Chicago-based Sagus International has been making furniture for schools in the U.S. and U.K. for more than 40 years. In a billion-dollar industry built on securing contracts from state and local school boards across the U.S., Sagus, which, according to industry reports, has sales north of $100 million, clearly wins its share. It ranks at or near the top of all segments of educational furnishings. Yet CEO Darryl Rosser felt that a company so closely linked with education should be doing more than just selling furniture. So in 2008, the gregarious Alabama native challenged his 800 employees to find a way to have a more direct impact on the ability of children to learn.
Sagus started with two Chicago schools, remaking the science lab at high-performing Walter Payton College Prep and the social-studies room at William R. Harper, a high school at the opposite end of the spectrum. The redesigned classrooms created more-collaborative learning environments in which teachers could use a variety of teaching methods and students could work together on projects. "This is by far the most efficient and user-friendly classroom I've ever worked in. Because of the mobility, I'm still discovering more ways I can use it," says Walt Kinderman, a chemistry teacher at Payton. "The results were pretty amazing," says Rosser. "After that, we wanted to develop a whole-school concept that would be a model for a 21st century school."
Rosser got new inspiration for his mission while listening to President Barack Obama's Feb. 24 address to Congress. The President quoted from a letter from an eighth-grader pleading for help for her school, J.V. Martin Middle School in Dillon, S.C. Obama, who had visited the school during his campaign, described it as a "place where the ceilings leak, the paint peels off the walls and they have to stop teaching six times a day because the train barrels by their classroom." Rosser found his next project.
Three weeks later, he traveled to Dillon to see the school for himself. It was even worse than he had imagined. The hodgepodge of buildings dated from 1896. The auditorium had been condemned, and the 40-year-old desks were mismatched and too small for the children.
J.V. Martin had been featured in Corridor of Shame, a 2005 documentary about the condition of the poor, rural schools along the I-95 corridor in South Carolina. The documentary had brought attention--and politicians--to the school but little else until May 2, when four trucks with more than 2,000 pieces of custom furniture arrived in Dillon. A crew of 25 worked around the clock to remove the school's old furniture and install new Sagus furniture, worth roughly $250,000.
Educational furnishings have changed dramatically in the past decade. The scarcity of state resources demands that each piece perform several functions. Rigid, stationary desks and tables are out, replaced by flexible, mobile stations that are suitable for a variety of teaching modalities. That is precisely what greeted the students and teachers when they returned to school on May 4. They were blown away. Their classrooms and cafeteria had been remade with state-of-the-art, ergonomic and environmentally friendly desks and chairs.