January 2010: Richard W. O'Neill II '72
Richard W. “Rich” O’Neill II ’72 founded Renaissance School Services in 2006 to turn around low performing public schools and conduct research focused on the juncture between organizational design, economic investment, and academic performance of public schools. His work concentrates on predominantly urban, minority, and high poverty schools. O’Neill was graduated from Vanderbilt University with a B.A. in 1977.
Before founding Renaissance, O’Neill served as a senior vice president and general manager of Edison Schools (now EdisonLearning) for nine years, where he built, developed, and operated schools K-12 in the eastern half of the United States. At Edison, he managed the turnaround of failing schools that had been taken over by the states of Maryland and Pennsylvania. One of the three worst performing schools in Maryland under O’Neill’s stewardship became a Maryland Blue Ribbon School of Excellence three years later. O’Neill’s work resulted in two case studies on school turnaround for the Education Commission of the States in 2004.
Founded in 1992, EdisonLearning is a leading partner with public schools and school districts, focused on raising student achievement through its research-based school design, uniquely-aligned assessment systems, interactive professional development, integrated use of technology, and other proven program features. Edison students achieve annual academic gains well above national norms. Edison serves more than 132,000 public school students in over 20 states through its whole school management partnerships with districts and charter schools, summer and after-school programs, and achievement-management solutions for school systems. Prior to his work with Edison, O'Neill researched and developed a comprehensive professional development system in the core academic areas of K-12 education and served as a senior executive at the leading educational science technology publishing company in the U.S. in the early 1990s.
With more than a dozen years in school management and turnaround, O’Neill has drawn a number of observations about underperforming schools, governance issues, academic diligence, and operational shortcomings. As a result, Renaissance senior management has created interventions by which they address school performance, including the creation of new positions in schools for specialized functions not found in most schools. RSS is currently turning around a school in Wilmington, Delaware, that is a PK-8 school of 400 students, 85 percent of whose population qualifies for free and reduced lunch, a federal measure of poverty. This school was ranked in last place statewide when RSS was asked to manage it in December 2008. It is just the kind of challenge they like.
Renaissance conducts two different types of research: commissioned and syndicated. Over the past two years, RSS has produced commissioned research with NewSchools Venture Fund, a leading social investor in urban school reform, and Mass Insight Education & Research Institute, the country’s leading policy and research group on turning around chronically failing schools, on whose board O’Neill sits. In addition, RSS conducts proprietary, syndicated research projects with a variety of partners on a per project basis.
At Mass Insight, O’Neill served as a core design team member on “The Turnaround Challenge: Why America's best opportunity to dramatically improve student achievement lies in our worst-performing schools,” recently hailed by federal Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as the authority on school turnaround efforts.
O’Neill reflects: “I like what I do because it is so intellectually challenging – taking a variety of unique and different and in many cases dysfunctional inputs, the kids, the schools, the families – and trying to produce robust school communities that counteract the many negative influences on these kids, creating healthy, academically high-performing individuals. I loved Hotchkiss because it too was intellectually challenging. It was like a playground for me, where I learned to love learning and where I also learned through my relationships with classmates that one can fix many problems through analysis and perseverance. The psychic return on seeing a kid, a family, or a school community healed is fantastic.”