It’s unusual that someone would have experience both teaching eighth grade and staging the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, but that’s exactly the background that helped shape the career of Matt Candler '98. As the CEO of 4.0 Schools, Candler blends his previous role working under the COO to scale what was the world’s largest peacetime event at the time with his involvement in the classroom to innovate America’s schools. However, he’ll be the first to point out that his experience and skills are only small pieces of a larger puzzle.
After earning his MBA at Kellogg, Candler knew he wanted to make a difference in education and set off for North Carolina, a state with many charter schools and opportunities to work in startup education. He dove in through KIPP, the Knowledge is Power Program, running the nonprofit charter network’s new school development arm before joining what is now called New York City Charter School Center.
“It was really different than KIPP,” Candler says of the program in New York. “I wasn't just launching the same type of school all around the country, I was working with local groups who had an idea for a new kind of charter school in many neighborhoods. To me, that was a more interesting and sustainable gig because there was more variety and curiosity.”
Everything changed, though, when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. As an expert on charter schools, Candler moved to New Orleans intending to do anything he could to help the city overcome its crisis. That’s when his entire perspective changed.
"I came to New Orleans with this very overdeveloped sense of my own value to the city as this self-righteous do-gooder who was going to save New Orleans from herself. And in the 12 years that I have lived here and fallen in love with the place, I've come to question a couple of things.”
Candler’s first question was to ask himself what were his motives as a privileged white male inserting himself in a process of fixing schools that predominantly serve people who don't look like him and don’t have the same background. “What started to percolate in the first few years was a realization that a lot of what was happening in New Orleans school reform was being done to the community by people like me,” he says. Over time, he started to ask what would school innovation look like if it were done with the local community and not to it.
"I started to realize that most of what we've done since Katrina was very much to neighborhoods — there's been little local voice and little acknowledgement of the trauma imposed on the teachers who were fired after the storm. So, in many ways, 4.0 Schools is part of this journey towards another method of less ‘to’ and more ‘with’. A journey where we look at the mistakes we've made, and the things that we've gotten right, and start a conversation, asking, ‘What does the future of school look like?’ ‘What is the future of community?’ If we can be a community where things are happening between and with, as opposed to in spite of or to, then that's a win.”
4.0 Schools’ fellowships create tangible opportunities for local individuals who believe they can make school better by providing them with coaching, capital and a network of 1,000 alumni across the U.S. 4.0 fellows then conduct thoughtful experiments and scale their programs when the time is right. These experiments might be an after-school program or a program with parents, but the goal is to provide the fellow with the resources and opportunities to build something with students and their families.
Notably, Candler is proud that these fellows are alumni of the 4.0 Schools program. This means that the innovations and eventual programs are designed by, tested and deployed within the local community, not by outsiders. “It's not about us imparting wisdom,” he explains. “It’s about creating an accessible platform for the community of people who are changing local communities.”
The concept will no doubt continue to evolve, but Candler does recognize that its basic premise of proper ownership and creative entrepreneurship within an educational system isn’t far off from what he experienced at Kellogg.
“I came to Kellogg because I felt like it was the school where students had the most ownership of what was going on,” says Candler. “What I heard from faculty was, ‘Whatever you want to do, pitch it and let's see if it'll work,’ and I still take that with me.”