PodcastED: Fernando Zulueta, founder of Academica, America’s biggest charter school service provider

The charter school that spurred creation of Academica did not hit the ground running. No, jokes Academica’s founder and president, Fernando Zulueta, in a new redefinED podcast, “We hit the ground falling.”

A hurricane, an appendicitis, upset district officials, bad first-year test scores, an accommodating private school – all played a role in Academica’s origin story. Thankfully, it has a happy ending.

The Florida charter sector, now encompassing nearly 700 schools, is celebrating its 25th birthday this year.

Miami-based Academica provides services to 143 of them, and 178 nationwide. Another 1,000 schools in 18 countries participate in its international dual diploma program.

Despite its size – and its success – the organization remains oddly under the radar.

Academica’s core networks are Somerset, Mater, Doral and Pinecrest. According to Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, whose research on charter school performance is widely respected, all four are making modest to large gains over like students in district schools. The Doral network showed the biggest gains – 142 additional days of learning in math and 57 in reading.

Those results are on par with more celebrated charter organizations like Achievement First, IDEA, BASIS and Great Hearts. So where’s the love?

Zulueta offers his take on that and other issues in the podcast, along with a little history about that first Academica affiliate. Among other insights:

Talent + freedom. “Find the best possible people to run (schools) and give them as much autonomy and control over their environment as possible.”

Let teachers teach. “Anything that wasn’t mission critical to the task of educating students is what Academica sought to do.”

On criticism of for-profits: “There’s this rather demeaning and unfortunate notion among some folks in the public sector that they’re just much smarter than everyone else.”

On why it persists: “Divide and conquer.”

On education savings accounts: “I’m in favor of … anything that empowers parents to access better quality education.”