Patti Melcher (MBA 1986)
never intended to open a school. After getting her start in investment banking in Houston’s energy sector after her time at HBS, Melcher became an early employee at SCF Partners, helping to invest the private equity firm’s first fund and grow the team. She envisioned a long career in the field but instead found herself in quasi-retirement at age 35. “Life has a way of getting in the way,” she notes.

Melcher’s first child, Katie, struggled in preschool with learning disabilities, and Melcher made the decision to leave her position at SCF Partners and take on consulting work while she dedicated herself to finding the right learning situation for Katie. Eventually, she came to the conclusion that homeschooling would be the best choice. But several of the experts she consulted disagreed. Katie would benefit from individualized attention, they told Melcher, but she also needed interaction with other children. “They also said there were lots of other kids in Houston who needed this,” Melcher observes.

The Joy School began in 1997 as an experiment, with just four students—Katie and three others recruited by Jerome Rosner, an optometrist and University of Houston professor, and Shara Bumgarner, a Houston elementary school teacher. Melcher located some classroom space and then watched as her daughter began to acquire social and communication skills in the new environment. Within three months, Melcher had decided to formalize the arrangement.

In its second year, the Joy School enrolled 18 kids, then 30, and then 45. Today, the school teaches about 150 children—kindergarten through eighth grade—from approximately 40 communities in the Houston area. The students have a variety of social, learning, and communication disorders, such as ADHD, dyslexia and dyscalculia, and auditory processing disorder. But Rosner, who passed away in 2014, and Bumgarner, who is now head of school, set one simple educational philosophy—“just teach them”—that entailed meeting students, academically and otherwise, where they were.

Educators at the Joy School are encouraged to meet kids where they are and tailor their teaching to individual learning styles. The majority of students spend just a few years at the Joy School. The goal is to bring the children’s skills to grade level, especially in fundamental subjects like reading, and to teach them to understand and advocate for their own educational needs, in preparation for a return to mainstream schooling. About 10 percent of the students—those, like Katie, with greater challenges—stay on at the Joy School for longer.

Those early years were a crash course in the education sector for Melcher. She served as president and handled the business side of the growing school, from learning to write a budget to scouring used furniture stores for inexpensive desk chairs and finding ever-larger classroom spaces (the school moved three times in its first five years). When the school established a board about five years after its founding, Melcher became chair.

Melcher also monitored the student lunchroom so that the teachers could all eat together. At first, that effort and the large amounts spent on teacher development seemed like a waste to Melcher. Yet she quickly came to see the benefits of teacher collaboration and training in the success of the students as well as the high rates of staff retention. (Though she was still grateful when some parents began to volunteer for lunch duty.)

“It was a lot of small battles, a lot of blocking and tackling,” Melcher says of those first five years. While she couldn’t see the future of the Joy School clearly at the time, she also wanted to build something that would outlast its founders. “It didn’t matter how big the school was; it needed to be a viable institution that really helped these kids,” Melcher explains. Feeling she had accomplished that, Melcher took a step back from the school board in the mid-2000s and currently serves as a trustee of the endowment. “If a founder stays on too long, she can stifle an organization,” Melcher cautions, noting that building a strong, committed board, with diverse skills and experience, is essential to creating a lasting institution.

Melcher returned to private equity, cofounding EIV Capital in 2009, and today Katie is thriving in a semi-independent community for adults with intellectual disabilities. As she prepared to attend the launch of the Joy School’s new capital campaign on the eve of its 25th anniversary, Melcher reflected on the unexpected venture she and Katie had taken into the education sector: “I feel really lucky to have been able to do something that’s really made a difference, not just for my daughter and my family but also for hundreds of families.”

This article originally appeared in Alumni Stories.