Ep. 180: Cool Schools with Alliance Christian Academy

May 14, 2020

In this episode of our Cool Schools series, we chat with Christy Wilson, dean of academics at Alliance Christian Academy in Fort Worth, Texas.

Mike McShane: Hello, and welcome back to another episode of Cool Schools as part of our EdChoice Chats podcast series. My name is Mike McShane. I’m director of national research at EdChoice. And today on the podcast, we have Christy Wilson, who is the dean of academics at Alliance Christian Academy in Fort Worth, Texas. Now, if you go to Alliance’s website, they will tell you that in the spring of 2004, two couples met together to discuss the need for a new alternative, with regard to education in their community. Their initial desire was to find a preschool that blended strong Christ-centered biblical teaching with excellent academics. And this became a journey with the support of their local church that eventually became Alliance Christian Academy.

It is a university model school that has a high level of academic achievement with strong ties between parents and their children and it’s a really interesting school. I’m glad Christy took the time to chat with me about it, and so without further ado, here’s my conversation with Christy Wilson, the dean of academics at Alliance Christian Academy in Fort Worth, Texas. So, Christy, I think it would be great to maybe start at the beginning. How did the Alliance Christian Academy come about?

Christy Wilson: We started in 2004. We started as a preschool. I was moving from the TCU area up to the north Fort Worth area and looking for school for my daughter that really embodied great Christian values, as well as really strong academics. And so, a friend of mine and myself, we decided to start the preschool and it grew from there. And then once we had decided, well, we liked the idea of part-time schooling, going to school part-time and being able to have time with our kids and work with our kids individually on some of those off days. And we found the University-Model Schools, and at that point it was called NAUMS, the National Association for University-Model Schools, and joined that organization, became certified and then accredited shortly after that, to continue in that model.

Mike McShane: Sure. On the podcast, we’ve had some university-model schools, but I know lots of people put their own kind of spin on it. So, I’d be interested maybe from the perspective of a student, what might a typical student’s day or week look like at your school?

Christy Wilson: So, our students are preschool through eighth grade students and are on campus three days a week. They have electives built into their schedule as well as their core curriculum, which is why they’re on campus three days instead of some of the traditional university-models that the younger students are there two days, they come to campus three days a week. It’s just like a regular classroom. They get all their initial instruction in those three days. And then they’re sent home with assignments that are completed with the help of their co-teacher, which is typically a parent, on the other two days, so on the Wednesday and Friday, and they bring those back to school. We call them home assignments, not homework, because we technically only have homework Monday night, coming back to school on Tuesday, the other ones they replaced their school day, they kind of get the best of both worlds, having the ability to do school at home on those other two days.

Mike McShane: And so, how do you work with your parents? So, they are taking on a substantial part of the educational process. Do you do workshops with them or any kind of, I don’t want to call it necessarily professional development, but do you do any kind of development with them to help get them up to speed on your expectations or how they can best help their children?

Christy Wilson: We do. And it varies depending on the grade level, but all of our parents are required to attend parent training that starts right before the school year starts. And that is an opportunity for them to hear from the specific teachers and grade levels that the parents and the children are going to have during that school year, their expectations, things that would be helpful to them, resources that they need to have, the best way to communicate between the parent and the teacher. All of those things are set out at the beginning, so that the parent knows, specifically for this year, here are some things that I should be looking at, that I should be anticipating. Here are resources that will help me.

We also have quite a few teachers who not only communicate through email, but they will do some short video lessons for the parents. If something’s come up in class, for example, long division has come up in class and there’s a very specific way that we have taught that skill, they’ll do a little mini lesson that they’ll post for parents, so that the parents can watch this is how the teacher explained it. And they have that knowledge and ability to really help their kid with the same language that they may have heard in the classroom.

Mike McShane: So, that’s a really impressive thing for teachers to do. Where do you find these folks and how do you recruit your teachers? And given the kind of unique model that you have, how do you work with them to integrate themselves into this particular pedagogical philosophy?

Christy Wilson: Well, we really rely mostly on word of mouth for recruiting teachers and yes, have some fabulous teachers who really believe in the model and like the opportunity to pour into kids for part of the week and also maybe be at home to do some of the things that they want to do, or pour into their own kids for part of the week. So, a lot of our teachers are certified teachers, but also parents who have decided they want to be with their kids at least part of the time and not necessarily work full time. And so, really it’s word of mouth, God bringing them to us. UMSI does have a site where you can list job opportunities for things. And we really rely on our parents a lot to put out the word that we’re looking for this person and, “Hey, does anybody know somebody who might fit in this niche?”

Mike McShane: Yes. And UMSI is the kind of umbrella organization for university-model schools, am I correct in saying that?

Christy Wilson: It is. Yeah, yeah.

Mike McShane: OK, wonderful. So, now it seems to be the Dallas-Fort Worth area. What is it, the metroplex? Is crowded with, there’s lots of private schools there, there’s lots of opportunities for families move around. So, how do you see your school in the broader network of schools that parents could potentially choose from?

Christy Wilson: I think we have a really unique outlook on schooling. First of all, yes, there’s lots of great five-day private Christian schools. So, if parents are looking for that, we’re not the right fit. We really want the right fit. We want a parent who really does want a partner, they want to know their child, not just emotionally, not just behaviorally, but they really want to know them academically and help them move forward in that area as well. They may not feel equipped to homeschool them full-time, or they may not have the opportunity because they are working part-time in their own profession, but they still want to be intimately involved in what their child’s doing. And that’s really where we fit and come in, they want to have the discussions about the great books that our children read. They want to be able to elicit those conversations and really that idea of giving back time to parents, so that they can speak in and be the first voice in situations, whether it be behavioral situations or just a cultural situation that occurs, that the parents really get to be the voice in that.

Mike McShane: And so, it’s interesting, you bring up this concept of time and giving time back to parents. I mean, I assume that’s a kind of relationship that needs to be developed over time and part of it needs to have some expectations that are set up at the beginning. I can imagine just in my own head a voice of a, perhaps, a more traditional educator, listening to the conversation that we’re having and saying, “How can you give parents two days? I mean, you only get five days a week anyway, for eight hours a day, and you’re giving parents two of those?” So, how do you think about that? How do you negotiate that relationship? How do you make sure that you’re all rowing the boat in the same direction?

Christy Wilson: Well, I think one of the big things is that we really believe that what our parents can impart to their children is so valuable, and the opportunities that parents have, whether it be with one child at home, or three children, or five children that they’re working with, the things that they model through being able to do schoolwork and work with them on what we consider more of their independent practice. Like I said, all the lessons have been done at school in terms of concepts being introduced. And our parents come along and really reinforce those lessons, as the children work on more independent practice, and the parent has a chance to go back and remediate.

And then with that, really also has the chance to speak into the character and the attitude with which the child does approach these situations, and procrastination, and what that yields and on the flip side of that really good time management and what that affords you, and how that leads to excellence in whatever field that you’re going to be in later on.

Mike McShane: So, I’m curious, how do you measure success? How do you know that what you’re doing is working?

Christy Wilson: Well, we had our first graduating class last year and so we now have an obvious measure of success with the majority of those students going on to college. And so, that’s our obvious measure, but I think in looking at the less obvious, I guess, more intangible things, it really is that ability for parents to build the relationships and kids to develop a sense of independence, and a sense of a face that is their own, and not their parents. And so, watching that progression happen for kids who maybe weren’t terribly interested in taking responsibility for their schoolwork, and now they are. Or students who didn’t really exhibit a lot of leadership qualities who have now stepped up to take some leadership. We measure it in a lot of those intangible ways, also, that we feel like with our mission, we’re building success.

Mike McShane: And how many students do you serve now?

Christy Wilson: We have around 300 students.

Mike McShane: And that’s in what grade span?

Christy Wilson: So, we actually go, we have one year old through 12th grade.

Mike McShane: Oh, wow. Everybody, I mean, that’sā€”

Christy Wilson: We have everybody.

Mike McShane: So, in your time doing this work, do you think you’ve learned any lessons that could be applied to what we might consider more traditional schools, whether that’s private, public charter, traditional public school, any lessons that you’ve learned through the unique stuff that you do, but that might be applicable outside of that?

Christy Wilson: Yeah. I think the biggest lesson is always that there’s always more going on than what you see, whether it’s a behavior situation, whether it’s an academic situation, there’s always more going on than what it appears initially. And we have the unique ability to be able to really dive into that and do ministry alongside these families and then refer out when necessary of, “Hey, I think this might be a good avenue for you to seek some more support beyond what we’re able to give you.” And that’s really probably the biggest lessons, probably one of the hardest things about being in a public school situation, that I was in initially, was my ability to feel like I could really meet the needs and connect with all my students in a way that I really desired to do that. I knew there was more going on, but a lot of times I was limited in the questions I could ask or the resources I could provide for them.

Mike McShane: Well, so I’d love to know your story. So, how did you get involved in this? And so, it sounds like you had worked in a public school before, and I would love any comparison and contrast that you can give from that experience to your experience now.

Christy Wilson: So, I did work in public school. My first teaching job right out of college was a difficult one. I’m an idealist and the situation I went into was not terribly ideal, and I think it’s always hard. I’ve done some mentoring for student teachers and so I know it’s always hard to be a first year teacher. And the situation I was in was a little beyond that, just because I had spent my life fairly sheltered. And I went back to the same school district that I graduated from, thinking that it would be like the experience I had and it wasn’t. So, in doing that, I experienced a lot, and a lot of inadequacy because it seemed like in a lot of these kids’ cases, their academic needs were so far out shadowed by some of the other needs that they had in their life.

And I ended up going to graduate school and I worked at a program at TCU, that was a lab school. Fabulous. Just, “Hey, I need more information. I want to do this well and I don’t know how to do that.” And so, I spent two years doing my graduate work there and really being poured into by great mentors in that environment of, “This is how this can work and here are some of the things that would set you up for success.” So, then I went back to public school and a different school, different district, better situation. I loved it, I really did. I loved the kids. I loved my administration, everything about it, not everything, but for the most part, I didn’t have complaints.

It was very long hours and very stressful and I knew having a family, that I couldn’t do both things well. And so, shortly after I started having children, I transitioned into doing just some private tutoring. I worked as an adjunct professor at TCU for a while. I was pursuing my doctorate degree, just some different things that I had interest in, kind of on a part-time basis so that I could be home with my kiddos. And so, this seemed like a great balance of both of those, to me, of, hey, I can be in the same place that my kids are, and I can have days that are devoted to them and still not be the only voice pouring into my kids.

Mike McShane: So, I’d be interested in you looking towards the future. So, what do you think the next year, the next three years, the next five years holds for Alliance Christian Academy?

Christy Wilson: Well, I think that we are really in a transition period of going from kind of a small mom-and-pop school to how does this run on a little bigger scale? Our goal is not to be the best or the biggest school, but to do what we do with excellence. And so, looking towards that and what needs to happen, to really accomplish that, what changes need to be made, what things need to look like, how we have to function a little differently, just based on size and opportunities that we want to provide for our students and our families.

Mike McShane: And so, what are some of those growing pains. I’d be interested in when you’re thinking about growing or scaling, are there a couple of things that stand out to you, that say, these are challenges that we need to think about?

Christy Wilson: Well, just on an administrative level, when you only have two or three people who are your administrative team as a whole, it’s really easy to communicate and make sure everybody’s in the loop. When that starts to get bigger, all of a sudden you have to put some processes in place, so that people do have information and things are shared because inadvertently like, “Oh, well, she never heard about that.” Or, “He didn’t know this was happening.” Some of those just very, very simple things that are not intentionally trying to cut anybody out, but it really is a real growing pain of, how do you go to a more formal process of, after we have this meeting, these notes need to go out to all these people, so that everyone has the same information, some of that.

And that really happens on a parent side too, honestly, of when you’re smaller, it’s easier to make sure that you’ve really connected with all those parents. And as you get bigger and start to release that to other people, it’s important that all of those people are connecting well with the families they’re responsible for, so that there isn’t that lack of, “Well, we don’t know what’s going on.”

Mike McShane: Absolutely, absolutely. Well, Christy Wilson from Alliance Christian Academy. Thank you so much for joining the Cool Schools podcast.

Christy Wilson: Well, thank you. I appreciate it.

Mike McShane: Wasn’t that a great conversation? I think, having Christy talk about her own experiences and being able to compare and contrast her time in different teaching environments, I think was a really valuable thing. A recurring theme that I think has shown up in a lot of these podcasts is how schools are thinking about children as whole beings. That they’re not just academic needs, but they have a whole suite of needs outside of that, that effective schools and schools that are trying to do good and important work really need to think about. So, I know the conversation I had with Christy gave me a lot to think about, and I hope it did the same thing for you. As always, if you’d like to find out more and have all sorts of thought-provoking things sent your way, please subscribe to our podcasts. This is a part of a longer series of EdChoice Chats that we offer on a variety of topics.

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And obviously, my final ask is the one I always close with, which is if you know of a cool school near you, it doesn’t have to be a hybrid homeschool. It doesn’t have to be necessarily a school that’s doing something completely different, but if you just know a cool school that is doing awesome things for kids, please make sure to drop me a line, shoot me an email, hit me up on Twitter and I will check it out, and hopefully profile a school near you. Thanks so much for joining us and I look forward to chatting with all of you again as we talk to another school leader of a cool school. Take care.