The Ohio Business Roundtable teams up with OSU's Fisher College of Business to create a new generation of school principals trained as turn-around agents for high-poverty schools.

Richard Stoff has been searching for solutions to reform public education for years, and the best prospect yet is a bright idea his organization, the Ohio Business Roundtable, is preparing to launch to create next-generation school principals.

"Nobody is doing this anywhere in the country," says Stoff, president and CEO of the BRT.

Fueled by $3.5 million in state funding, BRIGHT New Leaders for Ohio Schools is reviewing applicants for an intensive training and education fellowship that will produce 30 to 40 business-trained principals for high-poverty urban schools across Ohio.

BRIGHT fellows will begin working side-by-side this summer with accomplished school principals while simultaneously studying leadership at the Ohio State University Fisher College of Business. With successful completion of the fellowship, they will have a tuition-free MBA, be fast-track licensed as Ohio school principals and placed in schools that need strong leaders.

"This is not only worth doing, but we have to do it," Stoff says.

The concept for BRIGHT stems from a study BRT commissioned in 2012 with OSU and the Ohio Department of Education and revealed in a report, "Failure Is Not an Option." The study looked at nine "unexpectedly high-performing" Ohio public schools where poverty rates of more than 50 percent might have predicted poor school outcomes. Instead, the schools produced above-average results that in each case were traced back to exceptional leaders.

The results confirmed in an education setting what business executives have long known: good leadership is key to producing results, and good leadership is transferable.

BRIGHT now is seeking to create a new generation of school principals who will commit to serving at least two years in high-poverty urban Ohio schools. The pilot project will test the premise that giving business leadership training to individuals with a passion for serving children can result in growing more unexpectedly high-performing schools.

In addition to seeking better-performing schools, Stoff says the business leaders he represents are also concerned about a supply issue in the state's public schools. As educators take early retirement made available by pension reforms, schools are losing "way too many" good building principals, he says.

Five sectors are being mined to produce prospects for the BRIGHT fellows: education, business, nonprofits/philanthropy, military and government. In one recruiting move, Stoff reached out recently to leaders of professional services firms across the state. He encouraged them in an email to share the fellowship application with associates who are high-performers but are restless in their current work and looking for an opportunity to give back.

The ideal candidate is "somebody who's demonstrated they've closed achievement gaps," Stoff says. He likens the work to the Peace Corps-"the toughest job you'll ever love"-and says it is more of a calling than a career choice.

"Being a great classroom teacher doesn't assure success of being a great leader; there is a little different DNA and skill set," he says. Those without an education background will be bootstrapped during the fellowship to enable them to effectively lead classroom teachers.

Corporate executives who are members of the BRT have been vocal in their call for higher-performing schools to help meet their needs for a skilled and educated workforce. BRIGHT will give business leaders in Columbus and other urban areas the opportunity to help support the initiative financially and by being mentors to the fellows.

"Business needs to have skin in the game on this," Stoff says. As the class of fellows is formed and individual members are assigned to work with proven performers in schools in Columbus and other Ohio metros, business leaders will also be lined up to provide financial support and professional development guidance.

The state grant supports the fellows' education from the Fisher College along with a three-day stay each month at the BlackwellInn and Pfahl ConferenceCenter on the OSU campus, but Stoff will be asking businesses across Ohio to contribute nearly $1 million to provide monthly stipends of $2,500 for fellows as well as helping to mentor fellows in their communities.

Working with Stoff as co-creator of the BRIGHT initiative is Tony Rucci, clinical professor of management at the Fisher College.

A national search conducted by Chicago executive search firm Heidrick and Struggles landed Thomas G. Maridada II to lead the program forward. Starting as BRIGHT president in March, Maridada "has done every job there is in education in some good-sized districts," Stoff says.

Maridada comes to BRIGHT from a position as national director of education policy, practice and strategic initiatives for the Children's Defense Fund in Washington D.C. He worked previously in Michigan schools and was named "Michigan Superintendent of the Year" by the National Association of School Administrators.

A new recruit to the BRIGHT board is Mark Real, president of KidsOhio.org, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and policy organization.

"Learning takes place in the classroom, but most of the studies conclude principal leadership is really vital, particularly if you're trying to move a whole school." Real says. He notes BRIGHT is consistent both with recommendations from Mayor Michael Coleman's Columbus Education Commission report and with a pledge by Columbus City Schools Superintendent Dan Good to increase longevity of good principals in local schools.

"Principals will play more of a role in the future; they will have longer tenure in their schools. There's going to be multiple strategies to recruit new principals; this is one of those," Real says.

Good says he is a "strong proponent of alternative pathways that effect the development of high quality professionals.BRIGHT represents such a pathway for the education industry's building-level Instructional Leaders-principals."

Good adds, "On-the-job training, coupled with the philosophical and theoretical preparation, presents our best opportunity to redefine how Instructional Leaders are developed. I anticipate successful 'graduates' of the program that comprise a cohort of new leaders for Ohio's schools."

Ohio BRT member John McEwan, managing partner of the Columbus office of Deloitte & Touche, is an enthusiastic BRIGHT proponent whose own company has a similar national initiative to create what it calls Courageous Principals. Piloted in Columbus with help from Battelle for Kids, Deloitte's "From Insight to Action" exposes principals across the country to Deloitte's leadership development curriculum with a focus on relationship-building, communication and influence. The idea of Deloitte's program is that connecting school principals with leaders in business, government and nonprofits will help them lead better and share leadership lessons with teachers, "creating a ripple of leadership into the community," according to a website description.

In his recent email to business leaders, Stoff tells them, "In all the years the BRT has been trying to reform education, we have concluded that the singularly most important factor, certainly the most leverageable, on whether kids move forward or not, is the quality of the building leadership."

In an interview, Stoff summarizes BRIGHT succinctly, "This is about as right a thing as we've ever done."