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Da Vinci Academy is 1st stop for education excellence tour
Da Vanci Academy sixth-grader Jamie Mancuso, far right, 10, dressed as Meriwether Lewis, talks this morning to a group of participants in the annual Bus Tour Across Georgia. The tour’s theme this year is Georgia’s Public Schools: Greater Flexibility, Greater Focus on Results. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

History came to life at Da Vinci Academy on Tuesday as more than 100 people stopped in Hall County as part of the annual Bus Trip Across Georgia education innovation tour.

The three-day tour, sponsored by the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, included education officials, business leaders, volunteers and students. Da Vinci was the first stop.

"The first school sets the tone," said Bill Maddox, spokesman for GPEE. "This is an exciting place."

Pam Williams, who was recently named Georgia Teacher of the Year, said she was impressed to see students learned content through their own interests. She said she wants to take a few ideas back to her economics classroom.

"I think you have more student buy-in when they have control of the method," she said.

As students guided visitors through the academy, several of the middle school students stood on pedestals dressed in period clothing. They represented historical greats such as Maya Angelou and Thomas Edison and froze in statue-like poses until a group approached.

"I am a consummate Renaissance man," announced eighth-grader J.D. Ross, who played artist Leonardo Da Vinci.

Visitor Fernanda Meier, director of educational partnerships of the Southeast region for Kaplan K12 learning services, said she was floored by the creativity.

"The children are technologically literate, socially literate and well-spoken," she said. "They genuinely want to be here."

An emphasis for the tour this year was on the flexibility provided in charter schools. The idea is to showcase high-performing public schools with the hope that many of the ideas will find their way to other schools across the state, said Larry White of the Georgia Board of Education.

"They want to show things that are not only new but that are successful," White said.

Organizers said Da Vinci was the most flexible or "outside-of-the-box" school on the tour.

The academy's concept was part of a project by teachers in the district's gifted program. They were asked to describe a "dream school" or a program where students' talents are intentionally sought and developed.

Hall County leaders believed this could be a viable option for a small group of middle school students, especially since the economic downturn resulted in a vacant middle school building. Within weeks, the original concept was tweaked and students, teachers and parents spent their summer transforming the old building.

"This is a 21st century one-room schoolhouse," Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield told the visitors.

Da Vinci does not have police officers or custodians. Instead it emphasizes personal responsibility.

On the tour, participants stepped into various classrooms. The school also featured a museum, where students displayed projects focused on China, a unit students recently completed.

Seventh-graders Matthew Minor and Chad Newstrom had made a scale version of the Three Gorges Dam in eastern China, using aquarium pumps and foam.

"This is actually generating about 25 milliwatts of power," Minor said of the project.

Other students presented models of the Great Wall and a traditional shadow puppet play.

Across the hall, Noah Miratsky, 11, was explaining his turtle project, based on an eastern box turtle he had as a pet. He told participants that like tree rings, age can be determined by looking at patterns on a turtle's shell.

Maddox said he noticed many people jotting down notes.

Preparation for the stop took many hours of planning and practice. However, it gave students a chance to hone their leadership skills and it also spruced up the school, said Sally Krisel, director of innovative and advanced programs for Hall County Schools.

"It gave us an urgency to do projects that were on our list anyway, such as painting," Krisel said.

The bus tour will continue with seven more stops, including schools in Gwinnett and Fulton counties.

Last year, Centennial Arts Academy was the last stop on the bus tour and Gainesville Elementary School was visited in 2004.


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