Fifteen years ago, Melissa Holdaway was director of underwriting for Insurers Administrative Corp., a Phoenix health insurance company.
A self-proclaimed overachiever and workaholic, Holdaway was motivated to create a positive culture for the staff.
Once she achieved that in her department, she realized she wanted something bigger where she could impact an entire organization.
So in 2001, she opened a charter school — mainly to provide a positive working environment for teachers and staff.
“I fell in love with the students along the way,” she said. “Originally, I did it for the staff, ironically.”
Scott Wood, owner of IAC, now called Benefit Commerce Group, said he was emotionally heartbroken when she left but intellectually thrilled she was pursuing her passion.
“Melissa had a wonderful blend of technical knowledge, people skills, problem solving and consensus-building ability,” Wood said. “All that led to tremendous respect from her peers, her employees and the executives. She led a team that consistently exceeded service standards and company goals and objectives year after year. She simply had natural-born leadership skills that people would walk through walls for her.”
Holdaway opened the school as the charter school movement was just getting its start in Arizona.
“It was incredibly challenging,” she said. “Nobody knew what to do with us back then. We didn’t have a lot of resources to go to like we do now. The Arizona Department of Education was trying to figure out how to integrate us into their world.”
To come from a business background — with no educational training — was a blessing and a curse.
“Nothing from a business standpoint made sense,” she said. “It took me awhile to understand how the game was played. It is not something I would recommend to most, but I do thrive on challenges.”
To create a positive work environment, she said it’s important to know each staffer’s goals.
“In education, we often forget our teachers are on the front lines,” she said. “They have a voice in what happens here.”
Building relationships in the community also is essential to a charter school’s success, she said. Her other secret to success is her tenacity.
“Do not let go of the goal,” she said. “Whatever roadblocks come your way, use that as a stepping stone to the next level. They will grow you if you allow them to. Eventually, you will get to the goal. Tenacity is very key, along with that outside community support.”
Today, Arizona Charter Academy employs 70 people who serve 800 students kindergarten through 12th grade in Surprise.