At the recently held 2022 Education 2.0 Conference in Las Vegas, Mark Plitzuweit won the Outstanding Leadership Award, while Edkey, Inc., the organization he leads as President, CEO, and Superintendent, received the Best Companies Award. These awards are a testimony to Mark’s strong leadership qualities and tenacity.
Leading the Organization Out of Financial Crisis
Six years ago, in March of 2016, when Mark joined Edkey, things were far from rosy. The non-profit organization, which provides high-quality educational services to a variety of institutions, was struggling financially. It lost about $3 million at the end of the fiscal year. Mark steered the company through the financial crisis by restructuring, rightsizing, and tapping into his vision and wisdom. Leading with a calm tenacity, Mark made sure that Edkey came out of the challenging time and thrived. Edkey reported a positive $7 million position at the end of the 2021 fiscal year. “From a financial standpoint, Edkey’s bottom line position has positively increased by over $10 million since July 2016,” says Mark.
After he joined the organization, student outcomes have also been increasing year over year. Math scores have increased by 18 percent, and English Language Arts have increased by 15 percent through the end of the 2021 fiscal year, while the percentage of students who graduate on time has also increased to 90 percent. Additionally, Edkey has also seen a significant increase in the student enrolment rate — the student population across the organization has grown to nearly 11,000 from 4,800 students. The number of program and school offerings have doubled from what was previously offered – from 14 to 28 – across the state of Arizona.
Under Mark’s tenure, employee satisfaction has increased as well. It is now 85 percent, which is double the industry standard. A higher percentage of satisfied employees means a low attrition rate. Currently, Edkey boasts a 90 percent employee retention rate, nearly double the industry standard. Parent satisfaction is also ahead of the national average, at 90 percent.
Mark has been able to quickly turn the fortunes of Edkey around because, for him, the welfare of children is of the utmost importance. “My motivation is, and will always be, based on what is best for students, the next generation, and asking myself daily, ‘How are the Children?’ or ‘Kasserian Ingera’(in Masai),” he says.
Diversity of Educational Offerings
Headquartered in Mesa, Arizona (AZ), Edkey, a 501c3 support organization, consists of 28 schools and programs, each with its own mission and vision, operating exclusively in AZ. Each of the schools, which operate under the Edkey umbrella, provide educational opportunities to all Arizona-based K-12 students.
Unlike most public districts and public charter schools, where a singular educational model gets replicated several times over, Edkey Inc. is structured so that each school and program provides a unique model of learning for students. Edkey is also structured as a support organization instead of a management organization. This and its various educational models set it apart from others. Mark points out that other schools have a “top-down” approach, which can be traced back to a more traditional management structure. “At Edkey, Choice is Yours,” he adds.
Often, it is stated that Edkey provides educational operations support to the most diverse family of K-12 charter schools in the world. These educational offerings include a school for the deaf and hard of hearing, a school for students with autism, a school for students with emotional disabilities, a school that works with students facing homelessness, an online program, a school for fine arts, traditional educational models, schools based on Founding Father’s principle, high-end athletics, and more.
“When looking at Edkey, one can see that its strength is in the diversity of the educational offerings, not sticking to one single model, meeting the needs of all students, especially those who may struggle in traditional settings,” Mark says. “Each school and program, along with their mission and vision, are directly related to the community in which they exist.”
As Edkey does not have a “one size fits all” model, which is replicated several times and then pressed into the communities, Mark says that their questions for their stakeholders will always be, “what can we do to improve education in your community, and what type of programs do you think would most benefit the students in their educational journey?”
Career Path: From Kindergarten Teacher to CEO
Mark started his career as a kindergarten teacher, and then he moved his way up through multiple leadership opportunities, including Lead Teacher, Assistant Principal, Principal, Dean, Superintendent, College President, and Director of Academics. Prior to his current role at Edkey, Mark served as Director of Education Operations at West Coast Ultrasound Institute, and before that, he worked at Brookline College as Regional Campus President.
Mark has been in the education sector for almost three decades now. It is not something that a young Mark might have foreseen, as he was “not-a-very-good student” in the classroom. “I received average grades, was bored most of the time, and disinterested in sitting around listening to someone lecture at me, without engaging me,” Mark says. “Although it seemed to work for many around me, I struggled with the traditional model of education as it has been done for decades.”
He felt that the traditional way failed to engage and encourage students. So, reimagining what education can be in how it looks, feels, and measures success has always been a motivation point driving Mark’s career.
Mark intends to influence change by providing more school choice opportunities to students and families based on their needs. “Taking a deep look into what programs and modes of instruction best engage students to reach their maximum learning capacity, regardless of the obstacles they need to overcome,” he says.
Accomplishments and True Measure of Success
“Outstanding Leadership Award” is not the only award Mark has received over the years. In his career that has spanned almost three decades, he has won several of them and has a long list of accomplishments. In June of 2021, Mark received an award for Excellence in Education and presented on Innovative Educational Programs at the GFEL Conference. He has also given presentations on Education Policy, Servant Leadership, Educational Law, School Safety, Microschools, Online Learning and has organized multiple leadership trainings for teachers, principals, superintendents, and community members.
Among all his accomplishments, Mark is the most proud of what students of Edkey have accomplished. “I am most proud of the student outcomes growth that the students at the various Edkey schools have experienced,” he says. “I also boast about the employee satisfaction and employee retention rates that have been the catalyst of consistency in helping all Edkey students experience this success.”
When it comes to defining the term success, Mark likes to break it down into every aspect and metric of the organization and focus on mission, vision, and core values. He explains that one can be very successful in certain areas of a business while identifying areas of growth opportunity in others, adding that they should always ask, “how successful are we at each point? Are we meeting the needs of the students and communities we serve? How satisfied are the employees that work within the organization? Do they buy into our mission and vision, and in our case, always focus on what is best for students?”
Many leaders try to determine the level of success by looking at the financial bottom line of a business. Mark does not follow this approach, as he believes that it takes every other function of the organization to get to that bottom line. “That is where the true measure of success can be found,” he says.
Never a Regular Day
For the CEO and President of Edkey, there is never a “regular” day. Mark says that each new day comes with new sets of challenges and accomplishments. He, however, has a routine that he follows.
Mark starts his day by prioritizing the greatest needs of the organization. Then, he works with and through his various teams, which allows the organization to make the most efficient use of time and create the greatest impact.
As the leader of a large organization, Mark finds that the balance between personal and professional life can be difficult. He, however, underscores that no one is alone in this struggle. “I do my best to take time as I need it, with both family and alone,” Mark says. “I also ask each Edkey employee to do the best that they can, as well, in this area.”
Plans for Tomorrow
Mark ensures a culture of integrity and innovation at Edkey by providing educators and educational leadership local control, and by offering every level of assistance that a support organization can provide.
Edkey works with campus leadership on growing and developing their presence in their specific communities. Mark explains that a program that works well in an urban area may not be the best fit at one of their rural schools.
In the schools operating under the Edkey umbrella, each principal is the captain of their own ship. “They [principals] provide organizational leadership with information on the initiatives that their communities would like, and we support those needs, rather than forcing directives from individuals that are not necessarily in those communities on a daily basis,” says Mark.
Speaking of the plans for the future, Mark says, without giving away any trade secrets, Edkey has a few ideas that will continue to develop as we increase our footprint outside the State of Arizona. “This goes back to the notion of offering quality educational options based on community needs and not a ‘one size fits all’ model, which is so prevalent in the educational space,” he adds.
Accountability Necessary to Build Strong Organization
Early on in his career, Mark felt that it was important to try and be liked by those who worked with him. He now believes that, although building relationships is extremely important, accountability and personal perceptions can be diluted if the relationships are too close. “As I have continued to grow as a leader, it has become more apparent that relationships that allow for holding each other accountable will build a baseline for a stronger organization,” adds Mark.