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The Excellence Group helping good schools become great

JACKSON — This summer, a new educational consulting firm, The Excellence Group, LLC, was established in Jackson that offers a unique blend of talent — seasoned educators and administrators and an attorney who specializes in school law — and an interesting approach. And, though only two months old, it already has landed clients.

“I’m extremely pleased and honored to work with the caliber of people here at The Excellence Group. I’m just so impressed with their sincerity,” said Mina Bryan. “We’re out to make a difference.”

Wealth of experience

The owners and staff of The Excellence Group bring decades of experience working in and with Mississippi’s schools. All except attorney Jim Young began as classroom teachers and worked their way up into administration.

Young, son of retired educators, is a partner in the Jackson law firm of Watkins & Young of Jackson. Over his career, he has focused extensively on school business matters, and this experience was key in driving Young to form The Excellence Group.

Charles Harrison is a longtime administrator and former executive director of the University of Mississippi’s Advanced Education Center. He is a current member of the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) and assistant professor of educational administration at Ole Miss. Along with Young, Harrison was instrumental in the establishment of The Excellence Group.

Donna Powell Davis’ 27 years of educational experience runs the gamut from classroom teacher and psychometrist to former chair of the State Board of Education. She is also a former national accounts manager for Educational Testing Services and is a retiring project director of the Accountability Plus for Schools and Communities Project for Ole Miss.

Smith Sparks perhaps brings the most unique and specialized background of all. Not only is he a former classroom teacher, he was also once a school district business manager. He went from there to being the director of the Office of School Financial Support at the Mississippi Department of Education. All together, he brings more than 45 years’ experience in school financial matters.

These owners are joined by the staff of former educator Bryan, longtime educator/administrator Eddie Prather and Reggie Barnes, a former superintendent who sits on the SREB with Harrison.

Good getting better

The Excellence Group’s focus and strategy is as unique as its people. The company’s target market is not made up of the best or the worst schools, but those in between that want to raise their designation to Level 4 or Level 5, the highest state rankings. Achieving this goal starts by helping schools make “Adequate Yearly Progress” as defined by No Child Left Behind, and conduct efficient business operations that maximize classroom dollars. Thus, The Excellence Group consists of two divisions — School Educational Services and School Business Services — and also offers temporary professional services that brings in outside talent to help its clients on an as-needed basis.

The principals of the company have committed to each other to not promote any product or service, and to work with the resources the school or district already has. The group identifies the areas in which schools and/or districts are deficient and improves those, leaving alone what they are doing well. In short, it strives to be a partner that listens to clients’ needs, then offer solutions that are within the clients’ reach.

For Smith, the challenge is to make funds available to clients in order to raise classroom performance. It’s a unique job in a unique business setting.

“You have to realize, schools aren’t out to make a profit,” he said. “The measure of sound school business management is test scores. And, there’s no product to sell, nor can schools simply raise their prices to generate more funds. It’s very different from traditional business management.”

Interestingly, Smith said communication skills trump financial expertise when it comes to school business management.

“Obviously, school business managers have to have accounting skills,” he said. “But just as important, they have to have communications skills. If a business manager sees that a school or district has a declining fund balance, but can’t communicate that to school administrators, there is a serious problem.”

Empathetic marketing

The Excellence Group utilizes a “soft sell” marketing approach that the company terms “professionals helping professionals.” The company simply looks up schools and districts, asks them what they are up against, explains what services it offers that might help and allows administrators the leeway to judge whether the services are right for them.

To make sure clients’ needs and expectations are being met after the contract is signed, The Excellence Group sends out Prather, Bryan and Barnes. Titled “team leaders,” they are in essence project managers whose attention and focus can sometimes go all the way down to the individual student level.

“I spent yesterday working with four children at one of our schools,” Bryan said.

The principals and staff at The Excellence Group said that they have a higher ideal than simply profits. While the bottom line is important, it is not the company’s overriding motivation.

“The future is bright,” Prather said. “We’re not out to be the largest. We’re out to produce results, to improve classroom performance and test scores. Once we establish that reputation, everything else will take care of itself.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

About Wally Northway

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