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Propelling education Featured

6:43am EDT December 22, 2004
David Iwinski graduated from Duquesne University and earned a law degree at Pitt, but he discovered the enduring value of education while working in the developing world.

During a stint with Respironics Inc. in China, and now as president and CEO of Acusis Inc., a provider of medical transcription services with nearly 600 employees in India, Iwinski has gotten a firsthand look at how education is prized in those countries and how it is being used as a lever to boost future economic development there.

"You'll see in the backwater villages of China; families may not have very nice housing, and they may not own a car, but they have books," says Iwinski.

That kind of dogged commitment to education and the results it produces are a few of the reasons why Iwinski and Acusis have devoted time and money -- $100,000 -- to Propel Schools, a charter school organization with an elementary school in Homestead that opened in 2003. Propel has an eye on establishing as many as three more schools in Pittsburgh area communities this year.

Iwinski is serving as chairman of Friends of Propel, an organization established to support Propel Schools in its fund-raising and with hands-on involvement.

And he's got some high-powered help. Friends of Propel has recruited some top local businesspeople, including Bill Benter, Acusis' chairman; Glen Meakem, founder of Freemarkets; Murry Gerber, chairman, president and CEO of Equitable Resources Inc.; and Andrew Washburn, CFO of Strategic Energy.

Iwinski says the members of Friends of Propel can bring their experiences in their respective professions to the classroom to make the students' educational experiences more meaningful, something he's encouraging them to do. That process, he contends, will result in a stronger commitment to the schools and, ultimately, to more widespread support for the effort.

Says Resnick: "What we're hoping is that out of that will come a sense of mission and passion for Propel, and out of that will come interest and greater membership and, finally, help us raise more money."

Iwinski talked with Smart Business about his commitment to Propel and why education is critical to the economic future of the region.

What motivated you to get involved with Friends of Propel?

I've been very, very fortunate in my life, had wonderful parents, went to a very good school system, was privileged to have a good graduate education, and I was also very fortunate that the third week of my first job, I began traveling to the developing world. I've spend a lot of time in Europe, but most of my working life has been in Asia.

I visited every major country there, worked extensively in China, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, India, the Philippines, and what I have observed in these various places ... the focus on education there is so strong, the family focus on education, on literacy, on education as a means of not only sustenance but as a means of raising one's position in the world is so strong.

Why the interest in charter schools?

I think we believe that part of the solution is to find a way, through some private-public partnership and some significant money -- we didn't give 50 bucks -- find a way to put free-to-the-public, high-quality schools in these communities. This is a way to give students a strong foundation right from kindergarten.

What is your role as chairman of Friends of Propel?

We strongly advocate small companies, and particularly technology companies, get involved. We've kind of relied (in the past) on the Fortune 500 guys to carry the burden. I think that those companies that are concerned with the future ought to get involved with education.

We not only think it's important to give, we think it's important to serve. That's why I serve as the chair of Friends of Propel. I hope that what we can do through Friends of Propel is attract more members and interest and use it to get the word out.

I think that I look at my role as chairman of Friends of Propel on a couple of levels. First is communication with the existing Friends of Propel to get them involved. That means getting information out about what the school is doing, get some data out about the performance of the students.

It also means we'd like to get the donors to the school to see what's going on. When I was living in Hong Kong, my daughter was in several schools there, and in every one of these schools, I volunteered. There is no substitute to being there, reading a story, helping on the playground, assisting a teacher.

What's the attraction to Friends of Propel for those who are involved?

I think it's actually pretty straightforward. They're committed to our community, they understand well that the health of our community is like a strand of DNA; you just can't pop a few pieces out and have the rest of it be congruent and complete.

We're going to be facing some tough choices. There's probably no way the (public) schools are going to escape some of the budget tightening. I think these individuals look at this whole scenario and say, Pittsburgh has so many world-class attributes ... it's really a great place, but at the same time this great place is losing population, losing its tax base, and it has neighborhoods where there are real severe social issues and poverty.

Ultimately, it has to all get fixed together.

What benefit does the charter school concept bring to the overall education system?

It seems to me that one of the key elements of figuring out how something works is through experimentation. So I would say even if the public schools were doing an exemplary job, there's no reason not to try a new thing, and in the trying, you find out things that may not have been apparent before.

Organizations and institutions develop blinders, and that's not a criticism of the schools. It's a reality for this company, in fact. We at Acusis regularly bring in outsiders to challenge our conceptions, challenge our ideas, to make sure we haven't built a wall around us so that we just believe what we believe, but that it's validated by the outside world.

One reason to support this institution is it's an experiment, it's an idea, it's perhaps the penicillin in the petri dish that will give us something new.

How to reach: Acusis Inc., www.acusis.com; Propel Schools, www.propelschools.org