18 Jul 2014

Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology looks to expand across nation

Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology will be growing, says new CEO Peter Harris, both in Tulsa and possibly elsewhere.

Harris, who was named to lead the Tulsa vocational school two weeks ago, said owner Sterling Partners plans to grow Spartan’s footprint, possibly by acquiring schools or building campuses in other parts of the country.

“We would like to expand geographically,” Harris said. “That’s an area of focus for us.”

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Spartan is one of the nation’s largest trainers of pilots and aircraft mechanics, with about 700 students enrolled at three campuses around Tulsa. The for-profit school has been in operation since 1929, when W.G. Skelly opened Spartan to help establish Tulsa as a leader in aviation.
Former CEO Jeremy Gibson sold the company to Chicago-based Sterling Partners a year ago. The private equity firm said at the time that it planned to make investments in the school.
Spartan places a big emphasis on recruiting, with about a dozen employees who travel to high schools and college fairs across the nation to spread the word about the school’s programs.
Harris said that while Sterling would like to add campuses in different parts of the country, plans also call for the Tulsa facilities to be upgraded.
“Already we have been making some improvements to the classrooms and the labs, so our goal is to strengthen Spartan here in Tulsa,” Harris said.
Enrollment at the school has fluctuated in the past two decades, peaking at 2,000 students during the 2001-2002 year.
Harris said the for-profit education industry has grown more competitive since the Great Recession as the rebounding economy demands many jobs in skilled areas such as welding, machining and accounting.
But he said the industry has also taken heat. In recent years some schools have been criticized for over-promising students, misstating academic results and draining federal student aid programs.
Harris said Spartan does a good job placing graduates in jobs, some 90 percent in the aircraft maintenance program.
“We have a good program, and we need to tell our story better,” he said.
Spartan is Harris’ first full-time job in education. He has worked as CEO of two former Sterling Partners companies, including Active Day, a chain of 59 adult day health-care facilities along the East Coast and in Kentucky.
Harris’ other recent experience is in health care, staffing and retail businesses, most recently as CEO of Eagle Hospital Physicians, a doctors’ group in Dallas. He also served on the board of directors at Meritas, a group of private schools also owned by Sterling.
Harris said Sterling’s past investments show that the company will put money into Spartan to help it grow.
Another part of Spartan’s growth plan is to continue expanding the school’s nondestructive testing program, which is nearly 40 years old but has been growing recently.
“Companies are coming to us from all over looking for technicians in this area,” Harris said. “We’ve seen a lot of interest in nonaviation areas like energy, building pipelines.”