Third in a series about new Georgia start-up public charter schools
By Mike Klein
When the Academy for Classical Education opened this month elementary and middle school students had already finished extensive summer reading assignments even though they had never been inside a classroom, never met a teacher, never been to the cafeteria and never met new friends at Macon’s newest public charter school.
The reading emphasis was, classical!
“Because we’ve stripped a lot of true literature out of typical public education students are no longer able to tap into the emotion that engages them when they are reading,” said ACE co-founder and Principal Laura Perkins. This summer ACE students read classical works by Ernest Hemingway, Anne Frank, Maya Angelou, William Golding and other celebrated authors. Even kindergarten kids were required to complete listening assignments with their parents.
Are you getting the feeling the Academy for Classical Education is a different school? That is intentional and it reflects the laser focus of co-founders Perkins and Esterine Stokes.
Two years ago Perkins and Stokes just didn’t know how to quit. Long-time educators in traditional Bibb County public schools, they jettisoned retirement after just a few months to launch ACE. The school found its home in a partially renovated 200,000 square foot former corporate building on 39 acres. The property has exceptional potential but the real potential is within the classical education model.
“Esterine and I had 30-plus years in public education, wound up at the same school the last six or seven years and we retired at the same time,” said Perkins. Back in summer 2012 they would engage in “an almost continuous conversation about trying to move into retirement, reflect on our careers, purge it from our systems and move on with our lives. We couldn’t seem to do it.”
Within months Perkins and Stokes were writing a plan for the Academy for Classical Education that opened on Monday, August 4 with 760 K-through-8 students. ACE hired 48 teachers and eight teaching assistant professionals, whittled down from 600 resumes and some 340 initial interviews. Seven hundred students are on the current waiting list.
“The goal was to have a place where children matter,” said Perkins. “That’s not to say in other schools children don’t matter but somehow public education has gotten off track and we’re more focused on data points and less focused on the child. I want to be focused on the child.”
An ACE classical education means extensive Latin study that starts in third grade and continues in every subsequent grade. “A person who has a mastery of Latin has a solid vocabulary,” said Perkins. “They understand how to use words; they understand how to create words. That is the absolute foundation language for any student upon which to build their entire academic future.” Cursive instruction – the fancy name for handwriting – is a mandatory requirement.
Eighty students attend elementary grades K-through-5 and 100 students are enrolled in middle school grades 6-through-8. The plan is for all grade levels to expand by 20 new student slots in fall 2015 and eighth graders will roll up to a new ninth grade. Sixty-five percent of ACE students attended Bibb County public schools last year. Others were in private, home or virtual schools.
ACE quickly forged extensive relationships. Mercer University and Middle Georgia State College provided student teachers. Funding was generated from the Community Foundation of Central Georgia, the Peyton Anderson Foundation, State Bank Macon and lots of community people.
Perkins and Stokes selected the gryphon as the ACE mascot because, “We wanted a mascot that would be the model for qualities we want in our students. We want them to be strong, fierce and courageous but we also want them to be loyal, trustworthy and dedicated. When you see the head of the eagle and the body of the lion it was ideal.”
Perkins and Stokes retired from their traditional public school careers in June 2012, totally unaware they were about to become learning entrepreneurs. “The thing I kept telling myself was beware of what you don’t know,” said Perkins. “Try to ask as many questions as you could so things you don’t know don’t slap you in the face. Second, take it one bite at a time. If you look at it in totality, it’s overwhelming. Just keep plugging away, everyday accomplish something and you’ll get through it.”
Monday: Chattahoochee Hills Charter School in Fulton County
The Foundation should take a lot of pride in your influence on Georgia governmental policy over the past several years. If you look back on several things that you were crying in the wilderness about several years ago, you will find that Governor Miller adopted them…your influence and your pressure on that process has been a major factor in governmental policy in Georgia. You should be congratulated.