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A middle school for the artist
New da Vinci Academy aims to connect students to arts, science on a slim budget
Cristy Worthington joins others at the former South Hall Middle School campus to help spruce up the grounds for the opening of the da Vinci Academy opening this week.

Slam Fest offers fun, games and free school supplies

Back to school
The Times covers the start of the ’09 school year

Monday: Gainesville, Hall County systems endure summer of challenges.
Tuesday: First day of classes through the eyes of a teacher, plus traffic changes.
Wednesday: Opening of the new Gainesville Middle School.

An educational dream pitched by three Hall County teachers takes flight Monday when 120 students and six teachers come together for the first day of school at the da Vinci Academy.

The pilot program provides innovative learning opportunities for gifted students with a penchant for the arts and sciences. But that’s only half of the reason it’s making a splash with educators across the Southeast. The program also will operate at about 60 percent to 70 percent of the cost per student compared to a traditional middle school, Hall County school Superintendent Will Schofield said.

As states have made unprecedented cuts to public school funds, educators are trying to make the most of every penny while pushing programs that engage students and get results.

Schofield said the da Vinci Academy is a great example of how schools can do more with less.

“I think it truly is some Renaissance thinking is these difficult times,” he said. “It’s the exciting side of chaotic and difficult times.

That’s when you see the best in people and that’s when you see the worst in people, and I think what we’re seeing is the best in terms of innovative thinking, new ways of doing something that we’ve done the same way for a long time.

“I told the state board and the governor’s office (Monday) that it’s one of the most exciting things I’ve watched transpire in my 24 years in education because it truly is going to provide an incredible educational experience at a much reduced cost model,” he said.

The da Vinci model will spend only $4,000 per student in personnel costs; a traditional middle school in Hall County spends about $6,900 per student in such costs, Schofield said.

The University of Alabama awarded the program a $20,000 service learning grant this summer that entices teachers at the school to promote the academy as a template for other schools in the region. Da Vinci teachers have agreed to play host to other educators interested in learning more about the school model that draws on community resources, parent involvement and kids’ curiosities, Hall County schools Rigor Specialist Sally Krisel said.

“This is just part of the solution,” Krisel said of academy and the dilemma public schools face trying to provide a cutting-edge education with lagging state funds.

The da Vinci Academy debuts Monday with sixth- and seventh-graders and will operate as an arm of South Hall Middle School in the new wing of the building on Falcon Parkway.

The academy keeps costs low by having only six teachers and one secretary. Thousands of dollars spent on in textbooks mostly are replaced by laptops each student can lease. There will be no custodians, cafeteria workers, nurses, counselors, special education or English-language learning services at the school, Schofield said.

Instead of a media center, the school will revolve around the Museum of Inspired Learning, which showcases students’ projects alongside exhibits on loan from Gainesville State College archeologists or Quinlan Visual Arts Center.

In addition to bringing community resources into the school, more than 50 parents and dozens of students have spent multiple Saturdays this summer cleaning the school, setting up exhibits and moving furniture.

Cindy White, lead teacher for the academy, said that’s just what she’d hoped would happen.

“That’s what’s so cool, is that the kids are involved in this school,” White said. “When they walk in, a brand new sixth-grader in their new school, they’re already going to be able to say, ‘Oh, there’s the cabinet I painted.’ They already feel like they’re a part of it because they’ve been able to come and work.

“It’s been amazing because we required 20 hours of volunteer work for parents, but some have spent days and days in hard work, interest and support.”

But the cost-saving measures can’t overshadow the academy’s ground-breaking academic mission.

The academy will use students’ interest in the arts or sciences as a foundation for advanced learning in all content areas, Krisel said. Academy teachers have developed an integrated curriculum that teaches core subjects while pulling from other content areas to show students how the material connects.

“The six da Vinci Academy teachers have worked hard all summer on curriculum, and truly, it is some of the finest curriculum I have ever seen. It is very rich,” Krisel said. “These six folks really understand the nature of integrated curriculum and they have worked all summer because they are as excited about this project as we all are.”

The mission of the program — which is not a charter school — is to instill lifelong intellectual curiosity and commitment to learning by building an extraordinary educational foundation on students’ strengths and interests, Krisel said.

It is a concept that teachers are thrilled to support, da Vinci Academy math teacher Lianna Nix said.

“I’m looking forward to being able to work in a teaching environment where we’re all teachers and we’re all learners,” she said. “I’m just the lead learner in the room.”

Krisel said the program’s emphasis on challenging academic standards and creative productivity is aimed to turn out scientists, and middle school is just the place to start. The program will expand next year to include eighth-graders, she said.

Each student will have a laptop with wireless Internet access. And as students collaborate on hands-on projects, they will showcase their best work in the academy’s museum. Students from local middle and elementary schools will be invited to tour the museum as da Vinci students teach other youngsters about their discoveries.

“In this school, the students will have a lot more flexibility with developing their interests and their talents,” White said. “Students were selected based on their motivation and interest in the arts and sciences. Therefore, we want to be able to focus on that and let them develop those kinds of experiences, and especially having community involvement, I’m very excited. And the museum is the center of all of that, because they will actually have a working museum.”

More than 200 students applied for da Vinci Academy, with 120 selected, Krisel said.

With great demand for more gifted niche programs, Krisel said a da Vinci Academy North is possible, or even a Shakespearean Academy geared toward students with a penchant for the humanities.

Cindy Williamson said she was thrilled when her 11-year-old son, Kolton, heard he had been accepted.

Williamson said she was excited to be part of the school’s highly involved parent group because she feels Kolton has the makings of a great engineer, and she wants to support his love for science through a network of parents who feel the same way. She said she is grateful her son can get an education that aims to make the most of his interests.

“He’s going to be challenged and he’ll be in class with other kids on the same level,” she said. “And here, I think he’ll make friends for life.”

Kolton said when his mom first told him about the academy, he wasn’t too keen on the idea.

“I thought, ‘Oh, it’s school. It’s going to be boring,’” he said. “But then I found out about the laptops, and I was like, ‘OK.’”