Hear an audio version of this post here

Please understand that I am not a crier. So, when I admit that I was moved to tears not one, not two, but multiple times at the Ron Clark Academy (RCA), I am admitting to witnessing something powerfully impactful to me as an educator and leader.

I could write this post about the beautiful aesthetics of the building or the themed classrooms alone, but I won’t. There is no denying that the building is an educational wonderland; however, what moved me was the passion and dedication to excellence that bleeds through the entire school. It was evident in the classroom visits and mini sessions with teachers and even in talking to the students. It was clear to see that #MakingSchoolsMagical was more about creating educational learning experiences for 5th through 8th grade students that would change their lives.

The final day of our two-day visit was just as powerful as the first day. My group started out with Ron Clark sharing with us about some of the key beliefs and practices that ground their work at RCA.  He was not only entertaining but insightful and honest. He said so many things that are worth you visiting to hear them for yourself but he talked to us about working with parents, being a professional not only in how we act, speak, teach, and dress but in our attitude as well.

We had several classroom visits and workshops with RCA’s teachers and students. Each day we ate lunch with their scholars and got to hear from both teachers and students about what makes RCA magical. The teachers and students both said the same thing but in different ways. The common threads I heard were relationships and high expectations.

How is what RCA does different from what we try to do in most traditional settings? I had my five-hour drive back to North Carolina to think about it. Listening to the staff and students at RCA talk about relationships was interesting because it seemed to encompass so much more than just getting to know students. It’s about creating a feeling of connectedness that is individualized from the moment you and your family are welcomed to the academy by dancing down the red carpet the first time and extends to their school-wide house system. It’s about creating house cheers, classroom chants, and other ways to celebrate student success. It’s about learning how to present your best self and being valued for your hand shake, poise, and ability to share your ideas. In this environment, relationships are a robust set of ideas, actions, and values that make both students and adults better. I think that in traditional settings the idea of relationships is very flat. What could happen if we expanded our thinking to include a more dynamic definition of relationship building?

High expectations for students and staff were clear, specific, consistent and enforced. Students were given ownership of their education and held accountable for conducting themselves in ways the produced success.  Tracking, which is paying a high level of attention to the person speaking (teacher or student), is one expectation across every classroom. Engaging, rigorous, standard based lessons that are relevant and incorporate both teacher and student passions were another high expectation that has a direct translation to student achievement and success. The lessons help make schools magical places of learning and growth for students. Just think what could be if we widened and deepened our definitions of relationships and high expectations? In addition, if in the words of Ron Clark, we empowered more teachers to be “willing to go for it and who don’t dim their light” and continue to do what’s right for kids. Let’s be determined to make schools magical so that students can be filled with as much excitement at school as the ones are in this video.