AIM. We also do advertising in a local e-journal that carries our advertising monthly. We often run these ads to be delivered in coordination with our monthly prospective parent open houses. Word of mouth of our satisfied parents continues to be our best marketing opportunity along with sponsorship of the International Dyslexia Association conference. Accreditation by the top research-based programs including the Wilson Reading System as a Wilson Partner School and designation as a LETRS Affiliate Site allow us to receive indirect marketing benefit with links to these larger organizations.

IAEE: How did your experience and preparation as an educator assist you in your entrepreneurial efforts?

PMR: It is interesting to note that some recent research indicates that the quality of one's kindergarten teacher determines your later success in life. From the time I met my kindergarten teacher, I knew that I wanted to be the best educator for children. With that focus well cemented at the age of five, I focused on building a repertoire of experiences that would prepare me for just such a career. My preparation as an educator taught me perspective taking and I learned to be a better listener and to be a problem-solver. Whether I was working with a student or I was negotiating the multi-million sale of my company, there was often a problem that needed solving. I was always happy to be the one who served in this role. Creative problem-solving and attention to the needs of others are critical success factors of any organization. This is especially true with AIM Academy where there are so many constituencies to manage and support: students, parents, faculty, staff, board and donors. It is a complex set of responsibilities and my teacher preparation provided the foundation for my success with so many different aspects of the organization.

IAEE: What problems, challenges and rewards have you experienced?

PMR: Although I often say starting a school was the most challenging business of my career, it is by far the most rewarding. As Daniel Pink writes in his book Drive, most of us are driven by the need for autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Helping students achieve their maximum potential is perhaps one of the most significant purposes I can imagine. The rewards of AIM expand beyond the four walls of the school. This fall AIM Academy began a significant expansion into the School District of Philadelphia through a private donor grant to conduct a pilot in two elementary schools in grades K-3. These schools will receive a significant grant over the next four years to implement the AIM Integrated Literacy Model which includes curriculum based on the latest research in phonics, comprehension, writing, technology and interactive history. Science lessons and the history lessons will provide the background knowledge, vocabulary and oral language so critical for developing skilled readers. A private research firm will document the success of the implementation, teacher training and coaching model over the next four years. This is the highlight of my career as my passion for education began as that kindergarten student in the School District of Philadelphia.

Perhaps the most significant problem for AIM Academy is recruiting educators trained in the latest evidence-based best practices. Many of our universities do not emphasize the new research coming out in the field of dyslexia and other learning disabilities from such organizations as Haskins Lab at Yale and Peabody College at Vanderbilt University. These organizations have continued to provide the world with the most cutting-edge research in literacy and dyslexia with the support of significant NICHD grants. This lack of well-trained faculty has provided a need and an opportunity for AIM. Through the AIM Institute, the school is able to provide new teachers with the advanced training and credentialing needed in the field of learning disabilities including Wilson Reading certification, LETRS training by Louisa Moats and RAVE-O training by Maryanne Wolf at Tufts University. Although this represents a significant investment in its faculty, retaining its top faculty then becomes critical. Entrepreneurial opportunities for faculty have proven to be the answer in retention as our talented faculty are given opportunities to develop curriculum, blended learning courses and travel to bring back top opportunities for our students.

IAEE: What personal rewards received as an educator did you forfeit when you became an educational entrepreneur?

PNR: As the Executive Director of AIM Academy I truly do not believe that I have forfeited any personal rewards as an educator. In fact, it is the perfect setting to expand my passion for children and teacher training while moving on to the next phase of the strategic plan at AIM which is to develop and sell products and services that are developed by our top educators to those schools who could benefit from these products. I believe that the model that has been created at AIM Academy including multiple revenue streams and products will become the model adopted by many educational organizations in the future.

IAEE: How do you see AIM Academy contributing to positive changes in education and society as a whole?

PNR: The dual mission of AIM Academy has become the platform for positive change in education and society as a whole. By committing to the dissemination of best practices from the start, the founders of AIM recognized that their goal of ultimately growing to a school of 300 students would not be sufficient to make change in the overall education system. The focus on teacher training and professional development has catapulted the reputation and reach of AIM Academy beyond anything that could have been expected. This summer, I had an opportunity to both present and participate in a research symposium sponsored by The Dyslexia Foundation. The TDF gathered over 20 of the top researchers in the world for one week in Portugal as the researchers interfaced with practitioners including those from AIM Academy. It was incredible to exchange information as an entrepreneurial educator that would ultimately influence future research in learning disabilities. The impact on society is difficult to measure but if the teacher training and coaching that AIM is providing to the teachers in the School District of Philadelphia can reduce the number of students in special education beginning in third grade by 20% or more, the financial impact and societal impact are significant. With 7000 students dropping out of high school every day in the United States, the work of enhancing literacy and student success can significantly reduce this challenging statistic.

IAEE: What other entrepreneurial experiences and/or activities are you or have you been engaged?

PNR: AIM Academy is my fifth major start-up. As I previously mentioned, my first companies were a for-profit and not-for-profit which grew out of a university setting. I then went on to start PTS Learning Systems, a for profit company for computer training and support. The 3E Institute or Institute for Educational Excellence and Entrepreneurship was a startup on the campus of West Chester University. And finally I launched AIM Academy, a startup 501C3 that began in 2006 with 24 students and $750,000 in revenue its first year to 285 students with a budget of over $11 million. The goal is to now grow the AIM Institute for Learning and Research over the next 10 years to exceed the current revenue and reach of AIM Academy.

IAEE: How has your personal life been affected by your decision to become an educational entrepreneur?

PNR: I tried to retire after I sold PTS Learning Systems. I was a total failure at retirement. I am drawn to creative and innovative people and my need to give back by contributing to the educational landscape was difficult to resist. I have been personally rewarded in the experiences I have had to continue my learning and to meet many researchers and practitioners who believe that the field of education is at a tipping point. With the future of education in the hands of the most entrepreneurial minds and passionate educators today, I am happy to continue to be a part of growing and shaping the future of education.

IAEE: What is your educational philosophy?

PMR: My educational philosophy is steeped in the constructs of science and research in the field of literacy and dyslexia. By implementing the top evidence-based programs with struggling readers, student success can be measured thus creating students who become motivated to continue their achievement. The challenge is bringing this research into the classroom in ways that are both sustainable and scalable. AIM has begun to do this with its online learning and curriculum development. My philosophy follows the work of Carol Dweck and her research on Mindset. I believe in helping students formulate a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset. I further follow the work on grit by Angela Duckworth and others. The arts-based experiential learning environment of AIM provides an engaging and problem-based setting for students.

IAEE: Why do you feel AIM Academy has been successful?

PMR: There are three primary reasons that I believe AIM Academy has been successful. AIM started in one of the most significant economic downturns that our country has seen in recent times. Thus the business and educational experience that both the board and founders brought to the organization enabled AIM to be successful right from the start. Knowledge of fund-raising, selling and marketing became mission critical. These skills are part and parcel of being an entrepreneur.

The second success factor was the focus on multiple revenue streams. Today, the tuition basis of AIM Academy is approximately 65% of its total revenue with teacher training, curriculum, tutoring, testing, summer programs, speech and language and occupational therapy approaching 20% of the overall revenue. Success in fund-raising has provided for positive accumulation of cash which has been used for research and development of future products and services.

The third success factor is the attraction of other like-minded entrepreneurial educators to AIM Academy. As we know, entrepreneurial educators beget entrepreneurial thinkers and doers and this is extremely evident at AIM Academy. It is exciting to see faculty take on the development of unique products and services for students and educators. The challenge will be to continue to develop the business models and investments that will continue to fuel this future growth and development.

IAEE: What advice do you have for educators considering becoming an educational entrepreneur?

PMR: Number one is to follow your instincts. If you see a need not being met, ask a few other talented and discerning individuals if they agree the need is compelling enough to become a focus. Second, try out your concept with minimal investment and overhead. If you are developing a product versus a service, it will be important to sell it first. Some call this concept developing an MVP or minimal viable product but you must always focus on selling it first. That does not mean I always took a salary but it does mean that I believed in the selling and marketing first before building and stocking a warehouse of product that might not sell. Third, find a partner who complements your skill set. This is very important. Growing a start-up business is hard work and it takes heart and lots of brainstorming. This is best done with a partner you trust who brings a different set of skills to the table.