This rural private school aims to nurture ‘the whole brain’

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One recent morning, Tana Norris walked into the small building that houses the makeshift dance studio at her North Florida private school.

Lake City Christian Academy tap
Students tap dance at Lake City Christian Academy.

“I hear there are some amazing dancers in here,” she intoned.

“I’m a dancer!” Stephen, an 11th-grader, responded. He and some classmates launched into a routine set to the contemporary Christian sounds of MercyMe, twirling, tapping and finishing with a confident bow.

Stephen, it turns out, is more than a dancer. He’s also prize-winning Special Olympics athlete (his finishes in local competitions include second place in the broad jump and first place in bowling) and a testament to the approach Norris said has guided Lake City Christian Academy since she founded it more than 20 years ago: “If a child feels good about themselves, and feels safe, they can learn.”

The non-denominational private school has found ways to cater to a diverse group of children, the majority of whom either have special needs, or didn’t quite fit in at other schools. Nearly half of its 194 students rely on McKay scholarships, the state’s voucher program for special needs students. Others use tax-credit scholarships for low-income students or the state’s newest option, Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts. Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, helps administer the latter two programs.

Crystal Hair, the school’s dance instructor, said movement and music can have benefits for all kinds of students. For some, dance can even help with reading instruction.

“It’s operating their whole brain,” she said. “It’s amazing to see how much dance helps in their academics.”

Norris graduated from the University of Florida and began her career teaching in public schools. She quickly grew frustrated. The classes were too large and the rules too burdensome for her to give students the individual attention she felt they needed. She took a pay cut, and started teaching at a small private school for $150 a week.

She founded Lake City Christian in 1994, seeing a need for a private school that wasn’t affiliated with a single church. She set out meet the needs of students she struggled to accommodate in public school — from those with special needs to those who are academically gifted. Dance helped for some. Others needed art lessons or auto-mechanics classes or college courses while they were still in high school. Some young children could learn responsibility and pattern recognition by caring for the baby pigs, goats and tortoises the school keeps on its campus.

Others, like a first-grader named Tegan, found solace on the back of a horse.

Lake City Christian Academy Horse
Tegan performs stretching exercises while riding Zoey.

“Horses make very good counselors,” said Norris, who’s also a certified riding instructor. The rhythm of their gait is similar to humans’. Riding can help children with under-developed muscles. If a child is having a seizure, a horse can detect it before adult humans nearby.

Tegan suffered a stroke before she was born, which has inhibited the growth of her muscles and her use of language. Zoey, one of the school’s therapy horses, is teaching her to exercise both her body and her voice. She’s learning to shout commands and perform stretches in the saddle.

Norris said Tegan, in her first year at the school, has made huge strides in just a few months.

“Before she was nonverbal,” she said. “She didn’t really participate. And now, she wants to participate in everything.”

Other students face more mundane challenges. For twelfth-grader Katie Cutford, it was math anxiety. Earlier in her academic career, she left the school and bounced among other options, including home schooling, before returning to Lake City Christian during high school, where she got the extra help she needed in the subject that challenged her the most.

“It just wasn’t working for me,” she said. “When I came back, I realized what I had. My teachers were willing to stay after school with me.”

Now, she’s preparing to enroll in dual-enrollment courses at Gateway College. She’s cleared the state’s college-readiness tests in reading and writing, two of her stronger subjects, and is preparing to take on math. She signed up for the school’s peer-counseling program, which lets her work one-on-one with other students at the school. Through that experience, she’s discovered a potential career path.

“I feel like it’s preparing me to be a teacher even before I go to college,” she said.

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