By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Like their counterparts in the Dallas area, Preston Hollow Elementary School educators were excited to be selected in 1995 as a model site for the new, much-ballyhooed Voyager Expanded Learning Inc. after-school program.
Instead of going home to empty houses when the regular school day ended, or killing time in programs that amount to little more than baby-sitting, Preston Hollow students whose parents were willing to pay $40 a week for Voyager programs received a stimulating, innovative extension of their educational day.
In eight-week "learning adventures," the students studied earth science and honed their observational skills by scouring the playground for bugs and rocks. They learned the fundamentals of business by creating their own company to sell teddy bears, and they studied space travel. Preston Hollow teachers taught the three-hour daily classes after being trained by Voyager, which provided detailed curricula and all the needed resources, such as books and videotapes.
When Voyager tried to expand its program across the city and country this school year, Preston Hollow signed on for a second year. But then the school abruptly dropped the program in November, citing a number of problems the teachers had with Voyager, including a reduction in the teachers' pay, the removal of computers Voyager had given the school the year before, and a general dissatisfaction with the level of support they were getting from the company.
Preston Hollow is one of a number of schools that parted company with Voyager, citing reasons such as limited enrollment, inability of students to afford the costly program, and teacher burnout. These are just the latest hurdles facing the Dallas-based company that has courted controversy since its inception a year and a half ago.
Voyager is the brainchild of 54-year-old Dallas entrepreneur Randy Best, who amassed a fortune through the ownership of several companies including The Spirit Group, which sells cheerleading supplies. Looking for a way to do something more meaningful than simply making money, Best says he turned his attention to public education. "The vitality and inventiveness of the country's entrepreneurs, which made this country great, had been denied to the educational system," he says.
After researching the needs of public education, Best, in conjunction with several local educators he hired, conceived of Voyager as a way to solve two pressing problems--lengthening students' learning time, and providing worthwhile after-school care to an ever-increasing number of children whose mothers work outside the home.
Best corralled 15 investors, who together donated more than $3.5 million to help him launch his for-profit venture. It is the only company of its kind in the country, Best says, although he expects to face competition in the future. The company has 30 employees, many of whom work on developing the expanding curriculum, which even the program's detractors claim is both creative and challenging.
Voyager's first brush with controversy came last winter, when the company lured Vernon Johnson away from his $125,000-a-year post as Richardson Independent School District superintendent to be Voyager's chief operating officer--at almost double his previous salary. Johnson had previously introduced the Voyager program in four Richardson elementary schools that wound up participating in the pilot program.
Then last August, just weeks before the new school year was to begin, Dallas Independent School District Superintendent Chad Woolery abruptly announced his resignation to take the job as president of the newly formed Voyager Foundation, a nonprofit entity dedicated to raising funds for schools and children who cannot afford the program. Shortly before Woolery resigned, he had signed an $87,000 DISD contract with Voyager that would have helped subsidize the program at eight Dallas schools. Amid charges of a conflict of interest, the school board declined to ratify the contract.
In the aftermath of those controversies, state legislators and child-care groups began criticizing the company for continuing to recruit some of the local school districts' best principals, using public facilities at no
charge, and trying to make a profit off of educating youth.
The perpetually upbeat Best dismisses his critics as being uninformed. "We're trying to better educate our youth," he says. "No one went into this expecting to make a lot of money."
Whether he can make money at all is the question. To date, the company has lost $4.5 million. And with monthly losses of $180,000, the tide doesn't seem to be turning, though Best predicts the company will break even by the end of next year. Regardless, he says he and his backers have agreed "to stick it out for 10 years."
If Voyager is not making money, it is making strides--having significantly increased the number of schools who carry the program over the last year. But exactly how many schools Voyager is in is difficult to determine.
Last February, Best told the Dallas Observer he expected his company to have contracts with 200 schools nationwide during the 1996-'97 school year. By September, he told the Dallas Morning News his programs were in 150 schools and served 5,000 children. He now says those numbers were predictions. Last week, two company spokesmen said that Voyager is in 87 schools in several states, including Washington and New Mexico, and serves 2,400 students. However, Best claims that the 2,400 students are being served at "close to" 100 schools.