Deep Dive: Acton Story
What if children are far more capable than we ever imagined?
What if children could share learning with each other in a
tightly bound community, with high standards of excellence,
becoming convinced that they could change the world?
Welcome to Acton Academy, a magical place.
Video link: “Welcome to Acton Academy”
Creation stories are one of the foundations of a healthy community, and a touchstone whenever you feel overwhelmed or discouraged. Here’s Acton Academy’s creation story, from Courage to Grow, as well as other inspirational resources.
It is with the spirit of embracing new perspectives that Jeff and I (Laura Sandefer) entered the world of education in 2008: upside down and with fresh eyes.
Despite our backgrounds in education, we never set out to start our own school or design something brand new in the K–12 realm. It was only when we had children of our own that things changed. We understood the world our children would face would be vastly different—unimaginably so—from the world we encountered as young adults. We knew they’d need to be armed to know how to learn, respond, innovate, and create in their own way rather than become skilled at taking tests and following instructions like we had. We believed our children would need the light of curiosity burning brightly in their eyes—not just when they were young learners, but throughout their childhood, teen years, and far beyond.
A small, quiet voice started creeping into our hearts as we looked for school options that would equip them for this wide-open, futuristic territory for which we had no compass. What had worked for us as children looked desperately outdated, impractical, and simply wrong, even with good, smart people working hard to make the traditional schools adaptive to today’s opportunities.
With no map or long-term strategic plan, we set out in the way artists and scientists do—disciplining ourselves to let go of preconceived ideas, experimenting without demanding outcomes, and using clear principles with standards of excellence to constrain us at every turn. Our goal? To create and bring to life a vision of “school” that worked for our own children and anyone who would join us. We didn’t want to disrupt or compete with traditional public or private schools. We wanted to run parallel to them. While we sought data and results, our journey was fueled by a power not mentioned in academic spheres as part of the education equation.
Like all parents, we were driven by love. Love of the human spirit, of freedom, of learning, of risky adventure, and of responsibility. Love for our own children and the light in their eyes.
We wondered: Can a vision of school rationally encounter the power of love and claim it?
We found: only when the vision of school is turned upside down.
Acton Academy is the outcome of our dreaming and scheming. It is a new vision of what a learning community can be. It is gritty and dreamy. It is not for the faint of heart, because it inspires growth and transformation—neither of which are achieved without some suffering, which is the Latin root of the word passion.
Turning learning upside down
Our biggest point of separation is the upside-down power structure that pushes control and decision making to the children. We have few adults serving as bureaucratic authority figures around our learning environments. We believe adults in such capacity can stymie learning and that peers have more power. Because of this, we are free from the traditional trappings that have come to be known as “school.” Acton Academy has no teachers, only guides. No report cards, only student-earned badges and portfolios to prove mastery of skills. No classrooms, only creative workspaces called studios. No assigned homework, only what a child chooses to continue doing at home. No attendance requirements. No bureaucracy, only a lean machine that drives the cost of private schooling down to lower costs than any model we’ve seen.
Our school model includes Socratic questions to hone deep thinking; peer teaching; apprenticeships for real-world learning; and state-of-the-art online learning for mastering the basics of reading, grammar, and math. Hands-on projects designed with game-theory incentives deliver opportunities for young people to dig into the arts, sciences, world history, and economics.
Although we can translate the achievements of our students into a traditional transcript that proves mastery, 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 our doors 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 it be attending a fine university, taking a gap year to travel, or starting a business.
Video link: “A Virtual Tour of Acton Academy 2012–2013”
One distinguishing characteristic of our school brings vibrancy to the upside-down canvas we’ve painted. It’s the landscape on which our curriculum is grounded and is our “why” behind everything that happens in a day, week, or year. It is the Hero’s Journey.
This grand mythological narrative of an ordinary person leaving a place of comfort to meet a challenge describes what all humans since the beginning of time have yearned for in life. We crave a life that means something to the world. We crave being known for our uniqueness, not what others expect or hope us to be.
The Hero’s Journey beckons each of us to answer the questions: Who am I? Why am I here? Will I step forward to answer the call to adventure—knowing there will be monsters to battle, dark valleys to cross, and mountains to climb? Will I be passive or active about the direction of my life? Can I find the treasure of my potential, the holy grail, and return home with it to help others? The Hero’s Journey crosses cultures and binds us as a tribe.
Word gets out quickly in a town when parents and children are having a happy time with their learning experience. With very little advertising or publicity, I began getting daily phone calls for applications and requests for tours. We still felt like we were living in an idyllic world—our sweet schoolhouse with so much learning happening each day—and I was enjoying flying under the radar. More than that, I was afraid of what growth might do to our wonderful learning community.
I was feeling scared and selfish at the same time. Part of me didn’t want anyone to know about our little school. The children were thriving. We felt more like a family than a school. But it was time for Acton to grow.
By the beginning of our third year, we had outgrown our sweet house and moved to temporary buildings on the campus of the Acton School of Business along the south shores of Lady Bird Lake. We had a three-year waiting list, and our oldest Heroes were aging out of elementary school. It was time to open a middle school. The successful addition of an Acton middle school was a big step forward. We could forge ahead building and improving it, knowing that soon we’d be doing the same for a high school.
Acton Academy’s sixth year included our progression toward a grand opening of Launchpad—Acton Academy’s high school, named by the rising middle school Heroes.
As the name implied, Launchpad was preparing these teenagers for their next adventure after graduation. They would receive personal coaching to help dig deeper into their dreams and life goals as well as spend more time in apprenticeships to gain real-world experience within industries of their particular interest. These young people would launch into the world equipped and prepared to fulfill their plans.
Trust the children
If children are given room to struggle and to figure things out on their own, and if they have support from a mentor, peer, or guide who knows them well and holds them accountable, they will learn more than we can imagine.
How can I make this kind of room? I must remember to step back. Wait to be surprised instead of right. Only then will I discover the wonderment of daily life. This is abundance. It is the essence of a Hero’s Journey—and a biological and spiritual truth of being human.
I was able to learn this for only one reason. And it was our very first idea. The most upside-down, audacious idea of them all: Trust the children.