Going Back to School and the Art of Inspiring Students
On Aug. 20, 2015, The Oaks Academy is opening a new middle school, its third campus. The Walton Family Foundation spoke with Andrew Hart, the head of school, about going back to school, expanding, and the art of inspiring students.
WFF: How long have you been at The Oaks Academy?
Andrew: I started as the head of school in April 2002.
WFF: Do you still have back-to-school jitters?
Andrew: Yes. Double yes. It’s like an actor going on stage. If you don’t have butterflies it’s not real.
WFF: What are you doing to prepare?
Andrew: We’re spending two weeks training our teachers on our philosophy. It is really critical because it grounds us and ensures alignment in a shared culture and philosophy.
WFF: What’s new this school year?
Andrew: We’re launching a new middle school. We have a very interesting situation. We’re a faith-based private, independent school. We’re partnering with an urban, public school district.
WFF: What’s your philosophy when it comes to expansion?
Andrew: We only grow organically when there are identified demand, identified and prepared school leaders, including teachers, and an identified school location. A lot of schools say, “We’re going to be 10 schools in 10 years.” We have a much slower growth rate.
Andrew: Our culture and philosophy are at the heart of The Oaks. That takes time to foster a depth of understanding and commitment. Without that, we won’t grow. Also, we’re an independent, faith-based school, and half of our students are in poverty. We have to raise the funds needed to support our students’ education. That takes time and enormous effort.
WFF: How has Indiana’s voucher law affected your ability to serve students and expand?
Andrew: There’s the voucher law and then there’s the tax credit [both introduced four years ago]. They have affected us significantly. Voucher funds are allowing us to grow, but the voucher funds alone probably wouldn’t be sufficient for us. It’s the voucher paired with the tax credit, which amplifies our donors’ giving levels.
WFF: What’s unique about your curriculum?
Andrew: We want our students to think about learning as life. It’s who we are. And learning brings life. We want our students to see that this is an aspect of life that they have access to. You don’t need to be wealthy to access this kind of learning that is life changing and transformative.
WFF: Your students start learning Latin in third grade. Why?
Andrew: We have a love affair with Latin. It’s teaching our students the rudiments of language. One of our graduates says that learning Latin is like being a superhero because it gave her a new vision for language. And it’s true. It just gives our students the intellectual discipline to take apart language and think about it deeply.
WFF: Is there a secret to your students’ high rate of success on standardized tests?
Andrew: We don’t spend more than a single day teaching to our local standardized test. If we can inspire students to enter into a relationship with an author or a text, the test is just a side note. While we submit to measures which, admittedly, are important for accountability, we don’t invest a lot of time in prepping for those measurements.
WFF: Can you address the importance of diversity at the Oaks?
Andrew: We believe that integration and diversity is key to success in a child’s education — whether the child is poor or rich. While diversity on paper sounds like a great idea, in real life it is really hard work. You confront different mindsets and different value systems. But that’s life. And we want our students to contend with and grow from this experience.
The Oaks Academy is a private, faith-based school founded in 1998 in an Indianapolis neighborhood known for a high crime rate, extreme poverty and rampant drug use. Half of the students live in poverty, while the other half come from middle- and high-income families. Oaks students consistently score in the top 5% on Indiana’s standardized tests.