New Business: Acton Academy

By on September 18, 2017

Acton AcademySocrates would have felt right at home in Verona’s newest business, Acton Academy.

The private elementary school, based in a wing of Calvary Lutheran Church, requires its students to use the Socratic method to, in essence, educate themselves. The school mixes students from first through fifth grade in the same classroom, where they talk, reflect and talk some more to come to a personal understanding of a subject. In place of a teacher, Acton Academy has an adult “guide” to lead students through their daily activity in school, the “studio” in Acton’s lexicon.

One other thing: There are no tests, no grades and no homework in an Acton Academy. “After the school day ends here, they can be children,” says Kai Olderog, who owns the license to operate Acton’s Verona location.

Acton Academy takes its name from Lord Acton, a 19th century British historian who wrote extensively on the history of liberty. It was founded in Texas by Jeff Sandefer, who had built his fortune in the oil fields before turning his attention to what he believed were teaching problems at Texas’ state universities. Sandefer taught business school classes in entrepreneurship, which is where Olderog first met him. “His philosophy was that discovery is more important than lecturing,” says Olderog, who has made a career in running and fixing businesses. “Those were powerful lessons that have served me well.”

Acton now has 25 licensed schools in the United States and several foreign countries, and another 15 set to open. They are not charter schools, so they won’t take state funding away from Verona’s public school district. But when the Verona Board of Adjustment met in August to rule on variances needed for the school to operate from the church building, some nearby residents couldn’t understand why Verona public school students would want to go to the private school.

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Olderog believes that his Acton location can draw students from many different towns, anywhere where parents are looking for an alternative to the standardized test-driven public school environment. According to the Council for American Private Education, private schools educated 10% of all K-12 students in 2013-2014, a growing share of them in nonsectarian schools like Acton. While Catholic school enrollment has been falling, nonsectarian schools have been gaining ground: Rising from 13.2% of all private school students in the 1989-90 school year to 21.3% in 2013-2014. Though not part of Montessori, an Acton studio would be familiar enough to a Montessori preschooler to be a natural transition. (The Children’s House is a Montessori preschool that operates from the Verona United Methodist church just down the block from Acton.)

Acton Academy

Kai Olderog (right), with some of the students at the new Acton Academy in Verona.

What’s a day like at Acton? It might include block on lip dubbing, a technique for creating music videos. Students did their performances in turn, giving each other feedback on what was–and wasn’t–working. When their efforts hit a wall, they stopped to talk about why that happened, and concluded that the feedback they were giving each other wasn’t hard enough. (They also noticed that when they slacked off, they weren’t on their best behavior.)

The Acton approach allows students to stay with a subject until they have mastered it. “I had a problem with multiplication,” says Beatrice, one of the students in Verona. “Now I have all the time to work on it.” Entrepreneurship is also woven into the Acton curriculum, which is set by headquarters in Texas. Verona’s students will be given a budget and then take six weeks to be the architects of their studio’s playground.

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Though it intends to eventually educate students through 7th grade, Acton Verona will never be a big school: Enrollment is capped at 35 students. There are just five students now enrolled now, including two of Olderog’s children. Tuition is just under $10,000 for the 11-month school year, which Olderog says he hopes he will be able to reduce in the future.

“The goal is to help students discover how they can motivate themselves to be lifelong learners,” says Olderog. “In a changing world, we think it is important to learn how to learn.”

Acton Academy Verona
23 South Prospect Street
Open 8:45 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Monday-Friday
Acton Academy

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