When I wrote about the Ron Clark Academy, some of you argued that the private Atlanta school and its gifted founder are recipients of many donations and grants so there aren’t many lessons in their success for public education. (I interviewed Clark this summer.)
A school that counts Oprah Winfrey among its supporters, the Ron Clark Academy goes from fifth to eighth grade. While the annual tuition is $18,000, only 10 percent of students pay the full bill. Most attend on scholarship, paying on average $45 month.
This morning I attended the first day of classes at Ron Clark, which opened five years ago in a bleak corner of Atlanta behind the federal pen. I saw many lessons for public schools. Elements of the festive morning could easily be replicated. Much of the excitement was provided by volunteers, including a public high school band.
It was not money that distinguished the morning. It was creativity, energy and passion.
The school’s inspiration and namesake is Ron Clark, a former Disney Teacher of the Year who is part showman, drill sergeant and motivational speaker. (And he is a heck of a math teacher.)
Despite the rain, Clark and his staff — dressed like a team of IBM execs in natty black suits — gathered in front of the school at 7:15 a.m. to greet every arriving child. Behind them were 55 high-stepping and high-energy members of the Southwest DeKalb High School band and the school’s dance team. It was impossible not to sway to the band, but the Ron Clark staff did more than that.
They strutted. They swirled. They jumped. They got down — lower than most of us can manage at 7 in the morning, but they are a young and remarkably fit group. They sprang into full blown jubilation as each child stepped out of the car. They engulfed students in bear hugs, high-fived them, lifted them off the ground and twirled them. Parents drove off beaming. Some parents set up across the street with video cameras to record the celebration.
And that’s what the opening two hours were — a celebration. There was no sense these kids were marching off to the mines. The students walked or danced through the flanks of the SW DeKalb High School band and were given a school sweater before they entered the school. Inside the whimsical lobby with the famous two-story blue slide, students were met by fraternity and sorority members from Clark Atlanta and Georgia State, Falcon cheerleaders and the Morris Brown College drum line. The college students and cheerleaders taught the kids step and dance moves. The drum line provided the beat. Several photographers snapped their photos and videotaped them.
Once all 105 students were assembled, Ron Clark took the floor. He delivered a short inspirational speech before calling up the “House” leaders. Clark created four Houses within his school, ala Hogwarts and Harry Potter. The Houses serve as support systems and create an instant family for the nervous fifth graders. Each House leader welcomed the newly minted fifth graders with speeches, all of which were warm and well delivered. With great fanfare and hoopla, Clark then introduced the teachers and staff, who arrived in the lobby via the slide, tumbling onto the floor amid cheers from the delighted students.
Then came a surprise. The entire school staff spent several weeks learning their own step routines and launched into them. They traded their jackets and button-down Oxford shirts for cool T-shirts with fun nicknames on the back. (My favorite was the “N Forcer,” worn by the woman who maintains the front desk. ) Their clever and original raps and songs stressed academic excellence, team work and discipline. (You can watch the step routines here on YouTube.)
The eighth graders were held up as role models and school leaders and applauded as they raced down the hall through a paper banner. But the real excitement came next. On the landing of the coin staircase —coins from every nation are embedded in the steps to remind the students of the wider world — stood a big sorting spinning wheel with the four Houses. When their names were called by Clark, fifth graders ran to the wheel, spun it once and then rushed to the top of the stairs before the wheel slowed to a stop to reveal the name of their House.
The students took their first slide down the slide to be met at the bottom by their new House. As the children burst out of the slide, their House mates swept them up, cheering and shouting the new member’s name. The House leaders placed a House tie on the new member to replace the generic school tie. By 9:15, the students were sorted into their Houses and were likely convinced they were about to begin the best year of their lives.
I understand that public schools can’t do all these things, but they can borrow pieces of this strategy. A friend lamented to me last week that her daughter told her that she felt lost in her new middle school, that “no one in the school really sees me or even knows that I’m there.”
I doubt any child at Ron Clark feels that way, and that’s what we can learn from Clark and his school — you have to tell kids early on that they matter, that their education matters and that the staff will do whatever it takes to help them achieve.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog