Note: The information in this profile represents SY2010-11 unless otherwise indicated.
Program model: Flex
The face-to-face teacher never lectures. Students choose from a menu of online and other options for learning. Many students use online programs for certain subjects, with a face-to-face teacher providing as-needed help.
History and context
Jeff and Laura Sandefer wanted more for their children than “to be talked at all day long for eight hours a day” in a traditional classroom with a single teacher delivering monolithic instruction. As the founder of the nationally acclaimed Acton School of Business and a graduate-level teacher for over 21 years, Jeff Sandefer had extensive experience in both the education sector and in launching startups. Laura Sandefer had earned a Master of Education at Vanderbilt University.
The Sandefers’ desire to ensure that their children would experience top-quality educations inspired them to found a private school that would use the best of face-to-face instruction, project-based learning, and online-learning tools. They named it the Acton Academy, after Lord John Emerich Edward Dahlberg Acton (1834–1902), a Victorian political philosopher.
The Acton Academy’s mission is “to inspire each child and parent who enters [its] doors to find a calling that will change the world.” The theme underscoring its curriculum is heroes and callings. The school promises that students will embark on a hero’s journey to discover the unique contributions that they can make to live a life of meaning and purpose. The Sandefers believe this narrative motivates the children to learn and find the courage to push past setbacks. The school’s curriculum also focuses on developing character, fostering an appreciation for liberty, and stoking students’ curiosity.
The Acton Academy opened in 2009 with 11 to 12 students, which meant that for group project time, students divided into two groups of six. It now has 16 students, which divide into four groups of four.
According to the Austin Business Journal, the Acton Academy is one of about 25 independent schools in central Texas. Tuitions at these schools range from $2,800 a year per student to $17,750 a year. The Acton Academy charges $850 a month, or $9,350 a year.
Upon scaling fully, the school will have one master teacher who serves 36 students with the help of two assistants. These assistants could potentially be high school students who work for free in exchange for high school credit. In the Acton model, rather than lecturing to such a large group, the master teacher relies on Socratic discussions and small-group experiences. She divides the students into groups with a mix of grade levels and abilities. In the groups, the students discuss and learn together while the teacher supervises, but does not lead. “Students can lead themselves,” Jeff Sandefer said. “They can self-organize pretty quickly.”
The Acton Academy follows a year-round schedule with a short summer break and more frequent weeklong breaks throughout the year to allow families to travel together. The typical daily schedule is as follows:
8 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. Arrival
8:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. Morning Group
9 am. to 11 a.m. Individual Work
11 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Free outdoor play (3x per week)
11:30 a.m. to noon World History (3x per week)
11 a.m. to noon P.E. (2x per week)
Noon to 1 p.m. Lunch and personal time
1 p.m. to 2 p.m. Art (2x per week) or Writing Workshop (3x per week)
2 p.m. to 3 p.m. Group Work/Lessons
3 p.m. to 3:15 p.m. Closing Group
During the individual work portion of the day, students spend in-depth time concentrating on core subjects. Each student progresses along her own path, which the teacher monitors on a weekly chart. Students have the option of using online programs to learn material or to use other approaches, such as Montessori-style manipulatives, worksheets, physical textbooks, and so forth. The face-to-face teachers provide individual support as needed for the students as they progress at their own pace and along their own path.
Many students opt for an online platform to deliver some or all of their core instruction. Rosetta Stone, DreamBox Math, and Learning Today for reading are the most popular programs.
In addition, all students learn about entrepreneurship and business finance using a series of six online simulations that Jeff Sandefer created originally for the Acton School of Business. These interactive games, called Acton Sims, are available at www.actontoolkit.org.
The Acton Academy uses project-based experiences to expand upon and give context to the foundational lessons. Among the school’s most distinctive programs is its hosting of the Children’s Business Fair (www.childrensbusinessfair.org), an annual event in Austin in which children ages 5 to 13 sell goods and services of their own making to the public. In 2010 the event featured 81 booths; over 700 shoppers attended.
Students use various software programs to support their team projects. In a module about robots, electricity, and computer programming, for example, students used LEGO Mindstorms, Lightbot, Lego the Turtle, Scratch, and Alice.
Students are accountable for their learning in four ways. First, they must pass the short-cycle assessments that accompany their chosen programs to progress to the next level. For example, a student using DreamBox to learn math must pass the unit tests that DreamBox’s LMS delivers before moving on. Second, Acton Academy provides parents with a list of grade-specific standards and then sends home portfolios of the students’ work. Parents are responsible for checking student progress against these standards and monitoring results. Third, students must understand key skills to be successful in group projects. They are accountable to their peers, and this team-based approach motivates students to master their fundamentals. Finally, students take the SAT10 standardized test once a year to ensure comprehensive progress.
On average, the Acton Academy’s first group of students gained about 2.5 grade levels in the first ten months. Because they were already about one grade level above their age cohort when they entered, most are 3.5 grade levels above their age-group now.
Another feature of the Acton Academy is that students complete a survey every week on SurveyMonkey, and teacher bonuses are tied to their satisfaction. Teachers do not assess students in the traditional sense and are forbidden from telling parents how the children are performing. Instead, as discussed, students create portfolios of their work, and parents review their child’s progress by comparing the portfolios to the grade-level standards.
On the horizon
Next year the Acton Academy will expand to include middle-school students. The Sandefers plan to build out the program to accommodate 36 elementary, 36 middle, and 36 high school students over the next several years. The middle school (serving grades 6–9) will open in the fall of 2012.
The Sandefers are developing a series of kits that include materials, curricula, and documents to facilitate the replication of other schools like theirs outside of Austin. They view the Acton Academy as a lab where they can experiment with curriculum and design until they arrive at the right model for other entrepreneurs to follow. The Sandefers need to recoup $100,000 to break even on their investment in the school, but they expect that future schools that use their kits will have start-up costs around $30,000. The Sandefers intend for the economics of the Acton Academy to offer an attractive value proposition for other entrepreneurs.