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National Heritage Academies Founder J.C. Huizenga Talks about Charter Chains 20th Anniversary



JC Visit.JPGGRAND RAPIDS, MI -- National Heritage Academies founder J.C. Huizenga thumbed through a photo album pulled from the library 
shelves at Excel Charter Academy and smiles as he sees the familiar faces from the school's inaugural day 20 years ago.

He stops at one page and points to pictures of a younger version of himself helping students and talking to the school's Parent Teacher Organization.

"It's just a little bit different," laughed Huizenga, who on Friday recalled how he built Michigan's largest charter school operation from scratch in the early 1990s.

Huizenga, a multi-millionaire businessman, served on the board of Teach Michigan and was part of a lobbying effort that gained the right to allow charter schools in the state.

Four months later, Huizenga's only son, David, was born, and his drive to improve education took on a deeper meaning.

"What had been a public policy issue for me all of a sudden became a personal issue because now I knew what it was like to be a parent at that point," he said. "So I said, 'What do we have to do to open a charter school to bring that kind of opportunity to all children.'"

Huizenga partnered with others to put together a curriculum committee that worked "fast and furious" over the winter months to finalize the charter school application by the May 15, 1995 deadline. About two weeks later, Huizenga received news that the application had been approved.

With three months before the start of that upcoming year, the Huizenga-led partnership knew nothing about opening a school. But in early September 1995, Excel Charter Academy in Kentwood welcomed 174 students and seven staff members.

"It was an amazing summer. We had a whole lot that we had to get done, but we got it done," Huizenga said. "It blew me away that that many parents would put their faith in us."

From there, National Heritage Academies was born.

The for-profit entity opened three more schools in its second year and four schools in the following year. In 2004, NHA opened a record 12 schools.

We’ve gotten results, we’re financially strong and we’re academically superior. - J.C. Huizenga, NHA Founder

The company now operates 81 schools with 51,000 students and 5,000 staff nationwide. Forty-seven of those schools are in Michigan and nine are in Kent County with about 6,500 students. National Heritage schools begin with K-5 classrooms and add a grade each year through eighth grade. River City Scholars is the most recent Grand Rapids-area NHA school to become K-8.

Huizenga said the charter schools focus on academic excellence, parental partnership, moral focus and student responsibility. Staff rely on data to provide a routine glimpse of what is going on in the classroom and partner with parents to create a successful learning environment for students, he said.

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