Thursday, June 7, 2012

My Visit To Wonderland: The Ron Clark Academy

When I signed up to attend teacher training at the Ron Clark Academy, I had no idea how much this visit would impact me.  I wasn't sure what to expect.  I mean, I knew who Ron Clark was-- I'd read The Essential 55 (several years ago), and I had seen news clips of his students performing on various news programs.  I knew there had been a movie made about him.  I even followed @ronclarkacademy on Twitter.  However, I was completely unprepared for the pure joy I felt the moment I entered RCA and the lasting effect this visit has had on me.  I felt as if I had stepped into a magic wonderland--the type of school we educators can only dream of.

My day began by driving into what appeared to be a sketchy area of Atlanta.  I pulled into the parking lot across the road from the school at 7:45.  We had been instructed to wait until 8:15 to approach the gate of the school, so I sat patiently waiting in my car.  This school looked incredibly out of place for the area.  The large wrought iron entry gate was topped by an iron archway that read "Altruismo, Isibindi, Nukumori, Reveur, Pinal, and Amistad."  Intriguing, I thought.  I wondered what those words represented.

I continued sitting in my car and observed students dressed in their school uniforms piling out of their parents' vehicles rushing to get inside.  I observed the security guard  happily opening the large gate for staff members as they arrived and parked inside the compound.  I also began to see other educators arriving for our first day of training.  As I sat there waiting, I began to wonder...What would this day be like?  What will they possibly have us do over the course of 2 days?  What impact will this experience have on me?  I really hoped that there would be something I could take from this training that would have a meaningful impact.  I had no idea what was in store for me!

At 8:15, our facilitator told us we could enter the gate.  We were given name tags and instructed to go inside the building that houses the school library.  Upon entering, I knew this was not going to be your typical school, your typical training, your typical anything--and I was pumped!  Students were lined around the perimeter of the library.  In the center, there was a giant trampoline, complete with a hydraulic harness.  I instantly recognized Kim Bearden (whom I also follow on Twitter @kimbearden).  She is the co-founder of the Ron Clark Academy.  Kim was standing on the trampoline, hand on the trigger of the harness as a student enthusiastically jumped high in the air.  Music blared from the sound system, students were singing and dancing, every single person had a huge smile on their face.  Two students instantly came up to me and shook my hand, introduced themselves, asked my name, where I was from, and what brought me to their school.  Each of the students was beaming and made me feel like they were waiting for me to arrive--that they had a genuine interest in me. They carried on a great conversation with me, and as we talked I noticed that some of the other educators had been coaxed into getting into the contraption and jump to the music.  One of the students I was chatting with took me by the hand and said, "C'mon, you just have to try out our trampoline.  It is the best."  I said, "I don't know if I really want to do that."  However, the look on her face sold me and the next thing I knew I was kicking off my pumps, getting strapped into the harness, jumping to the beat of the music, and having a BLAST!

After our initial welcome, Ms. Bearden dismissed the students and then proceeded to welcome us to the school and tell us a little bit about what they stood for and what we could expect over the course of our training.  Then we were directed to head over to the main building.  She didn't have to tell me twice!  I quickly walked outside and ended up being the very first person to go in.  Again, I was not expecting what awaited.  Rihanna's "We Found Love" was blaring from the sound system, all RCA students were in the lobby clapping, dancing, singing and smiling.  As I made my way in, a beautiful young lady came and took me by the hand.  We danced our way through the lobby and standing in the center of the lobby was none other than Ron Clark, also clapping, singing, and smiling.  We made eye contact, I waved to him like a starstruck school girl, and joined the cluster of students.  As everyone entered, we all continued singing and clapping.  It was a grand entrance!  They really know how to make you feel welcome!

Then it was Ron's turn to welcome us to his school.  He jumped up on the counter and began to speak to us about his passion for teaching, his school, and his desire to revolutionize education.  He made us feel like we were about to be a part of something magical.  And believe me, he did not disappoint!

Over the course of two days, I got to observe Ron Clark, Kim Bearden, Adam Dovico, Gina Coss, Sarah Hildebrand, and Ken Townsel teach their classes.  I participated in a "Blues" workshop with Susan Barnes.  And each of the aforementioned teachers also did breakout workshops with us on how to implement some of the creative ideas at RCA in our own classrooms and schools.  I was thoroughly inspired by each of these educator's creativity, their commitment to excellence, their high standards, and their love for their students. They all teach with passion, integrity, and a desire to see each of their students achieve to their highest potential.  I absolutely fell in love with each and every staff member and student I came into contact with.  I even became "slide certified" at the end of the first day, complete with a huge ceremony that involved music, dancing, cheering, and one speedy blue slide.  (Yes, each of us educators got to take a ride on "big blue.")   It truly felt like "Wonderland."

I also learned what the words on the iron gate represented--four of the words were the names of the "Houses" that each RCA student belongs to.  At RCA, when students are welcomed to school, they are selected randomly into a House.  Altruismo, Amistad, Isibindi, and Reveur are the four houses.  Each house holds special meaning and serves as an instant family for the students at RCA.  The houses compete for house championship points by earning points for academics, behavior, manners, and accomplishments.  A video screen in the main hallway keeps score for each team, with one team being crowned House Champions at the end of the school year.  Students in each house proudly wear the crest of their house on their uniforms and are proud to tell you all about their house, what it represents, and where they are in regard to the House Championship.

At the end of the second day of training, we were given the opportunity to have Ron sign books, posters, t-shirts, etc. and have our photos taken with him.  I was thrilled to be able to interact with him personally.  As I approached him, I felt the inner starstruck schoolgirl again, but I kept my composure.  As I introduced myself to him again, he was so genuine and kind.  He signed my copy of The End of Molasses Classes, and his final message to me is inscribed on the inside of my treasured book-- "Lead with passion."  I plan to do just that!  (And, by the way, I plan to someday cross paths with Mr. Clark again.  I am  making it my personal goal to work with him in some capacity in the future.)


  1. How great that you are participating in the teachers write! Camp! Also, that you are modeling improving your writing by blogging! Thanks for sharing about your experience!

  2. It all boils down to-can what these kids learn be used in the real world. Anyone can make up a rap song and spout out the words, like me singing a French song even though I don't know what I'm saying. I'd like to know how many of these students have successfully finished college.

  3. Amazing what corporate sponsorship can provide. It could change public education too. I wonder if they are using the common core.