The founding of Acton Academy in Austin, Texas, follows a template familiar in K-12 education. Parents see inadequate options for their children, and desperate to offer their kids the best, try to create something different. Parental idealism runs headlong into one obstruction after another. Though discouraged, they persevere in the quest. Eventually, boys and girls end up with better choices.
Courage to Grow by Acton Academy co-founder Laura Sandefer tells the story of the school’s genesis, expansion, and eventual replication. These are tiny private schools (sometimes with just a handful of students each) that can seem more like “an ambitious extension of homeschooling.” The schools are built around Socratic questioning, Montessori-style self-direction, and project-based learning, and a conviction that every child is a genius. There are “no teachers, only guides”; no report cards, no traditional classrooms, no assigned homework. Instead, students write covenants with each other and hold each other accountable, and are evaluated based on qualitative achievements akin to Boy Scout badges. The school’s mission is to equip children to find a calling, change the world, and live a life of meaning; in the words of Acton co-founder and Laura’s husband Jeff Sandefer, “curiosity, competence, and character trump IQ,” and learning to learn, learning to be, and learning to do are more important than learning to know. As part of this fondness for practical, active knowledge, the schools encourage young entrepreneurs with children’s business fairs. The Sandefers’ vision has seeded more than 60 Acton Academies in 15 countries.
Though the model appears modern in several aspects, it leans heavily on one of the oldest and most traditional educational archetypes —the “hero’s journey” to growth and maturation. Under that approach, and Acton’s free-flowing, student-centered contemporary version, young learners are empowered, encouraged, challenged, and assisted—not corralled, lectured, and drilled.
A reader new to education reform will learn a good bit about the difficulty of starting a new school, the challenges of building and maintaining school culture, and the pluses and minuses of project-based learning and virtual courses. Those more familiar with schooling will probably question some of the founders’ views on testing, free time, weekly surveys, and peer accountability.
The most important lesson in this book is the most humbling one: namely that no school—even one created by smart, civic-minded, caring adults—is right for every student, parent, or educator. Sandefer grapples with this on several fronts: when a family takes issue with a teaching strategy used by the school, when she has to fire a teacher for being too conventional, and when her own son, for whom she built the school, wants to attend someplace else.
Unsurprisingly, the book’s telling is partial to the school. Some readers will sympathize with the critics. But all readers will internalize the key lesson: if we believe in offering a wide array of schools, and empowering families to choose from among them, one consequence is that many students and parents will choose schools that we wouldn’t. As Sandefer reports having told many families over the years, “Every person has his own journey. Acton Academy is not always it.”
This speaks to the ultimate test of our faith in education pluralism. What do we do when someone chooses—in our eyes—unwisely? The Sandefers pass with flying colors; when their son rejects their creation in favor of another option, they support his choice. (Then he later comes back.)
Courage to Grow gives some attention to the school’s expansion process, which has less central direction than other school-management organizations. It is “not a franchise, but a workshop.” Parents and educators attracted to Acton’s approach can supplement their own gumption and energy with supports found in the online “Acton Toolshed” and an annual conference.
Acton’s approach to instruction is certainly fodder for pedagogical debate. What brought these schools into being, however, and continues to fuel their expansion, is the first ingredient of good education: Small, local groups of concerned citizens engaging in civic collaboration and social entrepreneurialism. America can never have too much of those things.