Reminder – I am not associated with ALA. I don’t work for them, represent them, and have no official relationship with them. I’m just a mom and writer who asks a TON of questions and enjoys sharing info and insights with other parents.
ICYMI – Check out our first article, Studying Up on Lexington’s New Charter School. It includes my initial thoughts and research, including links to information about American Leadership Academy, Core Knowledge Curriculum, and SC’s laws and regulations for charter schools.
Research, research, research
Opening this fall, American Leadership Academy in Lexington, SC has piqued the interest of thousands of parents around town. Choosing or changing your child’s learning environment is no easy task and requires what feels like endless research on a variety of topics – everything from big-picture topics such as curriculum and special services to more detailed information such as start and dismissal times. (Spoiler alert – the bell schedule has not been finalized or announced.)
Thousands of applications were submitted during open enrollment. Now that the lottery has been held and families notified if they’ve been accepted or placed on a waitlist, the urgency to answer many questions has definitely (understandably) increased.
In addition to diving into online research, I had lunch with ALA Lexington Director Dr. Michael Gordon-Smith and Lower School Director Sherry Herbst last week to discuss my personal questions for my family such as getting a better understanding of how ALA will implement Core Knowledge as their curriculum and answers to many other questions I’ve heard and read from parents in our community.
If you want to jump to information about ALA’s upcoming Virtual Town Hall, Information Sessions, and future updates, click here.
Let’s jump into YOUR questions first, since they are more “speed round” style. Then I’ll get into what my personal questions were and the conversation that came about.
Another disclaimer – these are my translations of answers and reasons. I didn’t take great notes because I was deep in an interesting conversation. Dr. Gordon-Smith did type out some of the answers and shared them in his first “Director Update” email to enrolled families, which you can see here.
1) You’ll probably see/hear a lot of “the plan is”. It’s their first year. With so many moving pieces, I think everyone is (understandably) hesitant to say “absolutely 100%” for a few things. Then there are others where it’s easily “absolutely 100%”.
2) You’ll probably also see/hear several “depending on interest”. To be completely honest, my knee-jerk reaction the first 5 times I heard that at the info session was some serious side-eye. But it really does make sense. They are investing the money, time, resources, and staff in the must-haves first. Then if a bunch of students say they are interested in XYZ in their enrollment information or even next year, they’ll explore and work towards adding that class, club, sport, etc. But it doesn’t make sense to offer eeeeeeverything and make those investments and THEN see what families want.
3) ALA is a PUBLIC charter school. They still have to follow state laws and regulations for public schools. For example – services for students with IEPs and 504s.
You Asked, So I Asked
- What will be the school hours? Not sure yet.
It’ll be somewhere in the 8-3 range. I know that sometimes there can be a huge life difference between 7:43 and 7:52 for parents. I also know that childcare directors all over town are getting asked if they will provide before and/or after-school child care for ALA. I think of my sweet friend Lauren at Empire Gymnastics every time I hear this question. She explained to me the other day how ASC directors have to figure out how ALA will fit into their bus routes among all the local schools – how many buses can make it where when with how many staff before they can tell parents what their plan is.
And on the ALA side, now that students are enrolling, they are looking at different factors to assess how many cars they think will need to be going in and out to which schools and other traffic-related stuff. They definitely know this is a top question, and I feel confident saying they’ll announce this sooner rather than later.
- What’s the uniform policy? Easy -> https://www.alaschools.org/about/uniforms
There will be a specific meeting for enrolled families to learn more about the uniform policy and apparel options at some point in the coming months.
- Will breakfast and lunch be available? Yes, breakfast and lunch will be available for purchase.
What about free lunch? In order for a school to receive funding to provide free or reduced meals to students, a certain percentage of the student population has to fall into certain guidelines. As the school receives enrollment paperwork and information, they’ll track this information to see where they stand on being able to offer free or reduced meals.
- Is construction on schedule? Yes! It’s actually ahead of schedule. I happened to drive by the other night and saw lights in the windows of both schools. That’s a very good sign for any construction project.
- Will there be dual enrollment courses offered this first year? That’s the plan!
ALA is building relationships with local colleges to build their DE courses and actively looking for teachers who are qualified for teaching college-level material to high school students.
- Gifted program for lower school? Yep!
Qualifications for gifted programs are actually set at the state level. So it’ll be the same as your local public school. https://ed.sc.gov/instruction/standards-learning/advanced-academic-programs/gifted-and-talented/
- What about children with IEPs and 504s? They will receive the services listed in their IEP or 504.
I have no idea where the rumor started that this was questionable. But it’s a federal and state situation, again. Any child with an IEP or 504 is entitled to receive the services listed in their documentation. You do need to get a copy to ALA as soon as you can, so they can plan accordingly.
- What is the “sick policy” and policy for “excused” absences? Well … I did ask, and I don’t remember the exact answer. (My ADHD is strong.)
They are open to working with parents within the parameters of state regulations. I’m not linking the state regulations, because they are weird, kind of vague, and make little sense outside of cases legit going to truancy court. I file this question under “not critical and can figure out when Parent Handbook for Lexington is done”.
- What foreign languages will be offered? Spanish, French, German, and Mandarin will be offered at the upper school. They are exploring adding foreign language as a “special” at the lower school.
- Will band, orchestra, chorus be offered? Yes
The plan includes band, orchestra, chorus for the upper school, grades 7 – 12. In the lower school, they have “specials” or what I’ve always called “related arts”. One of these will be music. And they are looking at offering band, orchestra, chorus in grades 5 & 6 as a “special”.
- And sports? Yep. Which sports? Well …
Lower school students will have the opportunity for intramural sports during PE.
They will offer traditional high school sports for the upper school students – football, basketball, baseball, cheer, track, etc. Dr. Gordon-Smith would like for Lexington to be the first ALA school to offer lacrosse! So he’s looking into that and archery, as well.
Now here’s where things get a little tricky. Someone asked at the info session I went to in November about leagues or something. I know competitive gymnastics, not high school team sports. So I researched. And to be honest, I’m still confused. So here’s the link to South Carolina High School Sports League by-laws – https://schsl.org/archives/7985
My (sketchy) understanding is that transfer students can’t play their first year at their new school. I *believe* the plan is to still have teams and have games outside of that and join SCHSL the following year. This is one of those situations where it is helpful that ALA has done this before and has experience getting new schools and sports programs up, running, and established. They know what to do. And this is definitely one of those situations where you should go straight to the source and reach out to ALA.
- What other competitive teams will there be? The plan is to expand the robotics class and speech and debate class to include competitive teams in the near future.
- When will the Parent Handbook be available specifically for the Lexington school? The board of directors still has to approve the final handbook. In the meantime, you can check out the handbooks for other locations to get an idea of what’s up. Keep in mind, some things may change specifically to Lexington.
This link is quite helpful! While the documents and resources are not identical for every location, checking out the various handbooks and other Parent Resources for different locations is insightful. I’m sure Lexington’s documents will be added once approved.
Now moving on to my personal questions and thoughts …
It’s All New to Everyone
One of my questions was how Core Knowledge would be implemented in a school full of students who were new to the curriculum. If you refer back to our first article, Studying Up on Lexington’s New Charter School, Core Knowledge offers a few ideas on how to handle this.
Not only is this curriculum new to practically every student, everything is new to every student. There will be children transferring from various districts, homeschools, and private schools. It’s all brand new to the kids and to the teachers. In some ways, that makes it easier.
Kids are less likely to feel awkward asking questions and trying to figure out where classes are, and what’s going on. What normally makes that awkward? The feeling that everyone else knows what’s going on. That’s not going to be the case.
I’ve never taught grade school. But I imagine there’s some sense of stability in planning for everyone to be in different places versus planning for most kids to be in one spot and having to figure out who is up to speed, who is pretending to be up to speed, and who is just completely on a different plane.
ALA and Core Knowledge each place emphasis on “differentiated instruction” in general. The first weeks of school or even the first year are definitely going to give them the opportunity to flex those muscles. This is another instance where Core Knowledge offering a number of resources for implementing its curriculum and ALA having experience opening brand-new schools should come in handy.
Just as Board Chair Reese McCurdy told me in November, Dr. Gordon-Smith was very forthcoming that there is going to be a learning curve for many students. This may also include having to do a little extra work outside of class. Parents and teachers will need to work together to work out the kinks and support their students.
My #1 Question: Literature and Sources
I love books! I have no idea how many we have around our house. One of the top reasons we homeschool is so I could easily offer rich literature, tons of perspectives and stories, use original documents, and show her the world even when we couldn’t leave Lexington. We have fascinating and sometimes hard conversations. I want her to see the richness of our history, the beauty of other cultures, and that the world is bigger than the little corner we live in.
While I am familiar with Core Knowledge’s Scope and Sequence, I originally reached out to Dr. Gordon-Smith for some confirmation and clarification on how closely ALA actually follows CK Language Arts and History in the lower school and what happens when they reach the upper school.
VERY long story short (and about 3,000 words into this article), I think they stick pretty darn close to it. The curriculum map isn’t 100% complete for Lexington, yet. They have to take the CK map and make any adjustments to make sure SC standards are fully met.
But it wasn’t even so much about the specific books or essays, my concern was really the overall philosophy and priorities. Helping children explore various experiences, cultures, the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful of history, using as many original documents and high-quality pieces of literature truly does seem to be the plan. And I’m here for it.
Again, it may not be an exact match to topics in specific grades, but you can see Core Knowledge’s Sequence for each grade on their website which includes the skills, key topics, literature, and resources. https://www.coreknowledge.org/our-approach/core-knowledge-sequence/
Listen and Learn
My grandmother used to tell me various versions of “You can’t listen when you’re talking.” She had another one about perception and reality that I really wish I could remember.
Listening to understand feels like a lost art these days, as does asking questions and trying to see things from a different perspective. These are things I try to instill in my kids.
And I think it ties in nicely to classical education.
How to Argue
We’ve homeschooled our youngest daughter since kindergarten, and I’ve always leaned toward classical education. Not only do I love using original documents and great literature, I also firmly believe facts are key, even if you don’t like them.
The way I think of classical education is:
- Facts are the foundation.
- Once you have solid facts, you can make connections between the facts.
- When you have solid foundational facts and can explore the connections and relationships between them, you can build solid decisions, arguments, etc.
That’s a very, very basic rough explanation of how classical education flows from kindergarten through graduation. Lower grades are all about learning facts. Middle grades are making connections between them. High school is about building logically-based arguments, critical analysis, and confident presentation. (I’m really not explaining this well. Check out Well-Trained Mind’s explanation.)
We’re preparing our kids to be adults. I see teaching my daughter how to research, how to see things from different perspectives, and how to make connections and spot gaps as one of the absolute most important things I can teach her. I’m teaching her how to make logical and smart decisions. I’d definitely call that a top-tier life skill to pass along and that will serve her well in all areas of her life.
Let’s address the elephant in the room. Lexington’s new charter school has more red, white, blue, and patriotic wording than a car dealership hosting a summer sale.
I don’t remember how the topic came up, but we did discuss “patriotism” at lunch. Dr. Gordon-Smith made a great analogy.
These are NOT direct quotes. This is an expanded and interpretive retelling of the analogy.
He said he sees patriotism as the love of your country. (Ok, cool, I’m following.)
Patriotism is loving your country like you love your family. (His family must be different than mine.)
You love your family and think they are awesome and special and amazing! (Sure, sure.)
No one’s family is perfect. (Preach, sir)
But you still love them madly. (Yeah, I do.)
You want to serve your family and love them. (Lord, I try.)
You don’t think your family is superior to all others. Every family is different. You can appreciate other families. (Yep, yep.)
You know it hasn’t always been sunshine and roses, and not everyone is a saint. But you love them and believe in them. You work to fix what needs fixing and nurture what’s working. (I feel ya!)
Patriotism is loving your country like you love your family. (This I can get behind.)
“We Know Who We Are”
Dr. Gordon-Smith said this multiple times at the info session in November. “We know who we are.”
There is stability and continuity in their philosophy and the environment they plan to build which I find fascinating. I guess I’m so used to seeing local public schools being pressured to change and shift in multiple ways. Sometimes they do; sometimes they don’t. There’s something reassuring about an organization that serves the public but also says, “Nope. Take it or leave it, but here’s who we are.”
Whether it’s the dress code, curriculum, or general concern over how the very first year of a new school is going to go, American Leadership Academy isn’t going to be the right fit for everyone. And it’s going to be a fantastic fit for some.
It’s definitely something different, but isn’t that really the whole point? To offer a choice that is different?
I can’t tell you whether you should apply, enroll, run. It really does depend on your family’s needs and priorities. I can only pass along information and get you in touch with the staff at ALA.
And remind you, whichever way you go, it’s all going to be okay.
Upcoming Information Session
Even being particularly proud of the research I’ve done, pleased with the conversations I’ve had, and more than happy to share everything with y’all … going straight to the source is always going to be my first suggestion. And it’s also why I include links to sources as often as possible.
ALA Lexington Virtual Town Hall
ALA Lexington Information Sessions
ALA has hosted information sessions over the last several months and has a couple still on the calendar for February and March. While they are “sold out” on Eventbrite, you can still go. I did. As long as there is physical room, they’ll be happy to have you, even if you did not register ahead of time.
Updates Moving Forward
Dr. Gordon-Smith sent out his first weekly Director Letters to accepted families this week. (Check your spam or promotions folder if you didn’t see it.) They will also be scheduling specific information sessions for enrolled families as they get closer to the start of school – Curriculum Night, Apparel Night, and one or two others.
Contact Information for ALA Lexington Staff
I can honestly say everyone I have spoken to from the ALA Lexington staff has been very kind, patient, and helpful. I’m sure they are SWAMPED with questions, meetings, to-dos, etc. But they’ve each been prompt to respond to any emails.
Dr. Michael Gordon – Smith, School Director: email@example.com
Heather Beatty, School Registrar: Heather.firstname.lastname@example.org
Katie Mattison, K-6 Registrar: Kathryn.Mattison@alalexington.org
Tonda Goines, 7-12 Registrar: Tonda.Goines@alalexington.org