University City

School takes best parts of universities, public schools

Heather Henry and Courtney Elliott both felt unsettled that the schooling options for their elementary-age children were not quite right.

Henry volunteered weekly at the public school where her daughter was in kindergarten. But each time, she left feeling "an overwhelming sense in my spirit that I craved more for Chloe."

Elliott had been praying for several years about what her son's kindergarten year would look like.

The two women were friends from a Bible study group, and they talked about their dreams for school for their children. Their conversations sometimes turned to education, and occasionally Elliott would visit schools. Then they wondered whether they should start their own school.

In April, the women met at a coffee house and had a heart-to-heart conversation about what such a school would look like. In the weeks after that, they believed God was affirming their ideas.

"It wasn't an option for us not to do it," Henry said. "It wasn't a business decision or 'Let's go start a school.' We were very intimidated by what it looked like and what it would entail, but we both knew we had to go forward."

After months of research, prayer and work, they opened Hope Academy, one of two University-Model Schools in the area, this fall. The school balances classroom teaching with at-home instruction and parental involvement.

The National Association of University-Model Schools defines a University-Model School as a K-12 school that is "a blend of the most positive aspects from traditional public and private schools as well as home schools, to give elementary through high school a highly successful, college-preparatory education, set in a Christian environment. The key is professional classroom instruction partnered with caring parenting at home."

Hope Academy students attend school three days a week at West Cabarrus Church's learning center in Concord, where they are taught by a professional teacher. On the other two days, assignments and learning opportunities are provided for parents to do with their children, such as a recent visit to Bradford Farms.

The curriculum is "integrated and cohesive," Elliott said. It draws from a variety of sources and is based on the philosophy that "authentic learning comes from interacting with rich resources and text in a meaningful way."

During a recent unit on cooperation, students studied simple machines. They studied inventors, took apart compound machines and built amusement-park rides out of simple machines.

"They are learning a lot in a deep way," Elliott said. "They can tell you just about anything you need to know about a simple machine."

Anne Roe said her son Henry often dreaded going to kindergarten, which had a traditional 35-hour school week. "(He was) exhausted by the end of the day and could rarely provide details about what he was learning," Roe said.

Henry Roe is now a student at Hope Academy.

"Henry is not memorizing facts. He is investigating, applying and, therefore, understanding," Roe said. "He is building friendships and feels like he is part of a community. He is more challenged and therefore more engaged. He wakes up every day joyful and excited to go to school."

Amanda Keaton-Ranier said she was "blown away" by the Elliott and Henry's vision for the school. Her son Harrison had attended a private school for first grade, and Keaton-Ranier hadn't been happy with it.

"... The University-Model School schedule aligns with my family's priorities of being able to spend quality time together and also allows us some flexibility to travel with my husband, who travels every Thursday through Sunday with his work," Keaton-Ranier said.

She said Harrison's learning experience at Hope has been vastly different from his previous school experience.

"Hope's curriculum is extremely interactive, appeals to a variety of learning styles and is integrated," Keaton-Ranier said. "The school teaches 'deep' instead of 'shallow' when it comes to subject matter."

Henry and Elliott plan to add a grade to the school each year until it offers kindergarten through 12th grade. They hope to at least double the number of students enrolled there next year.

Starting the school has been a whirlwind, Elliott said, but the effort is worth it. Every morning when students are asked whether they would like to pray after a time of worship singing, about 10 hands go up.

"Without fail, it has been an amazing thing to hear these kids pray for their school and ... thank God for their school," Elliott said.

"They don't want to leave here by the end of the day. They say, 'This is where I want to be forever.' "

For more information, visit Hope Academy will hold an open house at 7 p.m. Friday at the West Cabarrus Church learning center building, 7655 Bruton Smith Blvd., Concord.