Interview with Scott Canfield: Why Not You Academy

I sat down with Scott Canfield, CEO of Why Not You Academy, to learn more about the school. Why Not You's opening in Fall 2021 marked PCSD's 100th completed project.

How did you get started with Why Not You Academy?

Garth Reeves and I met at West Seattle High School as Assistant Principals. Our role was to bring about innovation and change. We found that we really enjoyed working together on these efforts and, five years later, decided we wanted to bring aspects of the model that we piloted at West Seattle High to a whole school model. We both previously worked in small schools and saw the power that small schools could have on students, especially those furtherst from educational justice. As charter schools were coming to Washington, we saw this as a route to implement our whole school model. So about 3 years ago we started hatching the idea and were approved to work on our charter school application through Washington Charter School Association’s incubator. Over 15 months, we met with hundreds of communities in south King County to see if there was demand for an innovative, new high school option for families.

Shortly after approval by the Washington State Charter School Commission, we found a facility about 5 blocks from where we hosted one of our largest community forums in Des Moines. It seemed to be the perfect size for 400 students but it was a commercial lease.

Where were you one year ago?

We agreed to a 30-year lease with the owner. We closed the loan with WCSD right around the same time. With the community shutting down as a result of the spread of COVID, it became difficult to get out to the community and build relationships and trust. We had to pivot and start recruiting remotely. We broke ground on the building in May 2020, but, by the end of June, we made the determination to delay due to the challenges we faced in launching a new school in the midst of a pandemic.

There was a silver lining in the decision to delay, as it allowed us to connect with the Why Not You Foundation. Our model really resonated with them and there was a close alignment on both vision and values of both organizations. In fall 2020, we launched our official partnership with Why Not You Foundation and began our efforts to launch the school as the Why Not You Academy and re-started construction in December.

Our early partnership with Why Not You Foundation provided an opportunity for them to be more deeply involved and to move forward as partners and not just funders.

What made you decide to go with WCSD?

WCSD have been in the charter space since the start of the sector in Washington just a few years ago. They know the landscape better than anyone else. We met with James Heugas early on while we were obtaining a building, securing a lease, and doing all the due diligence that you have to go through to get approved to start construction. We needed someone like James and Anna Johnson at WCSD. We are lucky to have that partnership. We’ve met many peers launching charter schools in other parts of the country and they don’t have a WCSD. Without WCSD, this would not have been possible.

I understand it’s difficult to get started up with a commercial lease. How has WCSD facilitated the long-term lease of the commercial facility you have leased? What were they able to make happen that you couldn’t do on your own or with another group?

WCSD was there from the very beginning when we found the building. We contacted James right away and asked him to look into it. The following week he came out and visited the site with us and we met with the building owner together. We walked through to get a sense of what it would look like. After James did his review and thought it was feasible to convert it to a school, WCSD offered a grant to complete a feasibility study.

Once we knew conversion to a school was possible, we started negotiating the lease with our attorney. The building owner was looking for a long-term lease. Ultimately WCSD and Washington Charter School Association provided loans for tenant improvements (TIs) to start construction.

What were the biggest challenges of dealing with a commercial landlord who was not used to dealing with a charter school?

We were pretty fortunate. The landlord is a great guy and wants to see the building be used for a good cause. There was a leasehold mortgage needed which is often required when a lender provides you money to do work on a facility that you are leasing. We had to get the landlord comfortable with the lender and the fact that the lender would have first right of refusal on the building if we weren’t successful. WCSD broke it down with the building owner so this was easy to understand and something he could be comfortable with.

How has WCSD assisted with financing?

WCSD provided a grant for the due diligence process. We ultimately ended up with two lenders but WCSD drove the process. WCSD’s loan and expertise on property development allowed us to get through construction and helped us to bring in the other lender.

If we didn’t have WCSD, none of it would ever have happened, including the partnership with the Why Not You Foundation.

What surprised you the most about working with WCSD?

They made a very complicated process go smoothly and seem easy. There are so many steps involved from due diligence to starting and finishing construction. They broke it down and walked us through it all. It seemed overwhelming and daunting going into it, but they took it on and created as few headaches as possible for us. Their leadership in this area allowed us to focus on the academics, the education program, and recruitment and allowed us to be confident in getting the school ready in time for the kids.

This is even more relevant in our case where we operate as a single site school with only a three-person leadership team. We don’t have a large charter management organization (CMO) behind us. We saw WCSD as a trusted partner that saved us a lot of heartache.

How has working with WCSD changed your mindset on a full-service real estate development partner?

It just streamlines the whole process. The more lenders you get involved, the more challenging it is. It made it so much easier working with them.

If you are considering a future phase of development, would you consider working with WCSD again? And why?

Definitely without a doubt! Just going through the process with them was great the first time around. We were very pleased with the quality of the work. We trust them as partners. They would be the first ones we go to. We have a second phase for work on the first floor of the building that will begin in 18 months.

Anything else you would like to add?

Typically projects like these wrap up one month before school starts. However, since we completed construction last month, we have been able to set up a Learning Hub and bring in our incoming 9th graders to work with one of our teachers. He helps the students with their 8th grade work online. Having them in the building now has allowed us to build relationships and trust. It’s a unique opportunity to work with our students as we prepare to enroll about 104 students this fall.