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VOL. 131 | NO. 186 | Friday, September 16, 2016

Webb: ‘The Most Important Thing is Talent’

LEANNE KLEINMANN, Special to The Daily News

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When Roblin Webb graduated from Rhodes College with an urban studies major, she knew she wanted to make a difference, and working as a civil rights lawyer seemed like the right way to do it. So she headed to law school and grad school at Rutgers, in New Jersey, then came back to Memphis and got a job at a law firm. 

Roblin Webb, Founder and CEO of Freedom Prep Academy

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

“Ironically enough, I was working for the law firm that did legal work for Memphis schools. It was really interesting, but I always felt like I was on the wrong side.”

So she left the firm and went to work for the education nonprofit New Leaders, New Schools, an organization that trains principals to turn around low-performing schools. The career fit was closer, but still not quite right.

Then she began coaching the mock trial team at Middle College High. 

“I fell in love with the kids,” she said. 

She also discovered that, though her students were passing the TCAP tests with flying colors, they weren’t scoring high enough on the ACT to get into the colleges they wanted. 

“I was disheartened because I felt like we were doing our families and our kids in Memphis a disservice by schooling them to believe they were actually ready for college.”

She still thought she didn’t want to be a principal. It was during the year she spent as a prestigious Building Excellent Schools fellow in Boston that her mind began to change. She got a look at some high-performing charter schools in the Northeast, and was startled to see that the kids in those schools looked just like the kids in Memphis.

“These were high-poverty schools, 100 percent black and brown children, but 100 percent of them went to college. I thought, ‘If they can do this in D.C. and New York and Boston, we can definitely do this in Memphis.”

It was from that belief that Freedom Preparatory Academy was born. 

The network of what is now four schools in the Westwood neighborhood launched in 2009 with one building, 100 sixth-graders and 11 staff. By 2016, Freedom Prep has slightly more than 1,300 kids in pre-K through 12th grade and 175 employees.

“Exponential growth, to say the least,” says Webb.

When you got your charter approved in 2008, is this what you envisioned?

“God, no! I came to this neighborhood because at the time, the charter school law was you can only accept kids that were failing or coming from failing schools, and there were no other options (than failing schools) for families here. We started here and really fell in love with the neighborhood.

“Originally, Freedom Prep was just going to be grades 6 through 12, but then we started doing really well academically. Three years in a row we were a rewards school in Tennessee for academic growth, in the top 5 percent. 

“People started to notice. It was a necessity to expand and grow. … I was losing talent. 

“We also knew we absolutely had to do an elementary school, as much as I was terrified of 5-year-olds. Our kids were coming into sixth and seventh grade so far behind academically.”

Do you see yourself as an entrepreneur? Did you know that was your destiny?

“No. I knew I had a passion for doing something that would have a closer to equalizing effect on people of color in poverty. That has always been my passion. As an entrepreneur – no. I’m the reluctant leader. But I felt like I needed to do something more for others and do more for black people in our community, especially in Memphis.”

At what point did you think, “OK, this is going to work out?”

“Not until this year. Every year, with growth like this, you experience all types of growth pains. Not that we don’t have them this year, but they’re in areas that are easier to tackle and are not as mentally exhausting. 

“The sheer amount of talent that you have to find to grow this fast … has been difficult, but exciting.

“Literally everywhere I go now, everyone is a potential Freedom Prep employee. Everywhere. This is coming from an introvert. It takes a lot out of me but it’s worth it because it makes a world of a difference in the way that the organization runs and the level of education that our kids get when you have good, strong, confident talent in the building.”

What do you know now that you didn’t know when you started?

“I know now that the most important thing is talent, more than anything in the world. I was aggressive about recruiting strong talent; it makes or breaks an organization. I think that’s probably what makes me the happiest and also what keeps me up at night.

“Also, I definitely didn’t know how hard it was going to be. I didn’t know how ridiculous ... how much I would work initially.”

What advice would you give your younger self?

“It would probably be to pace yourself. Because I did not. I was at a point, I think in our second year, when I was completely burned out. I had started to lose my passion for the work and so I knew something was wrong. 

“I said, ‘Either I need a therapist or I need an executive coach.’ I got a coach – Jeanne Carr – and I’ve been working with her for a long while now. She has been so helpful in so many ways, especially as a woman. There are so few women doing what I’m doing, and especially so few black women.”

Leanne Kleinmann, a longtime journalist and founder of Leanne Kleinmann Communications, is a first-time entrepreneur herself. Send your questions and comments to leanne@leannekleinmann.com. 

PROPERTY SALES 56 94 12,852
MORTGAGES 23 50 8,053
BUILDING PERMITS 285 422 30,356
BANKRUPTCIES 23 67 6,131