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Former Disney teacher Ron Clark, inspired film, opens Atlanta school

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 09/03/07

Ron Clark's bangs swoop upward like the famous '50s coif of Bob's "Big Boy," with a hint of a pointy peak.

In "The Ron Clark Story," last year's made-for-cable-TV hit-flick, Matthew Perry attempted to mimic the hairstyle. But the former Disney American Teacher and his quirks aren't easily imitated.

The school's first students line the atrium of the Ron Clark Academy.
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More about the Ron Clark Academy
• Story: New school opens in fitting fashion
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A wacky personality, Clark made a name for himself with his hard-fought success in the classroom. Today, he brings his unique brand of education to Atlanta with the opening of a private $3.5-million, state-of-the-art schoolhouse in one of the poorest sections of the city.

More than 350 students applied to the new Ron Clark Academy where flat-screen TVs are mounted in bathrooms, graffiti art fills the walls and a secret passageway leads to Clark's classroom. Sixty fifth- and sixth-graders will get a middle school education like no other.

Before they reach high school, Clark's students will travel to six continents; every one except Antarctica.

"We want our kids to be leaders, not only in Atlanta, but ... in the world," Clark said during a recent tour of the academy. "I told my staff: 'I have a feeling in my heart that one of our kids is going to be president of the United States. Now, I don't know which one it will be, so we better teach all of them!' "

A hyperactive, boyish-looking 35-year-old, Clark started his education career in 1994 near his hometown of Chocowinity, a town of about 400 in eastern North Carolina. At S.W. Snowden Elementary School, he filled in for a teacher who had died from a sudden illness. His mother, who was the payroll manager for Beaufort County Schools, told him about the job with hopes of getting him to settle down; his previous job was as a singing waiter in London.

Clark, who majored in education at East Carolina University, was a natural. He quickly became known as a turnaround specialist, taking students others had given up on and making them stand out on all-important state tests. For four years running, Clark's classes were the top test-takers in Beaufort.

But he had a restless soul and a desire to do more. So he headed to New York, where he went to work as a fifth-grade teacher at P.S. 83, one of the worst schools in East Harlem. His students — some neglected or abused — were incorrigible, flatly refusing to learn. Frustrated after weeks of getting nowhere, Clark walked out one day and nearly gave up.

This wouldn't be a story if he had.

Clark returned more determined and wacky than before: He chugged a carton of chocolate milk for every three minutes the students paid attention. He learned Double Dutch, a popular game of jump rope. He wrote a rap song to teach the presidents:

Now, let's get down to some presidential learning,

We'll start with George Washington straight from Mount Vernon,

First president and commander-in-chief,

Fought the Revolutionary War so we could be free.

Although his class of misfits had been last in test scores for the entire city, by year's end they led the school, besting even the honors pupils. The feat earned him the Disney title in 2000 and an appearance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in 2001.

His fame escalated from there. With encouragement from Winfrey, Clark wrote a book explaining the classroom rules, based on his Southern upbringing, that he used to succeed.

Clark's plain-spoken, how-to guide, published in 2003, became a New York Times best seller. The proceeds allowed him to embark on his dream to create a school where creativity, respect and discipline were hallmarks.

"He is hard not to be excited around because he has so much energy," said Ahjanae Colson, 11, of College Park, who is starting sixth grade at the academy today. "It's like, 'OK, you have to step to the occasion.' "

During his year as Disney's teacher, Clark moved to Atlanta where he teamed up with Kim Bearden, a former Teacher of the Year from Cobb County and runner-up for the Disney honor. They set out to create an academy filled with teachers dedicated to pushing the educational envelope.

As in Harlem, where he worked for two years, Clark's venture was marked by trial and error.

Clark and Bearden searched 50 locations across metro Atlanta before settling, in 2005, on a boarded-up factory in a Southeast neighborhood that also appealed to drug dealers and prostitutes. Clark bought the property with royalties from his book.

Eleven banks turned down his requests for a loan to renovate the brick-and-cinder-block buildings. The 12th agreed.

After construction began, thieves repeatedly stole materials. Once renovated, Clark had trouble finding insurance for a campus with a two-story, twisty, indoor slide, which he had insisted upon for the atrium.

But he had luck, too. On speaking engagements, where he earns $15,000 to $20,000, he made pitches for financial support. At one event — a luncheon for Jane Fonda's teenage-pregnancy prevention group — he made a direct appeal to Scarlet Pressley-Brown, general manager of Delta Air Lines' community programs.

Not one to let an opportunity for drama pass, Clark jumped up on Pressley-Brown's table (his signature move) and regaled her of his plans. Soon after, Delta became the academy's official airline, agreeing to cover all airfare for students and teachers.

"He really did jump up on the table, feet, socks — funny socks — and all," Pressley-Brown recalled. "There was no limit to where he would go to make you understand the importance of the academy."

Because Clark wants his students — who were selected after an intensive eight-month process — to become "global citizens," the campus décor promotes a worldly theme. A wall in the "Destinations" classroom, also known as social studies, has a mural made to look like the cockpit of an airplane. The main stairway showcases coins from more than 100 countries — in the steps. A mural covering the walls of another stairwell depicts scenes from renowned cultural sites, including the Egyptian Sphinx.

Students will receive traditional college-prep fare — math, English, social studies, science and foreign language — but lessons will reach beyond the classroom and include hands-on learning following Clark's philosophy that students need to experience material to learn it.

Athens mother Dionne Davis will be driving her son, Seabon, a fifth-grader, close to 80 miles one-way to the campus. Like other parents, Davis learned about the academy from the 2006 TNT movie, which came about after a Hollywood producer caught Clark's story on "Oprah." Davis was thrilled the school was coming to Georgia, and she watched vigilantly for any news about applications.

"I just had this premonition that this was the place my son was supposed to be," Davis said. "It's really funny because, Ron Clark, he's a believer as well. He can believe for the moon. I mean, he has such high expectations. He can make what seems impossible, possible. ...

"I think he just has a gift that goes way beyond teaching."


The founders: Ron Clark, a North Carolina native and former Disney American Teacher, and Kim Bearden, a former Teacher of the Year from Cobb County.

The philosophy: Children need to become citizens of the world, understanding how their studies relate to their future. Before they reach high school, Clark promises they will visit six continents.

The design: A private middle school, it opens this year for fifth- and sixth-graders and will grow a grade per year until the campus reaches eighth grade. Tuition is based on ability to pay, from $30 a month to $14,000 a year.

The students: Clark and Bearden spent eight months selecting 60 pupils from more than 350 applicants. They say the students, mostly African-American, range from those who dislike school to those already deemed gifted. They'll begin looking for their next crop of students later this month.

The teachers: Clark and Bearden took 15 months to hire the school's seven teachers. At least 700 hopefuls applied. Hired teachers signed a contract agreeing to be involved in students' lives until they reach 21.

The future: Clark has plans for music recording and TV broadcast studios for the students, as well as a playground. Renovation work has started for a stand-alone library with a student-run café open to the community after school.

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