A 2009 encounter with a public school teacher dramatically changed the course of Laura and Jeff Sandefer’s lives—and the lives of thousands of students.
That year, the Sandefers were considering a move from a Montessori school in Austin, Texas, to a traditional school for their sons. During a meeting with a teacher at a local private school, Jeff Sandefer asked when they should make the transition.
“As soon as possible,” the teacher replied. “Once they’ve experienced so much freedom, they will hate sitting in a desk and being talked at all day.”
When Sandefer pictured his curious, energetic boys confined to a classroom in this way, he was heartbroken. And that afternoon, when he returned home to his wife Laura, he told her: “We’re not doing that to our boys. We’re either going to homeschool or start our own school.”
That’s how Acton Academy was born.
For their groundbreaking contributions to education through platforms such as Acton Academy and the Acton Children’s Business Fair, the Sandefers are the recipients of Philanthropy Roundtable’s 2023 Simon-DeVos Prize for Philanthropic Leadership.
The Simon-DeVos Prize honors living philanthropists who have set an example of leadership excellence through charitable giving and by conveying the values of individual freedom, resourcefulness, faith in God, personal responsibility, scholarship, volunteerism, and helping others help themselves.
Awakening Heroes on a Hero’s Journey
Acton Academy is a global network of private schools inspired by the approach to education pioneered by the one-room schoolhouse. These schools inspire all students to see themselves as heroes in waiting, with an important quest to embark upon.
At Acton Academy affiliates, students are encouraged to connect to their unique gifts and genius, much like the learning in small groups and apprenticeships of early America.
“We believe each child has a special gift, and our role is to inspire them with great stories from the past to be the heroes in their own hero’s journey,” Jeff Sandefer says. “We believe children learn best through trial and error, in a tightly knit community, tackling real-world problems through sharing the stories, examples, rubrics, and recipes widely available because of 21st-century technology.”
Acton’s founding centered around the idea that each student is a genius in his or her own way. Every individual has a unique calling to uncover, and within that potential lies the ability to change the world for the better.
“While our learners excel as thinkers, speakers, writers, and users of math and technology, we believe courage, setting goals and getting along with others are even more important,” Laura Sandefer says.
From Small Rental Space to Global Movement
What started with seven students in a small rental house has expanded to a growing, worldwide educational phenomenon.
Acton Academy’s learning model is characterized by:
- Game-based learning programs that help students develop core knowledge and skills.
- Discussions based on the Socratic method that encourage the development of critical thinking.
- Real-world, hands-on projects and learning experiences.
- Apprenticeships that equip students with all-important skills and knowledge they can take into their professional lives.
Now, with some 300 affiliated schools in 42 states and 25 countries, the Acton Academy model is increasing steadily in popularity. Students from kindergarten through 12th grade study and develop their individual talents in these intimate settings as they prepare for entrepreneurship, higher education, or the workforce.
“My parents had seven children, none of whom learned the same way,” says Bill Simon Jr., co-chairman of the William E. Simon Foundation, which, along with the DeVos Family Foundation, sponsors the annual prize.
“Laura and Jeff Sandefer are visionaries in helping empower parents to create schools that meet the needs of their children through the Acton Academies,” Simon says. “We are so pleased that their accomplishments and generosity are being recognized with the 2023 Simon-DeVos Prize for Philanthropic Leadership.”
The Sandefers credit Acton Academy’s success to the families who had the courage to try a new approach to education.
“We focused on the needs of the end customer,” Jeff Sandefer says. “Then, we built experiments that turned into kits many could use, and a network of people willing to work and learn together. In every way, it was a bottom-up experiment that relied on the hard work of thousands of young heroes and parents with real skin in the game.”
Sifting Through Past: Pre-Industrial Revolution Education
As the Sandefers began to consider what launching their own school might look like, they traveled back in time—first to the Industrial Revolution of the 19th and early 20th centuries, when our current model for public schools emerged. The current system is professionalized and modeled to train productive citizens. But that means children are being trained in an environment that is, essentially, industrialized.
The Sandefers believe the traditional model of education fails to recognize students as individuals. Rather than treating children as cogs in a machine, Acton Academy seeks to transform them into the leaders and heroes they’re capable of becoming.
“Children aren’t widgets,” Jeff Sandefer said in a 2011 TED Talk in Oklahoma City.
Rather than emulating the current educational system, Acton Academy is modeled after the educational style of the one-room schoolhouse that predates the Industrial Revolution. It’s also characterized by apprenticeships that allow students to study under a knowledgeable teacher who can help them learn essential skills for the years ahead.
“Jeff and Laura’s visionary ideas have transformed the educational ecosystem by fostering entrepreneurship, critical thinking, and character development in young people through experiential student-led learning,” entrepreneur and investor Rick DeVos says. “Their work through Acton Academy has empowered students to discover their unique gifts and become independent lifelong learners. Jeff and Laura’s outstanding contributions uplift communities and ignite a ripple effect of transformational impact.”
Creating an Agile Network Through Experimentation
Acton Academy’s founders and leaders have demonstrated a deep willingness to experiment and remain agile in their quest to develop its strong educational programs. Laura Sandefer says they’ve carefully “defended against mission creep,” remaining focused on the task at hand.
“We learned from groups like the early Christian Church and Alcoholics Anonymous how to create lightweight, powerful networks where those we serve promise to serve others and pay it forward,” she says.
Throughout Acton Academy’s development, its leaders have experimented with improving the educational model. They repeat what works until they can package it into a kit for others. Then, they create networks to learn from one another.
When experiments are proven to be effective, they become part of Acton Academy’s playbook.
Entrepreneurial, Educational Roots Inspire Fresh Method
At its core, Acton Academy helps to develop critical thinking and entrepreneurial skills in young students. The concept formed in part because of the Sandefers’ unique backgrounds.
A successful entrepreneur and educator who founded seven businesses, including the oil and gas company Sandefer Offshore and the energy investment firm Sandefer Capital Partners, Jeff Sandefer learned entrepreneurship at an early age.
His father, an oil businessman from Abilene, Texas, made his living from wildcatting, a high-risk method of exploratory oil drilling that isn’t guaranteed to yield results. At 16, Jeff launched his first business: painting oil tankers.
He earned his bachelor’s degree in petroleum and gas from the University of Texas. From there, he went on to Harvard University to earn his MBA. During this time, he learned about the Socratic method, a teaching technique that Acton Academy employs today to encourage critical thinking.
For more than three decades, Jeff Sandefer worked as a professor—first at the University of Texas, then at his Acton School of Business MBA program, and later as a guide at Acton Academy.
Laura, whose mother was a beloved teacher, holds a bachelor of arts degree and a master’s degree in education from Vanderbilt University. She is the author of the 2017 book “Courage to Grow: How Acton Academy Turns Learning Upside Down.”
Combining their shared backgrounds, the Sandefers blazed an entrepreneurial trail, establishing and growing Acton Academy into a global movement. Despite its success, they say they remain mindful of why they established the model school.
“Our mission is to serve families and their quest for learning—not to take political positions or participate in educational reform,” Laura Sandefer says.
Making an Impact Through Engaged Philanthropy
At the heart of every charitable donor is a desire to improve the lives of others. When it comes to being an engaged philanthropist, Laura says it’s important to focus on “questions, choices, and community” over money and top-down solutions.
“[We focus on] questions to discover the deeply felt needs of an individual; choices to offer to the individual who becomes the hero in his or her own story; and community so the individual becomes part of something grander and more beautiful, and almost always pays it forward by serving someone else,” she says.
Rather than using multiple metrics to gauge their success, the Sandefers say they focus on only one: the willingness of learners and their families to recommend Acton Academy to others.
Jeff Sandefer says Acton Academy has looked to the nonprofit Philanthropy Roundtable as a model for its own growth and development.
“I found … Philanthropy Roundtable in 1989 when I was 29 years old,” he says. “Over the last several decades, their focus on donor intent, keeping overhead low, and staying focused on the needs of those we serve have been guiding lights.”
Looking Toward the Future
As recipients of the 2023 Simon-DeVos Prize, the Sandefers will receive an award of $200,000, which may be paid toward one or more selected charities.
The Sandefers say they have elected to split the award between the Acton Institute, an educational institution that is unrelated to Acton Academy, and Hope International, a microfinance organization that helps fight poverty.
“Jeff and Laura’s journey has been defined by a relentless pursuit of positive change, a commitment to innovation and a deep compassion for humanity,” says Dick DeVos, president of the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation. “Their ability to inspire, motivate, and mobilize others across the globe through the Acton model is a testament to their exemplary leadership and charisma. Their story reminds me that each one of us has the capacity to make a difference, creating a legacy that extends far beyond our own lifetimes.”
For the Sandefers, accepting the Simon-DeVos Prize is the culmination of years of philanthropy and impact. But it’s also a poignant moment for the couple, who have been inspired by the Simon and DeVos families for many years.
“I’ve long admired the work and character of Betsy, Dick, and the DeVos family,” Jeff Sandefer says. “Likewise, Bill Simon has been a hero of mine since the 1970s, from his pioneering of the leveraged buyout to his world-changing service as secretary of the treasury.”
“Being recognized by the Simon and DeVos families is a great honor, and we’ll do everything we can to live up to it,” he adds.
The prize was presented to the Sandefers in October at Philanthropy Roundtable’s annual meeting in Rancho Palos Verdes, California.
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