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As you drive by some of metro Atlanta’s private schools, you might wonder what’s going on. On the outside, things may look a bit different, with construction equipment dotting the landscape and new structural frames rising into the sky. And on the inside, you probably don’t even realize the changes taking place, as curriculum and teaching methods are adapted and adjusted in new and innovative ways. Together, all of these transformations—from the inside out—indicate one thing: the area’s private and independent schools are so dedicated to creating dynamic learning environments that they are willing to make serious room for improvement. Here, KNOWAtlanta looks at just a few of the changes that have been—and are being—made at a number of Atlanta’s most highly regarded private academies.
Whitefield Academy: Constructing the Future
Whitefield Academy Brostrand Hall groundbreaking
For 17 years, the more than 300 Lower School students of Whitefield Academy occupied five separate modular buildings connected by covered walkways. Each building housed one grade level for the Pre-K through fourth grade students, and the classrooms were beginning to show their age. However, by the start of school in August 2020, those current students, as well as incoming pupils, will enjoy learning in a brand new Lower School building: Brostrand Hall. Made possible by the ongoing “Leaving a Legacy” fundraising campaign that aims to raise $24 million for an array of school enhancements, the new building will include 19 new classrooms, a Lower School dining space with a full commercial kitchen, a state-of-the-art media center, administrative offices, open-air and covered outdoor play areas and more.
“We are looking forward to being under one roof in a modern and vibrant space with new furnishings. The one-building design gives us an opportunity to showcase the creativity and excellence of our students and foster a culture of collaboration among all grade levels,” says Lower School Principal Maryellen Berry. “I am looking forward to witnessing the excitement and pride of students and teachers when they gain access to the work of each other on a daily basis.”
Whitefield Academy, a Christ-centered preparatory school serving 850 students in Smyrna, recently broke ground on the 40,000-square-foot building, which will be named in honor of former Lower School Principal Jeannie Brostrand, who retired in 2018. It will mirror the academic facilities elsewhere on campus for the Middle and Upper Schools. “Many of our largest donors to this campaign will not directly benefit from the use of this new building, but they believe in the larger mission of Whitefield Academy, and they understand the need to invest for our future growth by creating the best quality spaces to serve our youngest students in a building that is safe, beautifully designed and dedicated to meet their educational needs,” notes Dr. Kevin Bracher, Whitefield Head of School. “Brostrand Hall will do that.”
Paideia School: Full STEAM Ahead
In recent years, Paideia School, an independent Pre-K through 12 school located in Atlanta, has placed great emphasis on infusing its curriculum with STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) offerings. The school’s STEAM coordinator, David Fergemann, works with teachers on lesson planning and classroom implementation schoolwide. The effort appears across all of the school divisions, from the upper elementary science program to the junior high science club and robotics team and the high school Maker classes. It is all part of the overall goal to stay ahead of the curve and bring innovative learning to the students of Paideia School.
“The rate at which education has transformed seems to have accelerated over the last decade,” says Amy Valk, a team member with Innovative Learning Explorations at Paideia. “Innovation is now part of our school culture, moving us forward while still holding onto our values and traditions that are deeply rooted in our community.” In fact, innovation can be seen in the school’s use of technology in classrooms across age groups, including the teaching of coding, which has become prevalent at the school. What’s more, teachers are finding unique ways to bring innovation and STEAM into their lessons; for instance, high school teacher Jim Veal provided students with an opportunity to speak to an animator for “The Simpsons,” and elementary STEAM students in teacher Diane Lockwood’s classes interviewed an astronaut without ever leaving the classroom. Valk adds, “Paideia is striving to establish an innovative mindset for our students. Teachers are incorporating thinking routines into their lesson plans in order to make learning more visible. Five- and six-year-old students may use a KWL (What We Know, What We Want to Know, What We Learned) for the same purpose that high school teacher Miranda Knowles’ AP biology students complete a Name, Describe, Act routine: to support reflection, agency and inquisition.”
Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta (MJCCA): Play by Play
Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta
For several months, parents, teachers and children at the MJCCA Schiff School at Temple Emanu-El have been watching the progress of one particular project: the construction of a brand new playground. The preschool, which serves children six weeks through Pre-K with both half-day and full-day programs, has always had an excellent classroom curriculum, but the preschool wanted to create an additional space that will further enhance the students’ inherent proclivity to play, explore and be active in a stimulating outdoor setting. A renovation was in order.
Fortunately, a generous donor stepped forward to fund the project, which will be named Shirley’s Gan Katan (Little Garden) in the family’s honor. Completed this summer, the playground features partial turf grounds, new play structures, musical features, an elevated sand table, an omnispinner and much more. According to Stephanie Lampert, MJCCA Schiff School Director, the various elements were chosen and the layout was designed to create a natural and inviting space that will encourage and promote the use of both fine and gross motor skills while engaging the senses with different sights, sounds and textures. And as summer turns to fall, the outdoor area undoubtedly will be filled with the laughter and voices of young people who simply love to play.
Greater Atlanta Christian School: A New Spin
Walking into the Middle School and High School buildings at Greater Atlanta Christian School (GAC), something immediately looks different. There are no lockers. Instead, there are glass walls that allow for natural light, collaborative alcove settings in the hallways for students to gather and work on projects, writable surfaces for interactive discussions, movable desks and chairs, portable technology and so much more. And all of the features were placed there for a very specific reason.
Greater Atlanta Christian School
“We wanted learning environments that inspire and provide resources—living, breathing spaces that actually nurture the spirit of education and inspire students and teachers alike to believe that teaching and learning can be the silver bullet to maintaining and creating a better world and life for all,” says Dr. Betty Morris, Dean of Greater Atlanta Christian School, which serves children from age six weeks through grade 12. In 2016, the school took on a major renovation for the Middle and High schools, completely refurbishing 34,000 square feet of space in the High School building and 35,000 square feet in the Middle School. The classrooms were designed to be active learning classrooms that are marked by their adaptability and flexibility. “Because we understand that our spaces of learning affect students, we did not set out to decorate learning spaces—we set out to design the learning spaces to amplify learning for all students,” Morris continues. “We wanted student-centered teaching and learning spaces. We wanted teacher collaborative spaces where teachers have the opportunity to create, implement, collaborate, analyze and dream together as a community of educators.”
The project came to fruition thanks to GAC’s largest capital campaign to date, The Path Forward, which raised nearly $31 million and also allowed for the construction of a new state-of-the-art, 950-seat Performing Arts Center, which opened in February of 2018 and has hosted a number of high-caliber performances.
Holy Spirit Preparatory School: A Little Faith
Rendering of Holy Spirit Preparatory School's The Atrium
There is now a special preschool classroom at Holy Spirit Preparatory School, an independent Catholic school serving students age six months through 12th grade. It is called The Atrium, and it is one of the main elements of a new religion curriculum that has been adopted for use in the Holy Spirit Prep preschool. The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS) curriculum is based on a foundational principle that even the youngest children have a unique relationship with God and that the relationship’s growth can be assisted by and adult and directed by the Holy Spirit.
The program uses The Atrium as a center for CGS presentations; it is a serene space that includes stations that present biblical stories or model parts of the Mass using tactile, child-sized materials. In the center of The Atrium, one particular station models the parable of the Good Shepherd with model sheep, a shepherd and a sheep pen. The space is an excellent resource for supporting the messages provided during Mass. “You get a wonderful feeling walking into The Atrium,” says Pre-K2 teacher Georgia Tate. “It’s a quiet environment made with natural, handmade materials. They’re wood, natural fabrics—not bright colors or toys.” In the room, adds Karen Lewis, Pre-K4 teacher, “We reflect with the child. We ask a lot of reflective questions, and the child comes to answers on their own. We sit and meditate on these ideas with the children.”
Instructors have received training in the Montessori methods of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. The training allowed teachers to understand what children think and how they respond when they experience the stations in The Atrium, preparing them to work with Holy Spirit Prep students as they experience the new curriculum.
Strong Rock Christian School: It All Adds Up
During the last school year, all of the math teachers at Strong Rock Christian School, from the preschool department to the 12th grade, spent time doing something very important: they updated the school’s math standards. First, the team of teachers attended the Georgia Council of Teachers of Mathematics Annual Conference to learn about the most recent math initiatives, as well as innovative math tools that are designed to help students grasp complex math concepts. What’s more, the educators spent a great deal of time investigating math textbooks to ensure that they would be able to provide students with tools that would correlate with the new math standards, which also include a technology component.
Strong Rock Christian School
The endeavor was part of a comprehensive effort to update an array of academic- and sports-related offerings at Strong Rock Christian, which is located in Locust Grove and provides a rigorous college-preparatory and Biblical world‑view education to students in Pre-K3 through 12th grade. For instance, the school will be adding new advanced placement classes in Physics, European History and Music Theory for the 2019-2020 year. Additionally, lacrosse and eSports (organized competitive gameplay in electronic sports) are being added to the athletic department for the upcoming school year. Strong Rock Christian also is focusing on national competition opportunities for students such as the National Geographic Geo Challenge and the NASA Student Astronaut Challenge.
Mount Paran Christian School: High Expectations
Mt. Paran Christian School
Since Mount Paran Christian School (MPCS) moved to its current location in Kennesaw 16 years ago, its high school has experienced tremendous growth in enrollment: while there were 138 students in 2003, there are now 450 students in 2019. And all of those students have been housed primarily in Dozier Hall, which was designed to accommodate just 250 students. But that’s about to change thanks to a multi-year capital campaign, Imagine Tomorrow, which set a goal of raising $12 million for a high school building and maintenance endowment and currently is in its third and final phase.
To accommodate the changes in 21st Century education, Mount Paran Christian School has planned for the high school expansion to be an innovation center, with radical spaces to learn, test, collaborate, grow and think outside the box. After an extensive period of planning—with input from faculty, staff and students—the new Murray Innovation Center, named for Stuart and Eulene Murray, will include spaces such as additional STEAM classrooms, engineering and Project Lead The Way® course rooms, art and graphic design studios, maker space labs and materials, a robotics construction area and fabrication lab, ideation zones and concepts gallery, digital theatre environments and student collaboration areas with chat and share rooms. The Murray Innovation Center will also include dedicated space for the Directed Studies program, which serves students with learning challenges, helping them develop comprehensive strategies and problem-solving skills. In all, the cutting-edge, flexible space and equipment will catalyze and support creative, project-based intellectual inquiry and interdisciplinary instruction.
“We need to ensure students grasp the foundational components of a liberal arts education, understand how to read and analyze, write well and critique,” says Headmaster Tim Wiens, Ed.D. “The innovative, 21st Century world has changed since I was in school and even since I began teaching. Together, these two approaches to education can inform us all of what it means to prepare students, not just for the world of work, but to flourish. We have a great opportunity at MPCS to do things others may not or cannot do. Our mission is that students honor God, love others, and walk in Truth. As such, our education is meant to facilitate those long-term objectives.” With that in mind, Mount Paran Christian School plans to break ground on the Murray Innovation Center in Spring 2020, with doors opening for the 2021-2022 academic year.