A group of Buckhead residents seeking to start a public charter school are working to address concerns that they want to create private religious school funded with taxpayer money.

The school would not be part of the International Baccalaureate program used in the other eight North Atlanta schools. It will instead use the Classical Education model, which promotes literacy in Western traditions.

Under the current proposal, Atlanta Classical Academy will be a K-10 school with an enrollment of 700 students. If the state and Atlanta Board of Education approves the school’s charter, it could open in 2014. The academy launch group is a nonprofit, with the legal name of Northside Education, Inc.

Matthew Kirby, chairman of the group, sent an email news update on March 20 in response to questions he had received from people in the community.

“Yesterday, someone asked me, ‘Are you are saying that ACA would be like a private school?’ My answer was, ‘No, we are creating a charter school, and charter schools are absolutely public schools,’” Kirby said.

Kirby sent the Buckhead Reporter a statement in response to several questions about the school. The letter is posted  at the end of this article.

The newsletter says Kirby has received questions about whether the proposed school, Atlanta Classical Academy, will have a religious basis.  Kirby writes that the school will be “a non-sectarian school, and we have absolutely no affiliation with any political party.”

The ACA launch team includes former Sarah Smith Elementary and Westminster Elementary principal Lee Friedman; former Atlanta Board of Education Member Mark Riley; and Mark Carlson, a partner with Baker Donelson, an Atlanta law firm.

Kirby graduated from the Westminster Schools, the U.S. Naval Academy and Emory’s Goizueta Business School. Two years ago, Kirby served as a community football coach at North Atlanta High School.

A planning document from 2011 that shows the school’s organizers studied Classical Education models used at private Christian schools and public charter schools around the country.

The documents also show that school organizers intended to omit sex education from the courses offered at the proposed school, but Kirby said that’s no longer the group’s position. “That was an early stage draft when we were considering a K-2 start,” Kirby said.

The 2011 document said the school would start as K-2, but would add grades until it became a full K-12 school.  The 2011 document also said the school would not teach “matters of faith.”

According to the document, the group studied the following Christian private schools:

•Dominion, Dacula, Ga

•Oaks Academy, Indianapolis

•Providence School, Dallas

•West Dallas Classical

•Regent School, Austin, Texas

•Ambrose School, Idaho

The Ambrose School’s website contains a lengthy critique of the IB program that takes issue with its multicultural worldview.

The critique says the IB’s mission statement contains “postmodern ideas that permeate the educational environment and reject a divine standard of Truth in favor of personal truth, God’s goodness in favor of social relativism, and Beauty in favor of personal preference. What is really meant by the progressive mindset is that we cannot claim that a Western idea of justice is superior, for example, to the justice system which includes human sacrifice. The IBO’s values are more in alignment with the Humanist Manifesto which represents the moral system of progressives.”

To read the Ambrose School’s full statement on the IB program, click here.

Kirby describes the Classical Education learning model as a “liberal arts approach that is content driven.” Classical Education is a popular method used by the Christian home school movement. Public charter schools use many of the same concepts but without the emphasis on Christianity.

“It is true that many home schoolers and Christian schools use the classical method,” Kirby said. “But it can, and it is, being implemented in secular environments with much success. It started that way in 500BC in Rome.  There were no Christians then, and Jews were not terribly popular.”

Kirby said the construction of the school, at a location that hasn’t been announced, will be paid for with private donations. Operations would be paid for with taxpayer money.

Atlanta Classical Academy’s website said the school’s founders would operate with “complete fiscal transparency.”

When asked to provide a copy of the nonprofit group’s tax filings and list of donors, Kriby declined to release them. He said the donors wish to be anonymous.

If the school is approved, it would accept all students within the Atlanta Public Schools attendance zone. Kirby said the school’s location would be in North Atlanta and said the demographic makeup would be diverse.

“We are specifically gearing our outreach to achieve the diverse student body that currently exists in our public school community,” Kirby wrote. “Our public school students are 25 percent Latino, 25 percent African American, 6 percent Asian, and 44 percent Caucasian…and that is exactly what we are planning for at ACA.”

APS reports a different racial makeup of the school system: 78 percent black, 13 percent white, 6 percent Hispanic and 1 percent consisting of Asian and American Indian students.

When asked to explain where he got his attendance figures, Kirby said he was referring to the racial makeup of the schools in the north Atlanta cluster. He said the racial makeup at ACA would more closely reflect the general population of Atlanta Public Schools.

Kirby said the school’s enrollment will be “non-selective” and a public lottery would be the used if the school is overenrolled. Kirby said ACA intends to have “carve out” provisions and will give enrollment preference to children of the school’s board members, teachers and siblings of current students.

The ACA group will present its business plan to the Atlanta Board of Education in April.

Here is Kirby’s statement to the Buckhead Reporter. It addresses questions about whether the school’s organizers are opposed to the IB curriculum at the other north Atlanta schools and Kirby’s responses to questions about whether creationism or Intelligent Design will be taught in addition to the theory of evolution.

Our primary model is Ridgeview Classical Schools in Ft. Collins, Colorado.  We would also count among our model schools Great Hearts Academies (a group of schools in Phoenix) and the Vanguard School (careful, there are several…this one is in Colorado Springs).  All are K-12 public charter schools, and all have outstanding records of academic and fiscal performance.

It is true that many home schoolers and Christian schools use the classical method. But it can…and it is…being implemented in secular environments with much success. It started that way in 500BC in Rome.  There were no Christians then, and Jews were not terribly popular.

Classical ed is very different from IB, but we have no axe to grind with IB programs.  We do hope to present families with a clear alternative in leadership structure, teacher hiring and HR practices, educational philosophy, size, etc. Given the freedom to choose, parents are better served.

Dr. Friedman is not “opposed” to IB.  Both of his sons graduated from North Atlanta’s IB program.  He is a huge fan of the classical method. I am sure he would be happy to talk to you.

Again, it’s a choice we think families should have.

I will send you a short document that describes more about our hope for our kids and a few details related to our academic plan.

Our plan will call for kids to focus on those things that are:

  • Rich in language and vocabulary
  • Traditionally considered to be a “great book”, or “classical”…universally esteemed for many, many years
  • Aside from old, great books, we’ll use primary source documents and speeches and not many textbooks (except in math and science)
  • We seek to teach and model excellence in mind and character, so we use great works to learn about those who have lived notable lives…usually for the good, but sometimes for the bad.  Again, many of these are rich in language, and that is important to a child’s development, obviously
  • By nature of being an American public school, we do emphasize American history, and our plan allows us not only to read about our founders, but to read what they had read…and that’s a rich experience.
  • We take a similar approach to science and math and technology…the trivium…that’s another topic.  But our plan is well-rounded.

It is critical to our success that this program is delivered by highest caliber teachers who are subject matter experts, tenacious in intellectual interests, clear communicators, and kindhearted.

We will vet teachers by a careful review of in-subject grades on their college transcript, and through a mock-teach observed by members of our board, principal, and the community. Our teachers will be employees of our school and not employees of our school district, and they will remain employed with us at the discretion of the principal and board of directors. We view this as a critical differentiator.

We will be a Core Knowledge school (K-8) because we believe it aligns perfectly with a classical approach.

We require board members to read Making of Americans and Cultural Literacy by E.D. Hirsch, Jr.

To summarize these two books:

Making of Americans is the roll of the American public schools.  There is certain knowledge that every American ought to have and to share.  Even as we celebrate those things that make us different, it is the things we share (language, vocabulary, knowledge of the past, etc.) that makes it possible for us to thrive together. Incidentally, it is also those things that we know that allow us (academically) to learn more.  There is a social, cultural, and academic basis for focusing on content in our schools.

This is in contrast to prevailing modern theories, we understand. Again, charters are, by design, geared to let families choose.

In terms of sex ed, creationism or intelligent design (your specific questions), we’ll take an intelligent approach that meets all local and state regulations. Our elementary schools will study Greek mythology, but we will not consider ourselves to be encouraging our kids to worship Apollo…or Zeus.

What we will do is make parents aware of subjects that are considered to be “controversial”. And we will always maintain a policy of “an open seat in every classroom”.  Great schools provide this sort of access to the classroom.  Does every public school in the area do that? Why not?

Dan Whisenhunt

Dan Whisenhunt wrote for Reporter Newspapers from 2011 - 2014. He is the founder and editor of Decaturish.com