The SEEN Interview

Darryl Rosser - As CEO of Sagus International, he’s helping create 21st Century Schools

11/20/2009  |  Charles Sosnik
The SEEN interview

SEEN Magazine: You appear to be on a mission, that of remaking our country’s educational landscape. In 2008 you challenged your company’s 800 plus employees to find a way to have a more direct impact on the ability of children to learn. What was the reason for this?

Darryl Rosser: I am on a mission. I feel that as CEO of a company that manufactures furniture largely for schools, we are in a position where we can have a significant impact on improving the educational process. Our mission is to enhance the physical environment to improve results in education. We believe that by committing all of our resources to understanding the changing needs of education, and by collaborating with channel partners, end users, architects, designers, and thought leaders, Sagus can positively impact educational results in America.

Less than two years ago we decided that as a company we wanted a higher mission than just selling school furniture.

Less than two years ago we decided that as a company we wanted a higher mission than just selling school furniture

We chose to engage directly with educators to determine the most important challenges that they were facing in their school environment, and what the future needs of schools would be.

We concentrated on our area of expertise — the educational environment. When asked what was needed to improve the school environment, the following key elements were mentioned:


Flexibility and mobility — the ability to adjust to changing needs;

  1. Budgets — furnishings should be affordable;
  2. Ergonomics — furniture should provide posture and comfort;
  3. Green — furniture should be environmentally friendly.

We chose to tackle the above issues by working directly with educators to implement the model classroom environment. Two Chicago schools were chosen as representative case studies in 2008 to showcase the beneficial effect of an improved classroom environment on educational outcomes. These schools represented the opposite extremes in their current educational performance results. We met with the principals and teachers to define the model environment, and engaged with an architectural firm, technology firm, and with our engineers and designers to develop the products to meet their needs. Following our Chicago project, Sagus launched a totally new product line utilizing the concepts learned.

At the completion of the Chicago project, we wanted to continue our mission to work with educators around the world to develop environments that would improve educational outcomes. Specifically, we wanted to expand our pilot program in Chicago to develop a model 21st Century School.

SM: I read in Time magazine that you were moved by a speech from President Obama. In this speech, the president relayed the plight of JV Martin Middle School in Dillon, SC. You traveled to Dillon and visited the school a few weeks later. What did you find, and what did it move you to do?

Mr. Rosser: I initially came to Dillon, SC to see how we might help to build the model 21st Century School. I felt compelled to look into the claims that JV Martin was in tremendous need.

As I toured the school and walked through the classrooms and saw the conditions of the desks and chairs, some that were 30 to 50 years old, it seemed deplorable for the students to have to go to school another day in that environment. It would be difficult to walk away from that, and I knew that as a company, we needed to do something.

Touring the school and viewing the documentary Corridor of Shame, you can clearly see the impact of inaction. But that’s the opportunity. There was a great opportunity here for change. I was not willing to walk away from this.

I came away with the desire to help the school and contacted our suppliers and dealers to see what we could do in a quick manner.We worked with Nu-Idea School Supply Company; Landstar System, Inc.;Trinity Express Inc.; and Facility Concepts, Inc. Within days we secured the support to donate $250,000 of furniture to the school. Within 30 days the product was installed.

Classrooms were outfitted with new ergonomic chairs and desks. In the spirit of being environmentally sensitive, the old chairs and desks were returned to our factory where they were recycled. Steel was shredded and melted for re-use. Plastic was crushed and ground and utilized in the formation of new plastic parts. The cafeteria was also given a new look with new tables and chairs and fresh coats of paint. Motivational quotes were placed on the walls. The interesting thing for the students is that the old product was extracted and new product installed over a weekend, unbeknownst to them. A transformation of this magnitude would typically have taken months to organize and implement.

We couldn’t give them a new school, but we transformed the inside of the school so that the kids were given the proper equipment to learn.

The spirit fueling the transformation of J.V. Martin Junior High School should characterize education reform across the nation. I encourage public and private stakeholders to approach education reform with passion, a spirit of innovation, a sense of urgency, an orientation toward measurable results, and a commitment to be the best.

This is something that has touched everyone in our organization, the sense of purpose that we were doing something greater than just making furniture.

SM: The South Carolina Department of Education conducted a 21st Century Educational Campus Symposium.You were very involved. What was that experience like, and what lessons did you learn?

Mr. Rosser: This was an experience that broadened my thinking of what an educational campus should be. We enlarged our thought process to integrate architecture, school furnishings, technology and curriculum, as well as health and social on-site services. Historically, many of these groups have worked in a vacuum in developing solutions to education’s challenges. In our initial project in Chicago, Sagus partnered with architects and technology suppliers to work with educators to define and model the 21st Century classroom. South Carolina Superintendent of Education, Dr. Jim Rex, broadened this thinking to consider the holistic student, giving consideration to their total needs. In a rural setting such as Dillon, South Carolina, many of the services available to the urban and suburban schools are not available to these students.

One thing that really struck me in this symposium was the passion that so many have for education today. There was a real thirst for solutions that would enhance educators. While we have often appreciated many educators to remain interested, and to maximize the tools available to them outside the classroom, we have to bring those tools into the classroom to engage the students in a manner that invigorates them. I walked away with a sense of urgency. The world is changing rapidly, and unless we also change just as rapidly, we will be left far behind.

I left the symposium with a “call for action” and a sense of excitement for the possibilities for making an impact on the future of education. The challenges of education were clearly indentified. The sense of urgency was established. There was a large group of professionals from various fields who were interested in implementing change. I sensed strong commitment from Dr. Jim Rex, as well as from members of Congress, and even the President of the United States to use this school in Dillon, South Carolina as a model for what a rural educational campus could look like in the 21st Century. Lessons learned from this could benefit other educational campuses, not only in rural America, but also in suburban and urban America as well. While all tenants may not have applicability on a national scale, there will be many elements from this project that can be used in a modified form to assist other educational campuses that will be developed in the future.

SM: The theme for this issue of SEEN Magazine is 21st Century Learning.In your opinion, what should a 21st Century School look like?

Mr. Rosser: Flexibility was one of the central themes that occurred to me in the school design. We are in a rapidly changing world, with changing technology and teaching methods no doubt changing significantly over the next century. The design of the facilities and furnishings must accommodate those changing needs. This can be accomplished with open spaces and walls that move to create additional space for changing needs, even within the school day. Furniture also needs to be flexible, with heavy use of mobile cabinetry, as well as the traditional student desks and chairs.An increasingly important element in teaching is collaborative learning. I see an increasing use of dual student desks that can be separated for lecture sessions, yet shifted together in a semi circle or circle for group learning sessions.

Cost effectiveness is another key element. With rising national and state debts, the available funds for education are strained. We have to make good use of the funds, while giving consideration to the environment, and assuring that the facilities are appropriate to meet more stringent demands for student educational development. While maintaining sensitivity for cost, ergonomics in student seating is also important to allow for proper development of the student’s growing spine, and to provide for enough flexibility in the seat back to allow the student to adjust in their seat to maintain greater concentration.

A third element in 21st Century educational campus design is giving consideration to viewing the student as a total person, and taking a holistic approach to the students’ needs. While we may view this as having greater applicability for schools in rural settings, in all campuses we should assure that students have the proper health, mental, and social services available to them as an important aspect of providing the complete educational environment. Bringing many of these services on site allows a higher level of parent engagement with the educational campus. It is proven that as parental involvement in education increases, student behavior and results are positively affected.

Another important factor in the school design is to give full consideration to environmental impact and sustainability. This is important not only in being an environmentally sensitive citizen of society, but also as a teaching method of demonstrating in practice to students and the community the importance of protecting our environment. While this may have a negative cost impact in the early implementation stages, it should have positive long range cost effectiveness through lower electricity costs, reduced water usage, and less waste disposal.

While outside my field of expertise, my exposure to the architects during this process has revealed to me that future designs will be less “boxy,”and will include interesting curvatures and shapes that encourage students to “think outside the box.”With a lot of light injected in the school design through skylights and the use of large windows, the school campus will not only be more environmentally friendly, it will also exude an environment that will be more open. Hopefully, this will open the student’s minds to outside thinking, and remind them that their time in the classroom is to prepare them for an outside world — a global world that is rapidly changing.

Additional considerations in future school designs would be to offer opportunities to improve the student’s fitness. This could include appropriate fitness facilities within the school campus, as well as outdoor facilities like a walking track, etc. The school cafeteria should offer quick, but healthy food alternatives, served in an environment that is conducive to social interaction. Food court type cafeteria environments will be utilized in some high schools that have an open campus so as to keep students on campus with nutritious meal alternatives. The food court provides a setting not unlike that which they would experience in a mall where they could choose between several healthy choices of food, and sit in booths and tables that provide for fun, social engagement with one another.

Some members of the symposium felt the facility should allow for the opportunity for students to engage in growing foods and other plant gardens. They felt that students sometimes were too removed from the basic elements of where foods come from, and how organic, environmentally friendly growing methods can impact the environment and produce healthier foods. In a campus environment space planning for this type garden should be incorporated.

Another key element in consideration of school design was to incorporate after-school activities. While many middle schools and high schools have organized sports, other students are sometimes left out. Partnering with organizations who manage after-school programs like Boys and Girls Club of America, and other organizations, would allow for continuation of the learning process, and student development with safe, organized activities that are professionally managed.

While not requiring different features in new design, other elements of the 21st Century Educational Campus would include utilization of the facilities for other community activities. These would include Adult Learning at night, which might include sessions to secure their GED, advance their training in computer technology or to study additional languages. The Performing Arts Center of the campus might be used for community functions in the evening when not in use for other school functions. The key element is that the educational campus becomes an integral part of the community.

SM: The symposium discussed the 21st Century School through three major categories: Building and Facilities, Technology and Curriculum, and Health, Social and On-site Services.

How do these three categories work together to impact a child’s ability to learn?

Mr. Rosser: One thing that was impressed upon me was a comment form Dr. Mark Weston, National Education Strategist for Dell, Inc. Dr. Weston discussed how high performing schools use technology to accomplish achievement beyond aptitude for all students, but he noted that access to technology was not enough. His quote in regard to this was very profound to me.“There is very little evidence that access equals effect,”Weston said.“What is true is that use of practice produces effect.”This in my mind demonstrated that not only do we have to provide the facilities, technology, and proper furnishings, but, educators must develop the curriculum and teaching modalities to properly utilize those capabilities.As we move the school “out of the box,”educators must be trained and curriculum developed to take advantage of the environmental improvements, the technological enhancements, and the flexible furnishings that exist.

In our symposium, Dr. Larry Allen, Dean of Clemson University’s College of Health Education and Human Development, discussed the importance of the K-12 educational system of being more inclusive of influencing factors in the ability of students to learn effectively. He discussed that these influencing factors often include student health, including proper medical, dental, vision care and nutrition. Dr. Oscar Lovelace, a family physician in South Carolina challenged us to design schools to include spaces for examination, counseling, and community health education that would allow local health care providers a place to promote student health. A healthier student will make a better student. In a 21st Century Campus focused on improving student outcomes, it is logical that these factors should be given serious consideration in campus design.

Likewise, mental health is an issue that is often given minimal consideration, yet is something that exists as a challenge in every community — all to a matter of degree. Unless the family member or student has a severe disorder, these issues often are not dealt with. The fear of the stigma of mental illness causes this phenomenon to be ignored. Properly comprehending the need for this in the school planning support system again allows for the comprehension of the holistic student body, and will enhance the student body’s ability to learn.

SM: You have challenged your company, Sagus International, to make a difference. What can others, especially educators, do to make a difference? How can they spur companies and local governments to take responsibility above what is minimally required?

Mr. Rosser: Education is a life-long journey for all of us. I have met some of the most impassioned educators in my interaction through this process. They truly care about their students. I admire them, and am amazed as to how they can stay charged on a year in, year out basis. But, even in the midst of their daily engagement with students, and in after-hours course and exam preparation, grading of tests, etc., they too must continue to engage in the learning process, and “out of the box” thinking. They must keep up with changing technology. They need to challenge their administrators for continued support for upgrading facilities, while working economically to improve within their existing facilities. I recognize this is a difficult time with school resources being so substantially impacted by state education budget cuts. It must be challenging to be pressed to improve student performance while working with fewer personnel and with budget limitations on everything from supplies to equipment.

I believe that educators need to become involved in the political process to assure that funding is provided to education. I think that they should engage community leaders, and businesses to help in the support of education in the local community. Most of us in business have kids, we care about our students’ education, and we are concerned about our country staying competitive through the graduation of students with the skills to allow our companies to compete on a global scale. At Sagus, we are more engaged with education than some other businesses, but I believe that on the local level if the opportunities are presented in a compelling way, businesses, and local leaders will support the needs of the local school.

SM: What is next for you? What is the next big thing that you are working on?

Mr. Rosser: Sagus is committed to continuing to work with educators on a nationwide basis to improve educational results by improving the learning environment. We believe that by working with educators in accomplishing this, it will help us in the design of products that will meet the emerging needs of education. Working with other thought leaders such as architects and technology and curriculum leaders also helps to assure that we are on the cutting edge of changing needs of educational furnishing. Beyond this, it is quite rewarding to know that we are helping to improve education.

Specifically, I am working on the project team to design and develop the new Dillon, South Carolina campus. Amanda Burnette, former principal of J.V. Martin, and who is currently the Director of Turnaround Schools in South Carolina, is leading the project. Dr. Jim Rex is also personally engaged in this project to assure success. We will be working to incorporate all the relevant elements from our symposium that are feasible for this educational campus. Plans are to break ground on this new facility next summer, with opening in fall 2011. We will be working with governmental and private sources to develop funding to augment the local bond package passed by the Dillon community.

Secondly, Sagus is developing other pilot projects to enhance educational environments. We presently have just completed donating complete new student desks and chairs in a Birmingham, Alabama classroom. This project will help them determine the value of ergonomic seating and desks as they plan their new school that will open in a couple of years. We are continuing to work with education leaders in various states, and in Washington to determine how the private sector can work with the public sector in reforming education in America to improve learning results.

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