Raising children with character and a calling
By Christine M. Martinello
What is a good quality education? That question is on the heart and mind of every teacher, politician, school administrator, parent, and student. With all the rapid changes happening in the world, education is evolving.
One of the most important decisions a parent will make is where to send their kids to school. It used to be that you sent them to the school closest to your house. Certainly, times have changed. These days parents and kids have a laborious and sometimes exhausting process of deciding the best school fit. Parents analyze academic rigor, SAT scores, friend opportunities, sports statistics, technology integration, arts options and security issues. (Just to name a few.) Life has got a whole lot more complicated.
Some schools have kept up with the changing times and some have not. One school in Gwinnett County that has been a leader in creating innovative education is Greater Atlanta Christian School. GAC is a model school for the 21st century and other schools are trying to emulate it.
Since GAC began in 1968, they have been guiding students to “Get where they need to be” as David Fincher, President of GAC says. “The world is changing. Students being raised today will change jobs eight times and six of those jobs don’t event exist yet. We have to equip children with a set of skills so they can be prepared for the changing world.” Yet they have to have a core set of values that will hold them firmly rooted in doing what’s right and servant leadership.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” is a question most adults ask children. Young children often respond; a firefighter, a doctor, a teacher, etc. However, once kids get into middle and high school the answers expand and life gets more complex.
According to the US World News and World Report the top 11 majors that lead to jobs are; Biomedical engineer, biometrics, forensic scientist, computer game designer, cyber security, business analyst, data management, petroleum engineering, public health, robotics, environmental sustainability. A decade ago, many of those careers didn’t even exist.
GAC is working hard to make sure the education students receive today will be relevant tomorrow. Can you imagine what’s going to happen in the next 20 years? These are the topics GAC leaders talk about and dream about. The school is never standing still, it’s always changing.
GAC is a strong community that educates kids from grades K3 – 12, in Norcross, GA. Misty Overman, middle school principle says. “GAC is large enough, yet small enough. It is large enough to offer all the resources to help each child be successful and fine tune their life-calling yet small enough so each child is known and understood.”
How does school prepare young people to enter the ‘real world’? Intentionally. Very intentionally with a relentless focus on excellence.
GAC is raising young people with character, a calling and a strong sense of community. These core values help children succeed and change the world for the better. From the beginning, GAC has always been clear about it’s mission. “Help each student grow as Jesus did, in wisdom, in stature and in favor with God and men.” What this translates into is to raise children who are whole in mind, body and spirit. And you’ll find plenty of spirit on the GAC campus.
In the fall of 1968 GACS opened their doors to 150 students in grades 7 – 11. There was just one building and some barrack style buildings also known as Quonset Huts.
Presently GACS has 1,775 students. It is the third largest private school in GA. The high school has a total of 726 students. A typical high school classroom size is 20 students; many classes are smaller. About 70 % of students come from all over Gwinnett County. Students travel from a total of 80 zip codes and 12 counties. The car pool line is like a well oiled machine with flowing cars flowing efficiently in and out.
If you haven’t been on the campus lately, it’s definitely worth a visit. Most people agree, it feels more like a college campus than a grade and high school. There are twenty nine brick buildings and eighty acres of walkable campus. The facilities are state of the art with technology integrated in the classroom. Each high school student has an Apple Mac laptop. Much of their work is done on the computer and is paperless. So there are no more excuses about the dog eating your homework.
There are no excuses for weather related days either. During the recent snow storms GAC held ‘Cyber days’ where teachers posted assignments on the computer and students did their work from home. Learning kept right on happening and assignments were submitted online. As other schools are scrambling to extend the school year and change graduation dates, GAC students will graduate on time.
Walking around campus you feel the infectious ‘Spartan spirit’. There’s a relaxed family style atmosphere where excellence is expected and attained.
You feel it as you see teachers and students chatting together. There’s a feeling of freedom and trust as children walk from class to class outside. And you feel the Spirit as you read the many bible quotes that are inscribed on stone benches. People really care here.
When you dig a little deeper you realize the foundation of this school is set on love and it’s a strong foundation at that. GACS is a school that knows its’ mission and everyone strives to live out the mission to ‘love God and love one another’. We’re not talking about just paying lip service, we’re talking about real service to others.
Let’s take a look at just how different GAC is:
All you have to do is watch the nightly news to see some disturbing trends going on in American schools. We hear all too often about overcrowded classrooms, over extended teachers, lack of resources, bullying and school violence.
Among all 50 states, Georgia spends the highest percentage of its budget on education (46.6%), yet:
- Georgia ranks 48th in the nation in SAT scores.
- GAC’s SAT scores are among the highest in the state and nation.
- Georgia’s high school graduation rate is 46th in the nation. Georgia’s 2013 public high school graduation rate was 71.5 percent, 28.5% kids drop out of school. What a sad statistic. That’s whole lot of wasted talent. Only Nevada and New Mexico have lower graduation rates than Georgia.
- GAC’s graduation rate is 100%. Last year 173 graduates were accepted to 170 different colleges and universities including every Ivy League school.
Georgia and metro Atlanta are better off because GAC is in it. GAC is counter cultural – and proud to put God at the center of the school. While other schools focus solely on academics and testing, GAC is focused on educating the whole student in mind, body and soul. The results are nothing short of life changing for students. It makes you wonder if public schools would be better off with more school spirit.
Raising kids with a strong sense of character in the community is a top priority.
“Every child has got a niche or multiple niches and can find areas they thrive.” Our goal is for each child to find the best niche for them to shine in. Is it in academics, the arts, athletics, robotics, missions, etc? Whatever it is, our school is large enough to explore their gifts yet small enough to know what they do really matters.” Overman said.
A question many of us ask during our lifetime is “What is my purpose? What is my life calling?” Students get a framework to explore their life calling. The three areas students explore are 1. Their values. 2. Unique design. 3. Personal leadership.
“Each child has a purpose no one else can do. Our job is to help them prepare for the life only they can live.” Fincher said. Through the ‘Life calling Leadership Program’ for kids in K3 – 12 students learn how to be leaders. Every student learns they are uniquely created in God’s image in the spiritual formation curriculum. They learn that He has blessed them with certain gifts, talents, and abilities that display His glory.
The faces and races in the GAC community are diverse. Jill Morris, Director of Community Relations says, “Today, GAC is blessed to have a student population that reflects the world around us. Our community has been made possible by the bold decision made many years ago in the midst of national segregation efforts.”
The racial demographics of the student body are; 68% Caucasian, 17% African American, 9% Asian, 3% Multi racial, 3% Hispanic/Latino. For more than a decade GAC has welcomed international students and the community has included various world views. As Morris shares, “We all learn to interact and compromise, accept one another, communicate more clearly and reflect on God’s intellect and imagination in creating us all different.”
Dr. Brad Schulz, the Elementary Assistant Principal, was captivated by GAC’s diversity efforts. As part his doctoral dissertation entitled ‘GAC Diversity Initiative’, Dr. Schultz traced the schools diversity initiative’s timeline and realized it is a blueprint for other private schools in their diversity efforts.
“GAC never stands still.” Dr. Fincher states, “There are ever new programs that have been designed to advance the students in learning, in faith, in their character, and in just the pure joy of life in God.”
The school plans to redesign the junior high and senior high school classes to better integrate students differing learning styles with technology, student engagement and motivation.
Overman said, “It’s important for children to give back and realize they are involved in something bigger than themselves.”
For the past 20 years GAC students have been going on mission trips locally in Atlanta or all across the world. GAC students continually share the love of Jesus to over 25 locations around the world.
The students attend chapel, which is planned and executed by the junior and senior high students. They plan the program, the music and the speakers. The chapel band performs at school events and lead worship in missions projects around Atlanta. “The students do it all with teachers who oversee their efforts.” Misty Overman said. The younger children see the older students lead worship. The innocence and excitement from the younger kids gives energy to the older ones. The faith, stories and music of the older students inspires the younger children. Kids are engaged and growing in faith and service – together.
The strong foundation that is set at GACS provides a framework for students to go out confidently into the real world.
A few accomplished alumni are:
Justin Schneider. He attended the University of Notre Dame and majored in Industrial Design. Working with National Geographic, he painted medicinal plants in Madagascar. You can see his work on www.justinastory.com.
Deep Shah is a doctor of Internal Medicine in the Atlanta Area. He was a Rhodes Scholar. Ted Wieber worked with the City of New York, Department of Consumer Affairs. He worked with Mayor Michael Bloomberg in planning and development. He is now an aide to the President at Gordon College. Joseph Lawrence is a Global Health Fellow in 13-14. He graduated from UGA and got his masters in public health from the Univ. of Pittsburgh.
Chris Dowdy got his PHD in religious studies at Southern Methodist University of Dallas, TX.
Jennifer Giesemann works in Antigua, Guatemala in speech pathology for special needs children.
Something unique is happening at GAC. That’s why over 200 plus schools visit every year. Administrators and board members from across the country and the globe come to learn about how they can make their schools better. Schools want to prepare for future generations.
It’s clear that Greater Atlanta is a shining star in Gwinnett County. Wherever its’ students, teachers and faculty go, they’re bound to shine a bright light that makes a positive difference in the world.
As GAC moves forward, we can continue to watch the school grow as a trend setting, life-changing place. The legacy GAC is leaving behind is with students, families and a community that continues to thrive – for the better, forever.
Dr. Fincher says, “We look forward to the next steps that God has for His unique school, making GAC the best it can be for children, teens, families, Atlanta, and we believe, the world. GAC is growing up world changers for generations to come.”
What a noble calling.
For more information on Greater Atlanta Christian School (GACS) please visit http://www.greateratlantachristian.org
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Education is evolving and at Greater Atlanta Christian School they are constantly keeping up