A new charter school is coming to Lexington, and the area is buzzing with questions, opinions, and anticipation.
Opening fall of 2023, American Leadership Academy is under construction on S Lake Dr (Hwy 6) near Industrial Blvd., just down from I-20. Grades K – 6 will be at the Lower School at 115 Innovation Place and grades 7 – 12 at the Upper School at 107 Innovation Place.
This is the first of two articles about ALA Lexington. For even more info, check out Learning More about American Leadership Academy.
Like most people I’ve spoken to, I learned of the school through Facebook posts and the banner at the construction site. I noticed that the majority of comments on social media were either questions about enrollment or excitement for enrollment. I found it curious that there were little to no questions about staff, teachers, extracurriculars, SpEd supports, and/or curriculum. Things that are usually at the top of people’s concerns, considerations, or complaints about our local public schools, specifically Lexington One.
I went digging and compiled a TON of information, citations, links, etc to share on a number of topics.
Information from the website
The one-page of the ALA website specific to the new Lexington, SC location has some initial information, including a welcome section that confirms they are opening fall of 2023 and the summary:
“Built on a foundation of patriotism and RAISE leadership values, ALA combines academic excellence and character development to create an exceptional educational experience where students can grow as leaders in the classroom and in their community. Students from kindergarten through 12th grade can thrive in a moral and wholesome environment complete with excelling academics, sports, fine arts, extracurriculars, and specialty programs including entrepreneurship and financial literacy for high school students.”
A box in the middle caught my eye as curriculum is at the top of my list of questions.
“ALA’s highly qualified teachers and staff work hard to engage our students through Core Knowledge (not Common Core) curriculum for comprehensive, in-depth learning.”
This piqued my curiosity even more as it’s commonly thought of as diverse and inclusive in the homeschool world from which I know it, which is great! But even the mention of “diversity” has, in recent years, become connotatively political.
Almost every parent I have talked to says that the wording of their marketing has been the core of their initial opinion, whether excited or skeptical. Their verbiage (“patriotic”, “moral”, “wholesome”, etc) has, also in recent years, become connotatively political.
So I kept researching and gathering information.
I “crashed” an information session
I signed up for the email updates but never really received any information. Once I learned of the information sessions, all 4 published dates were already showing “sold out” on Eventbrite. Never one to give up, I just went. (Turns out that’s totally okay.)
Dr. Michael Gordon-Smith, School Director, led the meeting and presentation. There were also several board members present and another man from ALA in Arizona whose name I did not catch.
ALA is a “product”
That was their words, not mine. But it makes sense. They spoke about how the school is a product and compared working with the parents as providing good customer service. By providing this educational product, they want to “operate differently”.
The buildings are coming along nicely. The Lower School will be 63,000 sqft. The Upper School will be about 73,000 sqft. Quickly looking at the pictures on the screen, I think there will be around 45 rooms in each? Each school, I believe, is two stories. The campus will have a full size football field and baseball field.
R.A.I.S.E. values & school culture
They went over the R.A.I.S.E. values (respect, accountability, integrity, service, and excellence) and other information that is on the website.
“We want to provide a rigorous academic curriculum that exceeds state standards. We’ve got a values based education built on our RAISE values. We have a traditional classroom approach. And, of course, a moral and wholesome environment.” – Dr. Gordon-Smith
ALA is a public charter school
ALA is a SC charter school and not operated by the local government school district. It is governed by the Board of Directors that oversees the educational, legal, and financial obligations of the school. The BOD contracts with Charter One to manage and operate the school.
It is a public, tuition-free school and must follow South Carolina education laws and regulations.
Grade 7-12 offers “a full high school experience”, AP, dual enrollment, honors classes, classes on entrepreneurship, leadership, and financial literacy, and a fine arts program.
Why is ALA so successful, high demand?
Dr. Gordon-Smith explains, “At American Leadership Academy, we know exactly who we are. We know exactly who we are. We know exactly what we offer. Most educational institutions are driven by the last whim and educational fad. Now there are some tried and true educational policies that we abide by, and we know work. And we don’t compromise on those, because we know exactly who we are, exactly who we serve, and exactly how we want to help.”
Community Impact & Benefit:
- Best in class education
- Tuition free public charter school
- Academic excellence
- Character Development
- Exceptional education experience
Building character through building relationships and letting kids know they care.
Questions from the audience
The meeting then opened for questions from the standing-room-only audience, and there were many hands raised quickly. Below is a summary of information based on the answers that were given to audience members’ questions.
Enrollment and the lottery
Open enrollment will run from Nov 15 – Jan 15. Their projected initial enrollment across K-12 is 1925 students. They did not have a clear answer on how many kids per grade. It sounds like it will be slightly flexible based on applications per grade.
If they receive more applications than spaces available, all applications are entered into a lottery. It is NOT first-come, first-served. As long as you apply during open enrollment, it doesn’t matter if you apply Nov 15th or Jan 12th.
Siblings are not automatically enrolled. They said they realize this would be ideal, but the logistics are just too complicated. However, siblings will be given priority on any waitlists.
The lottery will be “held” towards the end of Jan. They will then spend several days contacting families who did get a spot. Once that family has been contacted, they have 10 days to decide, complete, and submit all needed documentation.
In future years, all returning students will be automatically re-enrolled. There is no waitlist for future years that you can join now.
There are no “requirements” to attend other than being an SC resident who can attend public school.
“We do have classes that can be as large as 30 and classes as small as 8 sometimes.”
– Dr. Gordon-Smith
While the specific state law was not discussed during the meeting, I’ve included it here.
(5) in its discretion hire noncertified teachers in a ratio of up to twenty-five percent of its entire teacher staff; however, if it is a converted charter school, it shall hire in its discretion noncertified teachers in a ratio of up to ten percent of its entire teacher staff. However, in either a new or converted charter school, a teacher teaching in the core academic areas as defined by the federal No Child Left Behind law must be certified in those areas or possess a baccalaureate or graduate degree in the subject he or she is hired to teach. Part-time noncertified teachers are considered pro rata in calculating this percentage based on the hours which they are expected to teach;
Charter school vs traditional local school
A charter school contracts with the state to provide educational services. A lot of charter schools have different niches. The ALA contract with the state is that they want to provide a full high school experience in a moral and wholesome and safe environment for 4 year students.
They are funded through the state. They do not receive county funding. They are not governed by the local school board or district. They still have to follow the rules of the state. There are state education laws and requirements that they still have to abide by. https://www.scstatehouse.gov/code/t59c040.php
I didn’t catch what the exact question was. But Dr. Gordon-Smith said there is a conduct matrix on the website that stipulates what the discipline process is for each school. Here is a link I found to the conduct matrix for an ALA school in NC.
He explained that if an incident reaches a “disciplinary hearing”, he is thinking about the promise that he’s made to the families of the school to maintain the moral and wholesome environment. Prior to a disciplinary hearing, he is working with the student and their family to correct or improve any issues and behaviors before it reaches the point of a hearing. And that there are definitely some things that are just a hard line in the sand.
“We want our students to be successful. Our assistant directors are also trained to help our teachers become the best teachers possible, as well. So they work with them to help them provide the needs of the students as help.” – Dr. Gordon-Smith
And that concludes the main part of the meeting
At 8pm, they wrapped up the main part of the meeting. They did say that staff and board members would be happy to answer questions individually. As all meeting info said the meeting would be from 7 – 8:30, there was some confusion and disappointment from the parents. But true to their word, the staff and board stayed to answer questions. Some friends and I hung back and chatted while we waited on someone to be available, as they all had been swarmed by parents. After a few minutes, board chair Reese McCurdy was free and happily agreed to talk with us.
The curriculum question
Upon reflection, I was not nearly as clear as I could have been in my question. This was not hard-hitting journalism over here.
I brought up the topic of curriculum, and Mr. McCurdy confirmed that the curriculum for the Lower School is Core Knowledge and that everything beyond that is built off of Core Knowledge and the same principles.
“It’s meant to start down there and work its way through.”
He acknowledged Core Knowledge is different from what people are used to in local public schools, but believes it’ll change the environment in a positive and productive way.
I would also like to take a second and thank Mr. McCurdy for his time. He really was just as nice and patient as he could be with me and the other parents asking him questions. The ADHD was in full force that night and he kept up with my fast-talking and topic-hopping like a champ.
Core Knowledge Curriculum Sequencing and Content
Core Knowledge Curriculum is a content-rich curriculum based on a specific knowledge-building sequence, the Core Knowledge Sequence which was updated just this year.
“Our original mission, Excellence and Equity for All Children, remains unchanged. The simple, yet powerful underlying premise of Core Knowledge, that knowledge builds on knowledge, still fuels our mission.
Many of the changes made in this latest edition reflect new findings from cognitive research, current standards, and a concerted effort to incorporate more inclusive representation of the peoples and cultures that have shaped the world into what we know today, while still holding true to the idea there is a body of lasting knowledge and skills that form the core of a strong Preschool through Grade 8 curriculum. This includes the fundamentals of science, basic principles of government, important events in history, essential elements of mathematics, widely acknowledged masterpieces of art and music from around the world, and stories and poems passed down from generation to generation. This explicit identification of what children should learn at each grade level ensures a coherent approach to building knowledge across all grade levels, making efficient and effective use of instructional time.“
One of the highlighted revisions that caught my attention and made my eyes light up (in a very good way) from their email newsletter announcing the release of the 2023 Core Knowledge Sequence:
“Offering a renewed commitment to represent the diverse peoples and cultures of the past and present, who enriched our society:
– Highlighting diverse cultural contributions across subjects and grades in the Sequence not only offers students the opportunity to see themselves in the curriculum, it also builds tolerance and appreciation of people different from themselves. Being fully prepared to engage and communicate with peers within this country and around the world requires a detailed, rich knowledge of the ways in which different civilizations have enriched each other across time. The updated Sequence reflects an effort to include more voices in America’s story and the development of today’s world.”
A strong background of knowledge is the cornerstone for successful learning. Facts, dates, names and events provide students with essential building blocks to understanding literature, geography, history and science – creating a platform on which more complex knowledge can be built. This growing wealth of knowledge to draw on is an invaluable asset for students. It allows them to form reasoned opinions, make convincing arguments, and gain deeper insight into the world around them.
Having strong background knowledge increases reading ability, interest in school, memory capacity and helps build up their understanding of abstract concepts; all crucial skills needed by today’s thinkers.
The Core Knowledge Sequence provides a grade-by-grade sequence of specific information and topics to be taught in grades K-8 across history, geography, literature, visual arts, music, language arts, science and math.
Knowledge-Based Schooling: From Ideas to Practice
Both the realities of cognitive science and the ideals of social justice support the need for knowledge-based schooling. Cognitive science confirms these facts:
- Children can advance educationally only when they have the expected prior knowledge.
- They can become better readers only by building extensive knowledge of the world.
- They can become effective members of the wider society only by sharing the knowledge taken for granted by literate writers and speakers in that society.
Social justice demands that we give all children equal access to important shared knowledge. Only by specifying the knowledge that all children should share can we guarantee equal access to that knowledge.
Learn more about the Core Knowledge Sequence—our effort (and the result of extensive research and consensus-building) to describe and state the specific core of shared knowledge that children should learn in U.S. schools from preschool through grade eight.
Explore the growing body of materials for teachers and students that we have created and make freely available to support knowledge-based schooling.
While Core Knowledge does not openly state it is a classical education model curriculum, it matches the same philosophy.
“A classical education, then, has two important aspects. It is language-focused. And it follows a specific three-part pattern: the mind must be first supplied with facts and images, then given the logical tools for organization of facts, and finally equipped to express conclusions.
But that isn’t all. To the classical mind, all knowledge is interrelated. Astronomy (for example) isn’t studied in isolation; it’s learned along with the history of scientific discovery, which leads into the church’s relationship to science and from there to the intricacies of medieval church history. The reading of the Odyssey leads the student into the consideration of Greek history, the nature of heroism, the development of the epic, and man’s understanding of the divine.
This is easier said than done. The world is full of knowledge, and finding the links between fields of study can be a mind-twisting task. A classical education meets this challenge by taking history as its organizing outline — beginning with the ancients and progressing forward to the moderns in history, science, literature, art and music.”
- Susan Wise Bauer, The Well-Trained Mind
Implementing Core Knowledge at a brand new school
How will Core Knowledge be implemented at a brand new school with children from a variety of educational backgrounds? I have no idea. But Core Knowledge does offer suggestions on their website, and I’m sure ALA has a plan.
“Other schools choose to begin a school-wide implementation across all grade levels simultaneously. Schools have been successful implementing in this way by explicitly recognizing that students in the upper grade levels have not benefited from a sequential, grade by grade introduction to the topics of the Sequence; background knowledge that would normally be taken for granted at a given grade level must be explicitly taught. These schools carefully craft their curriculum plans to incorporate time for “back-teaching” earlier topics, building background knowledge that students would normally have already received. You can create a list of prior topics by reviewing those listed for the earlier grades in the Sequence. Another option is to assign summer reading (with parents) from the grader series books. Also, if you have new students transferring into your Core Knowledge school, they should jump right in—you can fill in the missing background knowledge as you would with any new student.”
“Thoughtfully constructed and designed like a story, Eureka Math is meticulously coherent, with an intense focus on key concepts that layer over time, creating enduring knowledge. Students gain a complete body of math knowledge, not just a discrete set of skills. They use the same models and problem-solving methods from grade to grade, so math concepts stay with them, year after year.”
I have no idea what other curriculum they use. However, based on Core Knowledge, all signs point to continuing with a classic educational model which would be building knowledge, content-rich, making connections between subjects and topics, and promoting critical thinking.
So what is my opinion?
First let me make clear, I think Lexington One is a great school district. Yes, there are areas for improvement. One of which is the disparity among some of the schools. But overall, we have really good schools in Lexington County.
Schools serve entire communities. The children they are educating will become our community leaders, service providers, first responders, neighbors. I’d really prefer my doctor, my electrician, and my council members to be smart, kind, respectful, open-minded people over the next few decades.
There are still gaps in the picture. The administrators and teachers will be a piece. Specific information on what the plan is for children that need extra support. What will the specific exploratory, extra-curricular options be? But I think they still have a long way to go over the next several months and more information will come together as they work towards the next school year.
Another “time will tell” aspect is their “customer service” with parents. How will they best serve students and handle things when not all parents see eye-to-eye? And honestly, how will parents handle things when they disagree with content or procedures? This is where I believe being an “option” is a good thing. Not that parents don’t have choices now but having an additional “free” public school option could be very beneficial.
I’m still baffled by the amount of eagerness from parents that show little to no indication of doing research beyond the website homepage. Of course, I have no concrete information about what research they have done. But being something of an online sociologist observing patterns and behaviors for over 12 years, especially of those around Lexington, SC, I’d bet money I’m right. But again, time will tell once their children are a few months into school and how they adjust to the “new” content and style.
Overall, I’m optimistic. I’m a fan of classical education. I’m a fan of Core Knowledge and the emphasis on diversity and equity. I’m a fan of the idea of incorporating character building into education and supporting the growth of children academically, socially, and emotionally.
And the political connotation of things that I mentioned about 4,000 words ago? I’m cautiously optimistic and praying that it’s what we need more of – purple.
This is the first of two articles about ALA Lexington. For even more info, check out Learning More about American Leadership Academy.