2006 flashback: Local educator Ron Clark inspires film about his transformational teaching

And he wants to build his own academy
Ron Clark is raising money to build an academy in Southwest Atlanta. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

Ron Clark is raising money to build an academy in Southwest Atlanta. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

Originally posted August 11, 2006 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com

In the weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, Hollywood producers like Howard Burkons were scrambling for uplifting, heroic ideas to turn into films.

While running on a health-club treadmill, Burkons became mesmerized by Atlanta-based educator Ron Clark on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." The Los Angeles producer teared up as he watched Tamara Lauriano, one of Clark's students in Harlem, N.Y., describe how Clark had turned her life around.

"I looked at everyone next to me on the other treadmills and they were crying, too," he said. He realized immediately: "I found the story."

Though it took a few years, Burkons turned that idea into "The Ron Clark Story," airing Sunday on TNT, with former "Friends" starring Matthew Perry in the title role.

Matthew Perry as Ron Clark in "The Ron Clark Story."

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Clark, who's building a private academy for low-income students in South Atlanta, is the North Carolina native who moved to Harlem in 1999 and turned around a class of underachievers. "He was very strict with these kids and had high expectations," Perry said in a recent interview. "When they were willing to give up on themselves, he didn't."

In the mode of "Stand and Deliver," a 1987 film based on an exacting math teacher in a Hispanic neighborhood, "The Ron Clark Story" focuses on his first year in Harlem. And while many biopics embellish or create stories to make a person more interesting, almost all the anecdotes in the movie about Clark are true.

To bond with his willful students, the tenacious Clark learned to jump rope, double-dutch style. To help them remember the U.S. presidents in order, he created "The Presidential Rap." When he caught pneumonia, he videotaped lessons in his apartment for the students to watch in class.

Seeking a role after "Friends," Perry chose to play Clark partly because he was the opposite of Chandler Bing, the sarcastic zinger-happy character he played for a decade. "There's not a lot of irony to Ron Clark," Perry said. "He's exactly what he is."

Perry wisely decided not to ape Clark. They have no real physical resemblance. And Perry ditched the Southern accent, feeling that his interpretation was distracting.

Instead, Perry tried to capture the "spirit" of Clark: his sincerity, his perseverance, his endearing dorkiness. (Clark said with a chuckle that he's sometimes mistaken for "American Idol" contestant and fellow North Carolinian Clay Aiken.)

Technically, Perry is nowhere near as excitable in the film as the real Clark, who prides himself on his double-dutch and rapping skills. "I have rhythm," Clark said. "I can dance. Bless his heart. I tried to get [Perry] to do the Harlem shake. The more he tried, the worse he got."

Only a few plot points in the movie don't gibe with reality. For instance, the kids never trash the classroom. And Clark didn't have a love interest.

Nonetheless, Clark, 34, loves the movie: "It captures the feelings of the time, especially the kids' transformations. That's beautiful. It's a nice tribute to the kids."

As the movie recounts, Clark took what was the worst class in the school and had it scoring higher than the honors class in the state exams by the end of the academic year.

His success earned him Disney's American Teacher of the Year in 2000. At the ceremony in Los Angeles, Winfrey attended and was so taken by Clark that she put him on her show. She embraced his many rules for his students, most of which revolve around respect and kindness.

Soon after, he moved to Atlanta, where he had friends and family and a hub for him to travel as he became a popular motivational speaker. Each year, he does at least 60 speeches, charging $12,500 for schools and $17,500 for corporations, according to the Premiere Speakers Bureau Web site. In between, he's taken his former students on trips to South Africa, Costa Rica and Japan.

He also took Winfrey's advice and in 2003 wrote "The Essential 55," a book about his rules, which has sold more than 1 million copies.

Clark's dream these days is to build his own academy, a laboratory for him to teach and have people come from all over the world to learn his methods. Last year, he used $830,000 of his book royalties and speaking fees to buy land and a former roof and awning factory building not far from Carver High School in South Atlanta. He's seeking sponsors for 60 low-income fifth- and sixth-grade students at $14,000 each (which includes travel and uniforms), eventually adding 120 seventh- and eighth-graders.

Though he originally wanted to open the school this month in time for the film's launch, bureaucracy bogged things down, and he is targeting a 2007 opening. The main brick building on the site is still mostly a shell, and he admits being slowed by vandals stealing copper piping and tools several times in the past year.

Clark said he has raised about $1.2 million of the $1.8 million he needs to get started and hopes people who see the film will be inspired to help. Last week he entertained 400 guests at the Piedmont Driving Club to sell them on his vision. While recounting his life, he ran up and down the aisles, jumping on chairs and tables with youthful enthusiasm, despite the fact he's told the same story hundreds of times.

Lauriano, the tough-as-nails smart gal who brought a Hollywood producer to tears, came to support Clark. In the film, she's represented by the character Shameika Wallace, played by Hannah Hodson.

"I always knew he was different," said Lauriano, now a rising senior at Harlem Renaissance High School. "That's why I picked on him. I was just so mean. I felt like a nobody. I thought I'd end up in jail or pregnant."

But Clark kept telling her, "Tamara, you can do it." His dedication to her changed her life. She ended up getting perfect scores on state exams that year. She now hopes to attend Spelman College in Atlanta next year.

"He showed me that dreams really can come true," Lauriano told the audience at the dinner, tearing up herself. "He showed me you can go from rags to riches."


Golden rules to live by

In 2003, Ron Clark wrote a book, "The Essential 55" (Hyperion, $11.95 paperback), a list of the many rules he has used in his seven years of classroom teaching to help students learn in a proper environment. Here's a sampling with explanations from the book:

Rule No. 1: When responding to any adult, you must answer by saying "Yes, ma'am" or "No, sir."

Clark's explanation: "I feel it is one of the most important of all the rules because it sets the tone for the type of respect I expect from my students."

Rule No. 2: Make eye contact.

Clark's explanation: "We will be taken more seriously and our actions will be much more appreciated if they come with eye contact."

Rule No. 6: If you are asked a question in conversation, you should ask a question in return.

Clark's explanation: "I want them to understand that you are far more likable and respectful when you are asking about the thoughts and opinions of others."

Rule No. 9: Always say thank you when I give you something. If you do not say it within three seconds after receiving the item, I will take it back.

Clark's explanation: "There is no excuse for not showing appreciation."

Rule No. 26: Do not save seats in the lunchroom. ... Do not exclude anyone.

Clark's explanation: "We are a family and we must treat one another with respect and kindness."

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