Through a series of twists and turns, Jeff Poole found his way to the world of private education, building Fusion Academy from a small private school in California to 60 schools across the county.
A product of the Chicago suburbs, Poole attended Michigan State University, where he received a B.S. in Food Systems Economics and Management and a M.S. in Agriculture Economics.
During his freshman year, Poole met his now wife, Julia. At the time she was studying for her master’s degree, which inspired him to do the same.
After the two graduated, Poole took a sales job with Dow Chemical, which took his family out to Los Angeles for a year and then sent him back to Chicago, where he originally grew up.
“I was in what they called their Industrial Agriculture division,” Poole said. “It worked with lawn care companies and pest control companies and anything you would call agricultural chemicals, but more of the industrial type of field, not on farms.”
After a couple more years with Dow, Poole left and shifted gears to work for Waste Management. At the time, the company began acquiring lawn care and pest control companies.
Poole, who already was familiar with many people in the industry from his days at Dow, was well suited to helping WM with its acquisitions.
After a few years in acquisitions, Poole got into the operations side of Waste Management, which sent him to various places in Europe, he said.
Poole later was tabbed for promotion to Waste Management’s state president for Michigan, which caused his family to finally settle in Grand Rapids. After only six months in his new role, however, Waste Management was sold to USA Waste in Houston, Texas.
The company gave Poole the option to move to Indianapolis, but he and his wife decided they were tired of moving all over the country.
“I built a home up in Rockford, and I didn’t have any desire to do it again,” Poole said.
Poole said his greatest joy is spending time with his family, and he and his wife early on managed to carve out time every Sunday for a long family dinner.
“We learned Sundays are probably the toughest days for company executives, because they’re getting ready for the week,” Poole said. “So we started a tradition, around 4 or 5 o’clock, whatever you’re doing … we turn everything off, and it was our family dinner night.”
Poole had another opportunity to shift his career when he met Peter Ruppert, the president of National Heritage Academies, through a mutual friend.
NHA is a charter school management company based in Grand Rapids. Ruppert was looking for somebody to help with the operations side of the business.
“I think when I got there, there were about five charter schools there, all in Kent County,” Poole said.
Poole spent about seven years as vice president of operations for NHA, overseeing its growth from five to 51 schools in five states. His responsibilities included school operations, facility management and board relations.
Despite his success with NHA, Poole admitted it was a far cry from his Waste Management days.
“At Waste Management … I was running all the general operations as state president,” Poole said. “That’s a great business, and it’s something you can get excited about, because you’re helping the environment, and you have recycling and those types of elements, but when you get into education, you realize you’re entering something completely different … Parents are keenly interested in what we’re doing. The stakes are high … the world of education is one where you need to be all in … because it’s also 24/7.”
Both Poole and Ruppert left NHA at about the same time. After they had grown the company substantially, Poole went on to become president of Spartan Oil Corporation in East Lansing, while Ruppert moved into the health care sector.
The two still kept in touch during their time apart. After a couple years, the owners of Spartan Oil planned to sell the company, so Poole started formulating with Ruppert about building their own charter school business from the ground up.
“To Pete’s credit, he did all the heavy lifting,” Poole said. “He was able to work with some private equity firms that he knew and built a business plan.”
The two got a private equity firm out of Chicago to help fund the start up, and they acquired their first school on the East Coast, which they still have today.
Later, Poole and Ruppert met Michelle Rose-Gilman, owner of the original Fusion Academy in Solana Beach, California. She ran the school out of a small space, and parents were on a waiting list to enroll their kids.
“She said, ‘I think this is a phenomenal model. If we partner together, could we replicate it?’ And we said, ‘let’s give it a try,’” Poole said.
In 2009, a year after the initial partnership, the second Fusion Academy opened in Los Angeles, which began the journey of eventually operating 60 Fusion campuses across the country.
Despite his family’s desire to stay rooted in West Michigan, Poole stayed for a year in California building the company, only coming home to see his family every other week.
“It was professionally my best year, and maybe personally my hardest year,” Poole said.
Fusion Academy promotes what it calls EPIC! Values. The acronym stands for excellence, passion, innovation and courage. The exclamation point emphasizes the importance of the stated values, Poole said.
Poole recalled a recent visit at one of Fusion’s schools where he met a student in the music studio. Poole described the student as awkward and uncomfortable when he introduced himself, but when Poole asked him what he was working on, his whole demeanor changed.
“His quick story was when he came to the school — he really was struggling at his other school — he just didn’t fit in. He didn’t feel comfortable,” Poole said. “Our teachers there quickly realized he liked poetry, and they quickly turned that into a love of music.”
The student told Poole he was working on his own rap music, and learned to flourish once he found something he could get excited about.
When new teachers come on board, they’re taught they are more than just a teacher, Poole said. They also are there to mentor their students.
“When those students start a course, the first day isn’t all drill-and-kill on subject matter,” Poole said. “It’s that teacher getting to know that student’s passion, getting to know their story, frankly.”
Because of the intimate learning environment, teachers can modify their teaching style to the students’ needs, Poole said. Additionally, in the event of a teacher absence, the school has found it can connect the student with a teacher in the same subject on a different campus via Zoom.
“It’s cool to sit in a class and watch it happen,” Poole said. “If you sit in the back of the classroom, and there’s 30 of you, who’s paying attention? Imagine a one-to-one class: That teacher, they have to be on their game, because these kids are obviously really smart, and the kids have to be on their game because they can’t fall asleep.”
Poole said his greatest personal influence is his wife who has stuck with him for 35 years, and on the business side, having Ruppert’s mentorship and friendship has been a great boon.
“It’s been a great ride, and I’m fortunate,” Poole said. “Education isn’t easy, but go to a Fusion graduation sometime, and it makes it all worth it.”