Education Philanthropist Jeff Sandefer: “Every Student is a Genius”

As students of all ages return to school this fall, Philanthropy Roundtable is recognizing the incredible work of education reformers Jeff and Laura Sandefer, co-founders of Acton Academy, a network of innovative K-12 schools that encourage students to be “curious, independent, lifelong learners.” Acton is a private “one-room schoolhouse” that blends the Socratic method and 21st century technology “to equip each student to change the world.”

Philanthropy Roundtable President and CEO Elise Westhoff recently sat down with Jeff Sandefer, an entrepreneur, teacher and philanthropist, for an episode of the Roundtable’s interview series “Doers to Donors,” which highlights how innovators and self-made entrepreneurs are improving lives through charitable giving. During their conversation, Sandefer discussed his motivation for launching Acton, the academy’s approach to education and why the program works so well.

Inspiring a Revolution in Education

Like most entrepreneurs, Sandefer likes to solve problems. At age 16, while painting oil tankers for minimum wage in the blazing Texas sun, Sandefer saw an opportunity to improve the process. He hired his high school’s football coaches and players to do the work and charged by the job, not the hour, which resulted in a 900% increase in productivity.

This was the first of seven businesses Sandefer either founded or co-founded, including Sandefer Capital Partners, an energy investment firm with several billion dollars in assets.

In 2009, Sandefer encountered another problem that needed solving, involving his children’s education. At the time, Sandefer’s two boys attended Montessori school and he wanted to know when he should transition them to a more traditional school setting. Sandefer asked a teacher from the best public school in their hometown of Austin, Texas for guidance. The teacher’s response shocked him.

“He said, ‘As soon as possible … Once they’ve had that kind of freedom, they won’t want to be chained to a desk and lectured to for eight hours a day,’” Sandefer recalled during his conversation with Westhoff. “Before I knew, I blurted it out, ‘Well, I don’t blame them.’ Then [the teacher] looked down for the longest time. I thought I had offended him. And he looked up and he shook his head with tears in his eyes, and he said very quietly, ‘I don’t think so either.’”

Following that encounter, Jeff and Laura Sandefer decided to launch a private school of their own, Acton Academy. Their mission was to create an inspirational educational experience that helped each student find his or her own unique genius. The school began with seven students in a little rented house. Today, there are 300 Acton Academies operating in over 25 countries, teaching students from grade school through high school.

“[It] looks like we’re going to get to 1,000 schools before we’re finished,” said Sandefer.

Respecting the Student’s Point of View

When asked why Acton Academies are so successful, Sandefer referenced two main factors: fidelity to its mission and its student-centered approach.

“We believe that every person who enters our door is a genius who deserves to find a calling that will change the world. If you don’t believe that, you have no right to be inside an Acton Academy,” Sandefer said. “And that means every parent, every guide … [and] every learner.”

Sandefer is quick to point out his definition of the word genius involves more than a person’s intelligence.

“One of the great lessons about Acton Academy is IQ matters … but perseverance and grit and kindness matter more,” he said.

Sandefer also believes Acton is successful because its leaders listen to learners and give them what they want most out of their education: to be surrounded by friends and feel successful every day.

“You can talk at children or even chain them to a desk but that doesn’t lead to learning,” said Sandefer. “You can call that education. But when you … offer challenges and real-world activities, and they form their own tribes, you see amazing transformation happen. But you have to start believing [in] their changes and seeing the world through their eyes.”

Watch the full “Doers to Donors” episode featuring Jeff Sandefer here and listen to the podcast, now available on Spotify, Google and Apple.

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