Ron Clark Academy success comes at a price few schools can afford

It was the way the teacher jumped on his desk refusing to be ignored, pushing a catatonic class beyond the complacency of can’t to a chapter of no excuses that hooked parents.

This Ron Clark. This wiry white guy who turned around test scores in a Harlem hood with shtick, high expectations and whimsically spiked hair.

His passion intrigued them. He was the Johnny Depp of at-risk education. Unorthodox. Funny. Pushy. And famous. A TV movie of his life starred “Chandler” from “Friends.”

Fast-forward a few years, and you have 20 kids in the first graduating class of the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta moving on to schools such as Pace Academy -- with double-digit gains in their test scores.

That success shows the double-edged truth about this new school: It’s possible to help any child to succeed in school, but Ron Clark Academy spends twice as much per student than Georgia’s public schools to make that happen.

“What they do is great; he has a lot of resources that allow them to do wonderful things,” said Cory Buxton, associate professor of middle school education at the University of Georgia. “Not every school is blessed with all of that.”

Excitement about RCA built before there even was a school.

When Clark moved to Georgia, minority parents looking for better educational opportunities traveled across state lines to get their kids in front of him. They wanted in Clark's new private school, which ended up in an old factory near Turner Field, without knowing the cost or curriculum. Some thought getting a seat for their kids would be like hitting the lottery -- a quality education that would open doors to prestigious high schools, colleges and careers.

“I couldn’t download the application fast enough,” said Charlene Avril, a nurse who learned of the school watching the Ron Clark movie. “I believed in the vision he had for the children he was teaching in Harlem. So many schools set the standards too low. I always knew my son could do more.”

Avril, a mother of two valedictorians, said in public school, she had to make a fuss just to get her son, the shy A-student, considered for gifted classes.

At RCA, Osei Avril, who barely spoke in class the first two months, was educated like the sons of the rich and famous even though he and the majority of students couldn’t afford to pay the $18,000 tuition. They jet-setted to six continents on field trips. They sang for President Barack Obama and his wife. They made class projects that landed them on network news.

“We are trying to get the kids to the point where they can get a scholarship to any school they want to attend and give them the poise, the confidence and the academic ability to be successful," Clark said. "We want them to be leaders and to interact with people all over the world.’’

The Class of 2010 has been asked to:

  • Draw a world map from memory, showing every country and its capital.
  • Give public speeches without notes, sometimes without preparation and on occasion, in front of TV cameras.
  • Learn every British monarch in order and take tests on England's history, religions, wars and economy before traveling there. They would repeat a similar regimen for every country they visited.

“We were in South Africa at this apartheid museum, and the guide told us that the kids knew more about the history of apartheid than she did,” Clark said.

Parent Shakira Brown says traveling has made her son Jordan more mature and prepared for high school.

“My child has been everywhere ... during a tribute to Sojourner Truth in Washington D.C., Michelle Obama gave him a kiss on the cheek,” Brown said. “My passion is for every child to have a quality education."

RCA students travel even when they stay in the building. Rooms have been transformed into planets, ancient ruins and hospitals to teach lessons in math, science and language arts. Teachers dress up. Their lectures are musical. Clark calls the method "edutaining," educating and entertaining at the same time. It's how Clark and his partner, Kim Bearden, a teacher and RCA's executive director, engage adolescents used to video games and action flicks. They say their style helps students master advanced concepts and keeps them eager to learn more.

But some say RCA's thrill-seeking approach is not very practical. RCA, funded by training seminar sales, corporate donors like Delta and Coca-Cola and gifts from philanthropists, spends $18,000 per student. The per-student average in Georgia is $8,900.

"There are lessons you can learn from Ron Clark Academy," but one style doesn't fit all, Buxton says. "I get worried when teachers feel like what is important is for middle school to be entertaining.”

But Clark, who occasionally raps his lectures, remains steadfast: “We want kids to have a glow of excitement about everything they do.”

Clark is paid only $15,000 for his work at RCA. (His income is supplemented by speaking tours.) Bearden receives about $75,400, according to a federal 990 nonprofit tax-exempt report. In 2008, RCA had gross receipts of about $3.9 million, including more than $1 million in program revenue (conferences, teacher training and merchandise sales). Nearly $1.2 million was spent on salaries and benefits for 18 employees, records show. RCA must raise $2 million annually to operate. The rest of its $2.8 million budget is supported by its teacher training programs.

Most parents feel their gamble on the school was worth it. Some have watched their kids blossom on TV.

Over the years, Willie Thornton, known as "the face of RCA," has appeared polished in cornrows on national network news. His confidence was bolstered by Clark's "Essential 55″ rules requiring students to look adults in the eye, give firm handshakes and speak intelligently and without fear. He and his classmates received 4 million hits on YouTube for a school rap they wrote on the 2008 presidential election.

Thornton, a Republican among Democrats, told several news anchors how he stood his ground.

"RCA is a place where you can really express yourself and be who you are," said Thornton, 14, who will attend Lovett School this fall.

Clark opened a middle school in a low-income community because of the impact teachers have on kids that age. A Johns Hopkins University study found that potential dropouts can be spotted as early as sixth grade and that a student's socioeconomic background can play a role.

The school is a teaching laboratory for educators. Students take core subjects for 90 minutes while educators observe from theater seats. Art and music are offered after school. Corridors and classrooms spring to life with graffiti-painted images of teachers, students and their international travels. A two-story indoor blue slide shoots students and visiting faculty out into the front lobby, reminding them learning is fun.

Students are purposely picked to mirror the mix visiting educators get in classrooms -- some gifted, some struggling, some average, some with behavioral problems. Each student receives an interview and home visit by Clark. Last school year, 370 fourth-graders applied for about 30 fifth-grade slots. The four-year program accepts only rising fifth-graders.

"We always tell parents, ‘Imagine how strict you think we are going to be and multiply it by 10,' ” Bearden said. “We push kids here really hard. Our goal is to remain in their lives all the way though college. They have our cellphone numbers, and we are their friends on Facebook.”

Parents are also interviewed and must commit to volunteering. They logged 6,500 hours in three years helping with labor like serving pre-cooked lunch.

“It takes a lot of determination,” said Seretha Bussey, a Delta ticket agent who was the first to apply to RCA. She surprised Clark with a phone call after the movie. “There may be nights where you are so exhausted, but you keep on going.”

Bussey took a second job to pay for RCA, and she works nights to keep her schedule free. “I have been offered opportunities for advancement, but I have stayed in the position that I am in so I could transport my daughter to school,” she said. “Alexandra has worked so hard this year. I am proud of her. ”

Parents are still buzzing about graduation on June 16. Million-dollar booster Oprah Winfrey made a cameo, and artists Boyz II Men and Yolanda Adams performed. Winfrey praised parents for choosing RCA, calling the campus of 98 kids the "best school in the United States of America."

Not all of the 32 students who would have been part of the Class of 2010 made it to the finish line. The rigor, the commute, caused a few to withdraw.

"I don’t think this school is for everyone,” said Ahjanae Colson, 14, who landed a $40,000-a-year scholarship to Hotchkiss School in Connecticut. “Some people might not be able to handle it. We had 1,000 questions on our global studies test! The first two weeks of school, we could not talk unless we were spoken to by a teacher or we were doing a group project.”

About half of graduates received $800,000 in scholarships and financial aid to private schools with a pipeline to the Ivy Leagues. Three won a Pace Academy Scholars award promising a full ride. Two will attend boarding school for free out of state. Others will go to high-achieving public schools. A placement officer at RCA worked with A Better Chance in Atlanta to match students with the right campuses.

“We don't have a slide in our school, but we have lots of other things,” said Philip McAdoo, Pace’s diversity director. “The foundation that they have is really going to allow them to adapt.”

Will RCA teens adjust to high school without exotic trips and dramatic lessons?

It could be a "rude awakening" if they're not prepared, Buxton of UGA said. "High school may be a little less engaging."

Pace Academy-bound Osei Avril, the shy student who became RCA's outspoken valedictorian, however, believes he is equipped to be successful anywhere.

“This school prepares you for what awaits you in the world to come,” he said. "It really got me out of my shell.”

Class of 2010 test data

Ron Clark Academy uses the Stanford Achievement Test, a national assessment measuring subject content knowledge, to gauge student progress. These results compare scores for the Class of 2010 at the start of sixth grade and end of eighth grade. The test ranks student performance according to percentiles. For example, a student in the 75th percentile scored equal to or better than 75 percent of all students across the nation who participated in the test at the same grade level. The test is used by some private and public schools across the nation.