Building America's Superschool
School choice has been a huge issue in Cherokee County. Now one private school hopes to launch itself to the top of the national school rankings.
Pop quiz: America’s first superschool will have which of the following?
- Three greenhouses, including one based on the vegetation of the Mojave Desert and another based on the vegetation of South America.
- A mock surgery center with a torso for students to revive by shocking the heart with a defibrillator.
- A jet to fly on a whim to the places the students are studying.
- All of the above.
If you answered D, you're correct.
Holdheide Academy is set to break ground on a $60 million facility on 87 acres in Woodstock in less than two years. The goal isn't to teach the next set of Cherokee County or Georgia or even national leaders, but to develop the world’s next leaders.
That's a big step in a nation that has sunk in global educational rankings. An Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development study of 70 nations, released in December 2010, placed the United States in the middle on reading and toward the bottom in math.
That led U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to renew calls for educational reform. “The hard truth is that other high-performing nations have passed us by during the last two decades. … In a highly competitive knowledge economy, maintaining the educational status quo means America’s students are effectively losing ground.”
“When you add in private schools and preschools, it makes your community more appealing.”
That global education gap also applies locally as communities compete to lure businesses and jobs and.
“When we have businesses that look to relocate, they always look at the schools,” said Woodstock's economic development director, Billy Peppers.
Holdheide Director Tammy Dorsten said Holdheide blends three schools of thought on education—traditional, Montessori and Reggio Emilia—into hands-on and child-centered lessons. That approach, plus the resources available to execute it, will make the school unique in the United States.
“We allow the kids to use their imagination and things around them to create art,” Dorsten said.
Additionally, she said, the hands-on curriculum will focus on finding their passion and helping students to “discover what they were meant to do” for a profession.
The school has 50 pupils, ranging from infants to second-graders, in a building dating to the mid-1800s. Within 36 months, Holdheide intends to have 300 students in a state-of-the-art facility in Downtown Woodstock as the school gradually expands through 12th grade.
Dorsten is negotiating with a local architecture firm that is prepared to donate the blueprints and land to Holdheide Academy. Pending that donation, the next steps are a bank loan and the groundbreaking within 18 months if all goes according to plan.
For the Students
Tuition is hefty, right at $1,000 a month for some ages, but comes with all the perks and luxury a $60 million facility can offer.
The goal is for students to realize their passion before they reach college so they don't waste three or four years on a major they don’t love, Dorsten said.
How would Holdheide differ from the nation's top schools?
In 2011, Newsweek ranked the School of Science and Engineering Magnet in Dallas as the top high school in America.
That school boasts of having a robotics lab, an electron microscope and European trips.
The blueprints for Holdheide include a robotics lab and international trips, plus:
- Mojave Desert and South American rain forest greenhouses.
- Avionics labs to plot trips to take with the school's private jet.
- A credit account to learn to manage money.
- A mock surgical center where students will be able to shock a torso.
- A dermatologist office.
- A hair salon.
- An ophthalmologist office.
- A recording studio.
- A commercial kitchen.
- An Olympic-size swimming and diving center.
- Two aquariums.
Because doctors’ appointments cause scheduling nightmares for working parents, the school will offer a pediatrician, a dentist and chiropractors for students to visit during the school day between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m.
For the Community
The economic benefits for Cherokee County can't be measured yet, but such a nation-leading school would increase the value of Woodstock for prospective businesses, said Peppers, Woodstock's economic development director.
“You can’t tie a direct economical impact, but when you can add various educational programming, it definitely adds to your community’s portfolio," he said. "When you add in private schools and preschools, it makes your community more appealing.”
Statistics back that up. A Daily Finance article shows that the top school districts surround areas of big business and capital such as Washington, DC.
Dorsten said one of the reasons she wants to open an enhanced Holdheide is to bring big businesses into the area, especially those with chief executives who want to put their children in the best school in the country.
In addition to the luxury and education, students would be required to give back, enhancing the effects on the community:
- Kindergartners through sixth-graders would do four service projects in the Atlanta area each year.
- Seventh- through ninth-graders would travel around the country to do service projects.
- The oldest grades would do two international service projects.
The students would have to plan, fund and implement their projects, Dorsten said.
Some of the resources at the school, including the auditorium, recording studio, kitchen and swimming center, will be available for the community to rent.
The money raised from such rentals will pay for up to 20 scholarships to the school, Dorsten said.
For the Environment
Holdheide Academy is part of the International Baccalaureate program, an alterative accreditation that focuses on building world leaders by teaching them deductive reasoning and problem solving early.
The school also strives to teach the children to be environmentally conscious in their studies.
By the time students graduate, they will have visited all seven continents, including Antarctica, where Dorsten will take them to study global warming and whale migration.
The school's plans are in an early stage, but they are far from a pipe dream, Dorsten said.
The push for greater school choice and higher standards for education is a growing concern in Cherokee County and requires hiring more qualified educators to teach at higher levels for students who are willing to be pushed, she said.
“America is 25th in education,” Dorsten said. “That is scary.”
This article is part of "Dispatches: The Changing American Dream," our ongoing series about how people in Holly Springs, Hickory Flat and beyond are adapting to the challenges of life in the 21st century. You can find more Dispatches from across the country at The Huffington Post.