Athens City Schools to restructure elementary schools into academies

ATHENS, Ala. - Athens City Schools is working toward a new model for education in its elementary schools: academies.

The idea is to educate students with the same curriculum, but an added twist of a theme.

What is an elementary academy?

"Most people equate it to being a magnet," Superintendent Trey Holladay summarized.

The elementary schools would stay zoned the same, but each school would become an academy. Students can enroll in their zoned academy, or transfer to a different academy based on space availability. Transportation will be provided if students wish to go out-of-zone.

Possible themes the district identified include:

  • Fine arts
  • Health and medical
  • Computer science
  • Classical studies (social studies and humanities)
  • Entrepreneurship
  • Environmental studies

Superintendent Holladay said the district already has one academy called SPARK at James L. Cowart Elementary, which deals with STEM disciplines. That academy will remain. The district will choose four other themes from the above list to go toward each remaining elementary school and one unbuilt elementary school.

The district posted this survey to help narrow down the themes.

The academies would continue offering the curriculum students need, like English, math, science, social studies, music, art and physical education. But there would be other "experimental learning opportunities infused with imagination" in the mix, according to a district handout. The academies will have an advisory council of parents, community members, faculty and other stakeholders. There will be professional training for academy teachers too.

What's next?

They want to have the themes solidified by the May 11 Board of Education meeting.

Holladay said the board will decide the themes with the student population in mind: "What we will try to look at is what we think will help disperse and diversify all the schools," he explained.

After the themes are decided, Holladay said the school system, teachers and parents will work together to develop them. They have 15 months to make the plan a reality and train faculty before the academy model begins in the Fall of 2018 school year.

Holladay responded to a question some parents had about the themes: would this mean students will have to choose their career field at five years old?

"100 percent no," he said, noting that the curriculum based on any theme would be age-appropriate and not laser-focused on a profession. "It's more like, when you're a kid playing doctor. We want to be able to use play as part of how we teach. So the hands-on engagement, project-based problem-solving, collaborative model of working together is important to teach earlier," he said.

Why is this good for Athens?

Leaders told a group of parents and faculty at an information session Tuesday that the district needs to diversify and stay competitive with larger neighboring districts. Holladay says this model brings innovation and school choice.

"They can go to a different zoned school and get what they desire," he said.

Athens City Schools wants the parents to imagine the possibilities. They understand some details have yet to be determined because the idea is still being developed.

Holladay thinks this is the best way to propel Athens to the top.

"We want to be an innovative school system," he said. "We see it as a positive thing that lets us compete for the best families and students moving into the area."