Interview with Steve Whitaker of The First Academy Classical School
When I first heard about the Classical School at The First Academy in Orlando I assumed they had created a “school-within-a-school” that featured the usual components of a classical school as described by the CiRCE Institute. After my recent interview with Dr. Steve Whitaker, Headmaster at TFA, however, I discovered a unique “Blue Ocean” strategy that is only one part of their consistent school growth over the last decade.
Under Steve’s leadership, this school has increased enrollment every year since his arrival in 2003--even during the U.S. “Great Recession.” Likewise, fund raising has grown at record levels. I first had the privilege of meeting Steve at an SAIS leadership retreat in Asheville, NC, and was impressed by his vision for building a Christian school and his approachable leadership style.
Below are my notes from a telephone interview with Steve. You might find some elements of TFA’s program inspiring for your strategic planning.
Steve, how would you describe the Classical School program at TFA?
TFA currently enrolls students in 4 divisions, namely the Lower School, Middle School, Upper School, and the Classic School. The Classical School program was designed with a view to serving parent educators, specifically those involved and committed to home schooling their students. Currently, the homeschool program offers a 2 days per week class schedule. But that isn’t where the Classical School stops because it also serves families with students who face the challenge of autism and other related learning needs. These students have access to an education program that is 5 days per week.
The Classical School is housed in its own building on our campus, hosting home school classes and special needs students. We are very proud to be serving 150 students at present, all being educated by certified teachers and therapists.
What was the original intent of the program?
The original intent was to address the home school market, as we felt that not a lot of structure had been focused in this direction. This population of parents has grown significantly in the Orlando area and we wanted to provide a great educational option that also helped them achieve their goals. We’re meeting parents and students where they are.
How connected are homeschool students to the rest of the school?
The homeschool students are encouraged to take part in the day school’s athletics and arts classes, and are also given the option of enrolling in some of the day school classes where those subjects aren’t available in the homeschool schedule. These students are also qualified to participate in after school clubs and sports teams.
The program also gives children who are fully committed to pursuing a career in golf, tennis or perhaps an arts discipline, an opportunity to take part in school classes that also give them the flexibility they need to travel to events and maintain a full-time practice schedule.
Did the day school parents complain about homeschool students taking up team spots or playing time?
We had a few, but those kind of complaints are expect and happen regardless of the situation. When those conversations take place, be it formally or informally, we remind them of our mission and how this program enables accomplishment of the school’s goals. That’s part of our ministry--keeping people focused on the mission, the bigger picture.
For example, one of the unintended consequences of the Classical program is that it enables us to serve the children of parents with less financial ability. Whatever the circumstances, we’re now able to serve a more diverse population with a top-quality Christian education and keep them connected to the larger school community. We love that!
How has the Classical School changed since inception and how do you measure the success of this program?
We run a quarterly Portfolio assessment program, which assists us in measuring where we are in terms of our goals. Enrollment is key of course. The program has grown slowly, but we are now trying to double the capacity and will focus our attention more aggressively on marketing in order to achieve this goal. The homeschool network is very tight and with good communication we can get the support we need. Social media has played a much greater role in our overall marketing plan, and we’ve already seen tremendous results in terms of new student inquiries and enrollment.
What did you learn about your school in the process of launching the Classical School?
One of the earliest lessons I learned was that the needs of all students are similar--they are hungry for an opportunity to learn and grow and lead and simply need to feel special and supported. They will achieve when given high expectations from people who truly believe in them.
The second lesson is how successful a community can be at knitting diverse personal interests together. There was some suspicion that tensions would run high within the core school community at first, but in fact the opposite has proven itself to be true and we have received a lot of affection and synergy from the community with regard to the program.
Thirdly, the national divorce rate among families with an autistic child is over 70%. Our work has achieved an added benefit of proving successful in saving marriages by offering support, love, and care. The children of these families have blossomed and so have the parents. Our work is as much about saving families, as it is about the kids.
Any unexpected benefits?
We have found that the Classical School strengthens the heart of the TFA community, instilling a new and unusual sense of care and pride. An example of this is a 14 year old autistic boy who was told he would never play football. The therapist asked the varsity football coach to please give him an opportunity to be involved with the team in some way. In turn, the coach appointed the student to the role of “Hydration Specialist.” So, every Friday night he wore his football jersey and proudly carried water to the players. At halftime of one home game, the name of the student was announced over the loudspeaker, recognizing his contribution to the team. You can imagine his smile as he waved excitedly at the crowd. All of the parents in the stands were so moved by this gesture. It’s a sort of pride that resonates beyond a single student or the program.
How has the program affected enrollment?
TFA enrollment has grown consistently over the last 10 years. We are not certain of exactly what influences have directly produced this result, but not many private schools have grown over this time period, so I think the success of the program speaks for itself. The day school didn’t lose children to the homeschool program because its cheaper.
If you could go back in time to the planning of this program, what is the most important thing you would do differently?
We would have been more deliberate in planning at the outset. It hasn’t been as strategic as we’d like, with really no benchmarks or examples available for us to follow. Every step was a new learning experience. There were a few haphazard moments in the first few years, but we now have more thoughtful respect for structure and establishing expected outcomes. This vision began with some wonderful leaders who realized the need for higher standards for education--we are very grateful for the foundation they laid.
What adjustments do you have planned for next year?
One of our prime objectives will be to find a way to create an instructional model to double enrollment in the TFA Classical School over the next few years. We are considering some changes to the class schedule so that more families will be interested. As an organization we acknowledge the need to offer more schedule options to students. We would also like to upgrade our classroom technology and learning methods going forward as we feel there is ample room to improve in this area.
I was very impressed with Steve Whitaker and this program, and hope you might find some inspiration for your school as you consider some differentiation strategies to grow enrollment. Learning management systems, web-based content, virtual classes, new national learning standards, mastery-based assessments, student centered learning, and so much more are creating incredible opportunities for schools to advance their mission. Through our involvement in public, charter, and private education, School Growth seeks to cross-pollenate ideas that encourage board and administrative leaders to reinvent their mental models of what school can and should be. Keep dreaming big!