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A Grand Vision

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By Johnathan McGinty | Photography by Downtown Academy

Patrick Ennis has a grand vision for Downtown Academy.

The small private school, an extension of Downtown Ministries, may not be even a decade old, but its founding headmaster already is looking far into the future. Interestingly enough, it’s a future where perhaps this innovative learning environment doesn’t exist.

“What if we could get to a point where there wasn’t a need for a Downtown Academy,” Ennis said. “What if the private schools that have been around that are larger have opened their doors even more, and they have set aside more scholarships to remove that financial barrier (for all students). And now kids from whatever ZIP code or neighborhood in Athens have choices. That, I think, would be phenomenal.”

Such optimism — and candor — can be a bit jarring in these ever-cynical times. And, admittedly, the school is several years away from this educational ghosting of sorts becoming a reality, but at this unique, faith-based academy it’s permissible to imagine a world where it isn’t needed anymore. That’s because the vision of Downtown Academy pushes its faculty and staff to bring not only opportunity for the people involved with the school, but renewal to the entire Athens community.

Now, this doesn’t mean the school is planning to shutter its doors anytime soon. Far from it.

In fact, it’s focused on expanding opportunities across the Athens area to better serve high at-risk students and their families. One crucial element is making sure the cost of attending isn’t a barrier to access. While the words “private school” can conjure up thoughts of expenses in the thousands of dollars, Downtown Academy offers a robust collection of scholarships and funding options that can cover up to 98 percent of the school’s tuition.

It’s a remarkable commitment of resources made available through community donations, the support of several local churches and the generosity of the Downtown Ministries team, with the intent of leveling the playing field for those in need.

“One of the goals of the board and myself is that the financial component should never be the reason a child doesn’t attend a Gospel-centered school,” said Ennis. “And I believe that is particularly important for believers. Something that has been very exciting these last several years is that (several private schools) have come to us and said they want to carry on what we’re doing.”

That’s the type of community renewal the school is hoping to achieve. To do so requires honest dialogue and open conversations with other private schools, seeing them not as rivals, but partners in a grand experiment focused on ensuring an equitable and affordable education for all students.

Ennis noted that several local private schools have visited Downtown Academy and are exploring the launch of new scholarship opportunities to support their existing student population and offer a pipeline once they finish fifth grade.

But removing the financial barriers is just one piece of a broader puzzle. There are geographic barriers, students who live near the downtown core facing difficulties with getting to and from some of the private schools located across the area. Additionally, there are cultural barriers, given that many private schools often are composed of a largely white, wealthier population.

The student body of Downtown Academy, however, is one that reflects the Athens community. The school is a demographically diverse blend of Black, Hispanic and white students from varying socio-economic backgrounds, striving to meet families where they are.

“I don’t think we can presume, especially speaking as a white male coming from a different cultural experience than many of our students and their parents, to have all the answers and know what’s best for them,” Ennis said. “It falls back into building relationships and being genuine and honest with families as they come in.”

Central to Downtown Academy’s success is their emphasis on building relationships, manifested in part by keeping class sizes down. Ennis cited studies showing that children in elementary school often learn better with class sizes of 15 or less. This allows for a more personalized approach to educating students, introducing a bit of grace into the process.

If students are struggling, they’re able to get the attention and focus needed to better understand the material. Conversely, if some students are excelling, they can be offered a curriculum and pace that best suits their capabilities.

It’s an approach that is appealing to parents.

“We came to Downtown Academy because, as a parent, I was looking for something different for my son,” said Taneisha Brooks. “I wanted something more intimate for him where I felt like he could get a better education.”

The deep connection to the students and families has long proved to be an asset for Downtown Academy, but even more so when it came to adapting the ever-changing dynamics poised by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Like many other area private schools, the leadership at Downtown Academy expected its parents to be eager to return to in-person instruction at the start of the current school year. However, after polling, the contrary proved to be true.

With the Delta COVID-19 surge jumbling the environment, parents overwhelmingly preferred delaying the start of the school year rather than returning in-person.

“It kind of left us scratching our heads, but we realized our parents have different concerns than what many of the other parents from private schools have,” noted Ennis. “During that period where we pushed the start date back, our teachers connected with parents to invite them to do one-on-one tutoring. We were able to practice our precautions, and that ultimately helped us be able to get back into the classroom much more quickly than other schools who started off online.”

More than that, the private and personalized approach to learning benefitted the students. At a time when test scores and educational performance of students across the country declined due to the impact of the pandemic, Downtown Academy students gained an average of 10 percentile points across the academic curriculum.

Looking ahead to its second decade, the school launched a robotics class for its third through fifth graders. Additionally, Ennis is eyeing enrollment growth (the school has 55 students as of now, down from its pre-pandemic high of more than 70), as well as the launch of a Pre-K program in the coming years and an ongoing pursuit of new scholarship and learning opportunities to support students.

“If someone had said 10 years ago ‘Here’s what life would be like and what the school would be,’ I’d have said no way,” Ennis said. “To have this many churches and this much of the community behind us financially and support us with their time and resources, I can only dream what may be coming.”

Renewal takes time, and the work of Downtown Academy is just getting started.

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