A visit to the Ron Clark Academy

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(Photo credit: Ron Clark Academy)

Every now and then you have an experience in your life that has such an impact on you that you feel at a loss for words. As I sit in the Atlanta airport now waiting for my flight back to Toronto, I’m trying to process the past few hours that had my emotions fluctuating from anticipation to delight to incredulousness to gratitude to hopefulness and finally, to tears of joy.

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(Photo credit: Ron Clark Academy)

You see, I just completed a full-day teacher-training session at the Ron Clark Academy in inner city Atlanta. Now, if you are an educator, you have probably heard of this school with its outstanding academic reputation and significant social media presence. It was created by two teachers, Ron Clark and Kim Beardon, who had a revolutionary idea: to create a school where academic rigour meets compassion with an emphasis on producing graduates with strong leadership qualities. Oh, and they made it a fun learning environment too, by encouraging dance, songs and chants to complement the classroom experience and to drive home the lessons taught. The school has 120 students: 4 classes (5th, 6th, 7th, 8th) with 30 students per class.


(RCA video collaboration with Ludicrous for Super Bowl 2019)

If it sounds too good to be true, it almost is. It’s a very strange sensation because you find yourself experiencing the day almost in a dazed state, as you try to absorb all the details of this spectacular school. It’s like a fantasy come to life: a school so special that you couldn’t even imagine it in your wildest dream.

Atrium and Stairway

(Photo courtesy JeDunn.com)

Upon entering the school’s front door, you (along with hundreds of other educators, called “Guests”) are met by a live school rock band and dancing students, teachers and administrators who greet you warmly with smiles. You are whisked inside and you are immediately struck by the decor: Modeled after Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School, there are massive dragons, suits of armour, and windy staircases everywhere. The four House plaques are prominently displayed on the walls, and students are immaculately groomed in crisp, clean uniforms. The students appear to be almost too happy and charismatic to be believable, but over the course of the day, you realize that everything about this school is 100% authentic.

(Ron Clark, charismatic principal of the RCA and creator of the viral Instagram hashtag #GradingPapersChallenge)

The first session of the day is in the gym with Mr. Clark who talks with a charming southern drawl and explains the genesis and philosophy of the school while thoroughly entertaining us with hilarious anecdotes about students, teachers and parents. He is, hands down, one of the best speakers I have ever seen, often reminding us about the importance of raising the bar of expectations in our classrooms and building strong relationships with students and their families. He recommends visiting students and their families in their own homes at the beginning of the year to get a sense of their environment and to let parents know that “As a team, you and I will work together to ensure that your child will achieve success.”

Math

(Mr. Clark’s math class. RCA teachers and students often stand on tables to make a point or talk to each other.)

When the school tour begins, the visiting teachers are split into groups and ushered into different classrooms to watch RCA teachers and students in action. It’s a smooth transition, with guides leading the way like clockwork. In every class we visited, we were invited to join the students to solve problems together and to discuss the lessons taught. Eventually it dawns on you that not only are these students delightful, polite, gracious, and kind, they are also brilliant, eloquent, articulate and self-confident. In all of the classes I observed, the teacher was merely a mediator or instigator, posing questions to the students and letting them figure out the answers on their own. The students (NOT the teacher) would explain to their classmates the solutions they came up with and their classmates were invited to critique their solutions and to add suggestions of their own. RCA students are extremely supportive of one another and constantly cheer each other on and offer encouragement. I’ve never seen anything like it. This is student-centred learning at its very best.

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(My lunch companions, Zoe and Zoey. Students at RCA have to earn their personalized jackets by being exemplary students.)

At the end of the day, all visiting teachers were invited to hurl themselves down the blue RCA slide to become “Slide Certified”, with loud music, dancing, and celebration all around. The farewell school song the students sang for us at the end brought me to tears as a small girl who introduced herself as “Halle, as in Halle Berry” clasped my hands and danced with me, truly exemplifying the warmth of the RCA family.

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(Me and my dancing partner, Halle.)

There is so much more I can write about the this unique school. But friends, it really has to be experienced to be believed. Please do not wait for a reason to go to Atlanta. Book your trip today and allow your eyes to be opened to what every student, teacher and school has the potential to be. I guarantee that you will not be disappointed and it could very easily change the way you teach forever.

(House dance competition at the end of the day.)

Watch the short documentary above about “The Amazing Shake”, a competition started by the Ron Clark Academy.  This competition places an emphasis on teaching students manners, discipline, respect, and professional conduct. Students prepare by learning the nuances of professional human interaction such as how to give a proper handshake, how to “work a room,” how to give a successful interview, and how to remain composed under pressure.

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