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