By Cathy Morlitoris
As Justin Rule tells it, a $1 find at a yard sale changed his life.
And he’s hoping it will change the lives of many other people too, when Coolidge Academy opens this month.
In 2013, Rule was a principal of a private high school for court-adjudicated boys. Over and over, he saw students with potential become derailed by a lack of opportunities after graduation.
“These were kids who had a lot of intellectual ability, but due to personal struggles and not having a clear pathway to careers after graduation, quite honestly, instead of seeing them succeed, I ended up going to their funerals not long after they finished school,” he says.
That summer, while browsing at a yard sale, Rule came across a book by Calvin Coolidge titled “The Price of Freedom.”
“He wrote an essay in that book that talked about true education being the development of intellectual power and the moral power of an individual—both of those things together,” Rule says.
Inspired, Rule began to envision a way to help people who are out of high school but struggling to find careers, or for whom traditional college isn’t an option.
These are people being held back by a past legal issue, financial woes, parenting responsibilities, confusion over the right career direction or some other barrier.
Rule — already the founder and director of Heads Up, an urban arts-enrichment program based in Lancaster — had many contacts in the local community.
“Knowing a lot of business owners, and being entrepreneurial myself, I knew there were a lot of business owners out there who believe in giving people a second chance,” he says. “I started thinking, ‘How can we help them take a less risky chance on an individual?’”
Rule realized the answer lay in empowering and training students with skills, while providing mentorship and support.
“I began talking with local trade businesses about common pathways for second-chance learners,” he says. “I found out that these businesses had a desire to help, but they often saw a lot of turnover in their employees. They could provide a job for people, but they couldn’t provide the other things — training, mentorship and support.”
As Rule researched ways to make his idea a reality, he met Adam Grim when both men were working for a local web development company, YDOP.
“As we worked side by side, I shared some of these passions that were on my heart and Adam said, ‘Justin, do you realize you can do that a lot easier in the digital realm?’” Rule says. “I had never thought of it that way.”
So Rule refocused from opening a free-standing school to creating digital-based learning opportunities.
He and Grim are launching the Lancaster-based Coolidge Academy this month. The academy describes itself as a place “Where digital education meets local apprenticeship.” Rule says digital learning provides the perfect platform for second-chance students.
“Nobody asks if you have a criminal record when you build them a great website,” he says. “The digital realm offers tremendous opportunities for people to learn, be apprenticed and develop their talents in the field.”
The nonprofit Coolidge Academy is beginning with classes ranging from analytics and data analysis to public relations, web writing and social media. The academy plans to add more as the school develops. “We are looking at possible students being anyone from single moms who are gifted photographers but currently have dead-end jobs, to people who have been laid off in the later stage of their careers and have a good work ethic but lack the digital skill set,” Grim says.
“Our classes are 100 percent digital, because we know scheduling is a big challenge for a lot of students. They can take classes in the evenings, in the morning, whenever they have time available.”
Coolidge Academy students will enroll in online skill-development classes led by local experts in the field, Grim says.
Individual classes are expected to take 60 to 90 days to complete, but students can proceed at their own pace. Classes cost $49 to $99 each.
Students can take a deeper dive, if they wish, by pursuing Coolidge Academy certification.
To achieve this, they will take all the classes in a given focus area (such as digital marketing or web design and development) plus workshops on how to market themselves. They also will get a paid, 40-hour apprenticeship. Students who pick this path, which takes about six months to complete, get all classes and workshops for free.
Rule and Grim hope to enroll 10 students in the academy’s first six months. “Our goal is high impact, but small numbers,” Grim says. “If in a year, we have 25 people we can set up with a steady career, that’s success for us.”
Potential students will fill out a free application, with Rule and Grim following up to get to know applicants and their goals. Ultimately, the organization’s board will choose the students.
Jeremy Hess, who is a managing partner with The Premise Studio in Lancaster and lead photographer with Jeremy Hess Photographers, says he’s excited to offer photography and videography courses through Coolidge Academy.
“I believe that there are people with talents that don’t know how to develop their talent or how to get connected with the right business to use their talent,” he says. “Coolidge Academy is a pathway to a relationship to the industry and helps the person develop their skill set to be relevant in the marketplace.”
Ultimately, Rule and Grim hope Coolidge Academy will open doors for people who might not have had the opportunity to develop skills and find meaningful employment.
“Most people think the secret to finding a job is who you know and what you know, but the reality is, it’s who knows you and likes you,” Rule says. “We see apprenticeship as a pathway for someone who doesn’t have a foot in the door. We’ll help them get their foot in the door, build a relationship with someone in the industry and have a higher chance of being placed in a job and becoming successful.”
For more information on Coolidge Academy, visit www.coolidgeacademy.org.