I interviewed Atlanta educator Ron Clark six years ago while he was promoting a TNT movie “The Ron Clark Story,” starring Matthew Perry of “Friends” fame. He had written a book a few years earlier, which sold in huge numbers after Oprah Winfrey featured him.
Clark impressed me as a dedicated, imaginative and wholeheartedly energetic teacher who truly wants to change the world. To do so, he built the Ron Clark Academy in a sketchy part of Atlanta near a recycling plant and a prison. He raised all the funds privately five years ago and now his academy houses 80 middle school students and a staff of 20. Those students, who travel all over the world and learn math, science and history through music and other unconventional means, have become globally-infused, articulate young men and women, ambassadors for the Ron Clark way of learning. Thousands of teachers from around the world visit the academy, which is an incubator of sorts.
His third class of 20 graduated from four years at RCA this past Sunday with a three-hour ceremony focused heavily on their accomplishments but peppered with star power as well. Last year, Nelly and Fantasia came by. This year, KeKe Palmer (”True Jackson” on Nickelodeon, “Joyful Noise” and the upcoming “Ice Age: Continental Drift”) and rap star Romeo made surprise appearances.
More than 1,300 people showed up to the Ferst Center: family, staff, corporate donors, community supporters and educators from all over the city. Several of the students gave inspiring speeches. A few sang. One danced. Videos showed the students over the years and trips they took to New York City and Japan.
By next year, Clark hopes to have his next graduation in his own space. His school is trying to raise $4.8 million ($3 million so far) to create an educational training facility on land neighboring the Ron Clark Academy and donated by BB&T. If he can get the fundraising done by the fall, he said they can break ground in October and have it ready by June 2013.
Palmer, the actress, visited RCA in January and was so touched, she said she’d return in June for graduation. Clark didn’t think she’d actually do it but she not only showed up and performed “Man in the Mirror,” she hung around until the end to see the students personally.
Romeo brought his dad Master P to the event, since it was Father’s Day. Clark’s staff had reached out to Romeo’s manager. At first, it was a firm no but when he heard about it, he was all for it, already familiar with Clark’s school.
Nobody knew Romeo was going to be there except Clark and one other person. One of the students was told just before she came on stage and gave a feint: a video of Romeo wishing the graduates well. Instead, he showed up on stage. (Unfortunately, I got there too late to witness Romeo and Palmer’s performances.)