Education

First year in the books, ACE welcomes first high school students

Even in its second year, there will be new ground to break for the Academy for Classical Education.

New sports, new lockers and a new grade level will all be part of the equation at ACE this year, but Principal Laura Perkins said the path won’t change from the inaugural year of operation.

“Just going in, we don’t ever want to lose our vision,” she said. “We don’t ever want to get away from being a place where teachers can teach and students will learn.”

To achieve that end, the school uses a teaching style that was once the norm for other public schools, including memorization, mnemonic devices and songs.

While those strategies are usually associated with younger pupils, Perkins said ACE’s faculty used them to get a group of older students up to speed. Noticing that about a dozen eighth-graders were falling behind in math, teachers decided to put them through a two-week program in the basics.

For the first week, third-grade teachers worked with the group on math fundamentals, including silly songs to learn the concepts. The students balked initially, but by the end of the week, they participated freely.

“Second week, the junior high math teachers came in. Huge difference,” Perkins said. “It was just a huge difference, and one of the boys told me, ‘I finally think I have a foundation.’’’

Even though ACE teachers have seen improvements in students in their own assessments, a more public pronouncement of the school’s strategies will come later this year when results for tests such as the Georgia Milestones come out.

Perkins remains confident in the way ACE operates, but she expressed anxiety about those scores.

“I think you’d be foolish to say, ‘Oh no, no, no, I’m not concerned,’’’ she said. “Because while we do teach to the standards and then wrap that classical around it, you’re always concerned when you change teaching styles if they’re going to measure up to what some testing center has decided is worth measuring. And we won’t know until we see what we’ve got.”

Regardless of the test scores, Perkins made sure to point out that the ACE model wouldn’t be changing.

“Because I don’t want to prepare kids for a test in the spring,” she said. “I want to prepare kids for life.”

HIGHER EXPECTATIONS

A part of getting students ready for the real world is an increased workload. The students are expected to complete homework assignments and study at a clip that caused at least one family to leave the school early in the year.

Most stayed, though, and several of the eighth-graders even wrote about their improved study habits and time-management skills in a year-end assignment about their experiences at ACE.

“Our job is to teach you how to work,” Perkins said. “You’re going to have to work your whole life.”

That increased workload has provided lessons for students and parents alike, PTO president Nancy Kistler said. Her son Ben Trofemuk is a rising eighth-grader, and Kistler said they learned what areas of education Ben was “deficient” in before enrolling at ACE.

She noted that the charter school assigned more homework than Ben had at Carter Elementary and Howard Middle but was pleased with how students have reacted.

“They expect so much more at this school, and the kids are rising to the challenge,” Kistler said.

Students aren’t the only ones expected to do more at ACE. Parents are required to log 20 volunteer hours at the school during the year.

Many of them do much more than that, Perkins said, but she also said the school was willing to work with parents who might not be able to get to the building during school hours due to work constraints. Some events are held on weekends, while other volunteer efforts can be done at home, such as stapling handouts.

Either way, Kistler said volunteers haven’t been hard to come by, a welcome change from stints in a similar position at other schools.

“As PTO president, I’ve never had this many volunteers,” she said. “They want to be here, and they want ACE to succeed.”

The teachers have also noticed the uptick in parental involvement, and it’s been a welcome surprise.

Macon native Mitchel Wachtel worked in Laurens County before coming to ACE last year, and he said he’s had to learn how to handle such a high number of involved parents.

“Honestly, it just gave me hope for the future,” he said. “It was just one of those things that you aren’t really sure how to accept because it’s not something you expect as a teacher.”

MOVING FORWARD

Wachtel will be one of the school’s first high school teachers as ACE adds ninth-grade classes for the upcoming school year. Perkins is excited about the addition, as the school is also bringing in lockers along with softball and swimming as team sports.

Before helping found ACE, Perkins was a principal at Westside High School.

“Everything excites me about starting our first high school class because that’s the world that I love,” she said. “I love the excitement of a high school. I love the challenges of a high school.”

Related to that, Perkins said ACE is about $500,000 away from being able to renovate its gym to competitive standards for future athletic endeavors.

The school is slated to have 1,127 students this year, well up from the 757 pupils that it finished with last school year.

Part of that is because of an additional grade of students, but it’s still up from the projections listed in ACE’s charter applications, and 900 more students are on a waiting list.

Demographics remain something of a concern, though, as about 72 percent of the student body is white. Bibb County schools are about 18 percent white at the same grade levels, but Perkins said the school has made efforts to reach every part of the county.

“It’s still a school of choice, so I can’t hold a gun to anybody’s head and say, ‘You better apply,’’’ she said. “The appeal has to be there.”

And the appeal has been there for plenty of students across the county. Perkins counts the very fact that the school is progressing at or ahead of schedule as its biggest success.

“I think establishing that a school could open in the time frame that it was established, the vision that was established and from day one to the last day, we continued walking that same vision,” she said.

To contact writer Jeremy Timmerman, call 744-4331 or find him on Twitternote>

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