Students at Sage Academy in Gainesville work at their own pace, eat lunch on the downtown square and often share a classroom with a few dogs.
The rare learning environment provided at Sage has helped students raise their failing grades to A and B averages, according to Ron Walker, full-time staff member, teacher and founder of Sage Academy.
“It was opened kind of in response to a need we heard from some parents,” Walker said. “We started with four students last year and think capacity would be about 10, though there’s room to grow upstairs.”
In its second year, Sage Academy is an accredited, nonprofit private school for academically struggling high school students. The facility is in a two-story, open space just off the downtown square on Washington Street in Gainesville.
Sage is not designed for students with severe behavioral problems, but to give students who need it individual attention and specifically designed plans of study.
“The number of options for high school is very limited,” Walker said. “There are facilities here and in surrounding communities that serve younger students, but there was really no placement for a commitment to producing college-prep schools and a Georgia diploma. So that’s the niche we were filling.”
Walker said the school serves students across North Georgia, including Hall, Habersham and Forsyth counties.
“This is my 40th year in education,” he said. “And I’ve found committed parents are willing to go to a lot of trouble to get their kids service.”
The school is accredited through the Georgia Accrediting Commission and uses a “blended-learning model,” which includes traditional lecture-style lessons and Georgia Virtual School, the state’s online school.
“If kids are taking the same courses, I try to have them working roughly at the same time,” Walker said. “But they are pretty much free to change back-and-forth between subjects during the day.”
Though most courses and assignments are completed online, students still receive live assistance and instruction. Because the school has a current capacity of about 10 students, they are guaranteed individual attention.
When asked what Sage offers that traditional schools don’t, vice president and treasurer Keith Rooks said, “the class size.”
“Also the flexibility of scheduling and the fact that they can tailor their curriculum,” Walker said. “Georgia Virtual School offers about 126 courses total.”
Last year, one student took Japanese while another took forensic science. The science course was such a hit, Walker said two more students took it in the spring.
Every Sage student has his or her own work station, including desktop or laptop, personal planner hanging on the wall around the station and decorative bins for binders and notebooks.
“We think it fills a niche for students that don’t really fit in well in public school, private school or even a home-school situation,” Rooks said. “You know, if I was home schooling my kids and they wanted to take forensic science, I’d have to say, ‘Well good luck with that.’”
Sage has a board of directors and two full-time staff members. It also has two other unofficial staff members: Walker’s dogs Jean-Paul, a Bichon Frise, and Malcolm, a Cavalier King Charles mix.
Walker said one Sage student went through a difficult time last year after her mother died suddenly. The student asked for help caring for her mother’s puppy, and Walker allowed her to bring the dog to school each day.
“Really, that’s the kind of thing you can’t get at other schools,” Walker said.