Ivy Green Academy: A learner-driven school

“There’s no drill and kill here.”

That’s how Dr. Donna Akers, Head of School at Ivy Green Academy in Pontotoc describes the freedom that her students have in the classroom. The students are receiving an education free from standardized testing and the traditional ways of doing school all while thriving and growing.

Donna founded the school in August of 2020 after searching for the best educational setting for her youngest child.

“We are the only private school in Pontotoc,” she said. “The closest private school before we opened was in Tupelo.”

About the time that she was conducting her search, she was also preparing to retire after 28 years in a public-school classroom. A nationally board-certified teacher, Donna knew that the approach toward education in the public school setting was not ideal for her students.

“As new teachers, we come out ready to educate the child based on their individual needs, but it quickly becomes ingrained in us with the traditional way of teaching that we are teaching to standards and must create pacing guides. We are standardizing things and supposed to meet the individual needs of the child, and it doesn’t work,” she said. “In that setting, we are feeding information to kids instead of helping them find a pathway forward.”

Donna knew that style was not what she wanted for her own child, and, through her research, she found Acton Academy, a growing national network of 145 small private schools.

“I ran across Acton Academy which is based in Texas. I got the book ‘Courage to Grow’ written by Acton Founder Laura Sandefer and fell in love with the model,” she said.

Donna describes the model as a learner-driven school where students help each other and learn from each other. Acton Academy empowers children with the habits, mentors, online lessons, and tracking systems that they need to be able to manage their own learning. The primary role of the face-to-face teacher is to guide, encourage, and activate learning, not to deliver instruction – something of which Donna must remind herself after years as a traditional classroom instructor.

Because of the commitment from the guides not to answer questions at all, students understand that they are in charge of figuring out answers rather than being given them by an expert. The students themselves become teachers and seekers of knowledge.

Donna noted that it is sometimes a challenge as a veteran teacher not to step in, but that the reward of letting students guide their own learning has proven to set off many lightbulbs.

“I have always loved seeing the lightbulb go off when a student gets something,” she said, “and it used to happen every now and then in my classroom when they would get it, but now I get to see it go off ten times a day. It’s a happy place to be and there is a different kind of joy in our classrooms.”

When Ivy Green Academy began last year, they had 14 students in K4-8 grade. Today, they have 36 students, four full-time guides, and a technology guide. The school meets in a house and students work together in the classrooms.

“Our students have high expectations for each other,” she said. “It’s a happy environment where they are participating in Socratic discussions, quests, reading, writing, math, projects, sciences, technology, civilization, and more.”

The end goal of learning at Acton isn’t to get a good score on a test or an A from a teacher. It is something quite different and includes solving real problems, analyzing moral dilemmas, making difficult decisions, persuading audiences to action, creating innovative opportunities for the world, resolving personal conflicts, and even making and managing money.

The ultimate goal, though, is to learn how to learn, learn how to do, and learn how to be, so that each person who enters the school will find a calling and change the world. Each person who graduates from an Acton Academy will be equipped to master the next step in their life plan with gusto – whether attending a university, taking a gap year to travel, or starting a business.

“We believe that all children are geniuses and capable of changing the world,” Donna said. “We want them to become independent learners and find their calling in life. Everything we learn is authentic. We immerse ourselves in what we want to learn and guide them to do the same.”

Students have become more engaged and understand that they are in charge of their learning.

“They set goals every day and we track whether or not they met their daily goals. That’s how we measure progress in our model,” she said.

Not only are students engaged in learning and excited about their education, but parents are thrilled with the model.

“Our parents are extremely happy,” Donna added. “I get feedback all the time from parents who are pleased with their children’s progress because they have seen how happy their children are in this setting. They are engaged and excited about learning. We have some kids who don’t want to leave at the end of the school day.”

Ivy Green Academy is the first Acton Academy in the State of Mississippi. Prior to that, the closest Acton Academies were in New Orleans and Nashville. Donna hopes to add more Ivy Green Academies in the state in the future while keeping the school sizes small.

“I never want to go over 150 kids,” she said. “I want to keep the small school model because it works best for us.”

While planning for the future, Donna is also planning what comes next semester.

“Our immediate future holds a larger space for our current school,” she said. “We are planning to move to a 6,000 square foot gym from our current location at the first of the year. We are busting at the seams and desperately need the space.

“We are excited to see what the future holds for us. We are about preparing kids for their future.”