The history of the Presbyterian Home for Children in Talladega stretches back more than a century, but that does not mean it will ever have to stop innovating.
At the end of this summer, The Presbyterian Home and the First Presbyterian Church will unveil the Ascension Leadership Academy, a new, private elementary school meant to provide “superior education with a Christian Foundation,” according to a release about the new school.
“There were really two precipitating events” that led to the creation of the new school, according to Presbyterian Home President Mark Howard.
“We added a new program last year, the Secure Dwellings Program, to house homeless mothers and their children. These children had no behavior issues, but they and their families had been disenfranchised, and they had fallen behind. They needed a different take from what we had at the Hope Academy (the school associated with the Presbyterian Home).”
The second event was Howard’s walking into an old school building behind the Presbyterian Church that once housed the Episcopal Day School.
“I walked into that building and thought ‘this would make a great school,’” Howard said. “We want to be able to remove the barriers to young people to learning, and this provides a remarkable opportunity to do that.”
First Presbyterian member Joe Chastain explained that, at the same time, “the church leadership had been casting around for a use for that building. Those classrooms were all full at one time, but now they’re pretty much just being used for utilitarian purposes …
“The foundations were already there, the offices, the desks, the chairs, the whiteboards. We were tickled when Mark brought the idea to us.”
The new school will be a partnership between the Presbyterian Home and the church.
The first school year is set to begin Aug. 17, and there will be room for about 30 students between kindergarten and eighth grade. Like Hope Academy, admittance will not be limited to residents of the Presbyterian Home.
“We’re hoping to draw students from Sylacauga, Pell City, Oxford, but Talladega will be the priority as long as slots are available,” Howard said.
The new school will be building on the recent success of Hope Academy, according to Director of Education Linda Harris, who will oversee both schools.
“At Hope Academy, we had 10 or 12 students in the last class participating in dual enrollment classes with (Central Alabama Community College),” she said. “We had one student that got a scholarship to Auburn who had 59 college credits already.”
The new school will also take advantage of virtual learning programs.
“We want to expand on some exceptional opportunities,” Howard said. “It will be off campus and autonomous, with a different personality from Hope Academy.
“We will be teaching to the top of the class, and expectations will be very high. Everything will be very fast paced, with lots of energy. And we will be teaching an ecumenical form of Christianity as part of the curriculum also. I don’t think any denomination will be offended by what we’re teaching.”
The Christian component will provide a foundation for classes emphasizing leadership and critical thinking, Chastain added. Specific classes and activities will help enhance those skills.
Parts of the new school will be structured based on the “House System” used by the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta and, to a lesser extent, in the Harry Potter books.
In this case, according to educator Chelsea Glassco, the houses will include “Veritas (truth), Compassio (compassion), Virtus (courage) and Sapientia (wisdom).” Each house has a crest with an appropriate animal and dominant color.
Each student will be assigned to a House, where they will collaborate with other students of all ages. There is also a room in the new school known as the co-lab, where the students will hone the skills involved in working together.
The basis of the academic curriculum at the school will be a course of study laid out by the Alabama Department of Education and 2020 (college and career ready education standards). There will also be arts classes, including music and drama, and a virtual class program that will involve computerized distance learning. Each student will learn at his or her own pace. All national and state academic standards will be met. All teachers are certified.
Teams of volunteers are working to finish renovating the building by the end of summer. Included in the building will be a Dr. Suess themed room, complete with truffula trees, the Cat In the Hat, the Lorax and a two story high reading nook, with a cache of appropriate books at hand.
There will also be an “Alice In Wonderland” themed room, which will be entirely upside down, with the sky painted on the floor and the ground, along with the famous Mad Tea Party, visible on the ceiling. “After all,” Glassco said, invoking the Cheshire Cat, “We’re all mad here.”
The older children will study in a steam-punk themed room, “where everything old is made new, with some extra gears and electronics,” she said. And the halls will be modeled on the computer game “Minecraft.”
There will also be a large presentation room, where students of all ages will give, well, presentations, surrounded by a gallery of historical figures, sports heroes, artists and other inspiring figures.
Tuition at the new school will be $4,000 per year, plus a commitment from the parent for at least 40 hours of volunteer service per year.
The new school will be dedicated during Sunday morning services at the church on Aug. 7, with an open house the following day from 4 to 7 p.m.
The school, Howard said, will be an example of The Presbyterian Home’s motto, “Love, learn and lead. And there are two categories under each of those: love God and others, learn everything and always, and lead boldly and fairly.”
Applications are available through Harris at 256-268-8856 or can be downloaded online at www.ascensionleadership.net.