Cassie Meacham-Clark was not being academically challenged at her neighborhood school.
Not that there weren’t classroom issues. There were so many disruptive students that teachers spent more time enforcing rules and calming tense situations than instructing.
But Cassie never struggled academically. In fact, as early as first grade, teachers had her grade papers or read aloud to the class while they tended to other students’ behavioral issues.
Now a 14-year-old eighth-grader, Cassie is enrolled at her ideal school: Athenian Academy of Technology and the Arts in New Port Richey, Florida. A K-8 independent charter, the school currently serves 360 students, mostly from around southwest Pasco County.
“I love all my teachers and they all teach well,” Cassie said. “It’s more like a family here. All the teachers and administrators care about you on a more personal level.”
Principal Evan Markowitz said the goal at Athenian Academy is to make learning fun for students, many of whom were a year or more behind in their studies before attending the school. About 80 percent of the school’s students are on the free- and reduced-price lunch program.
Situated on a deceptively large 7.5-acre tract – which is gated and protected by an armed Pasco County Sheriff’s Office deputy – the school opened in 2008. It shares a campus with a small dental office and includes four portable classrooms.
Markowitz was a music teacher at Athenian Academy until two years ago. After the school earned a D rating in 2016, its Board of Directors decided changes were needed. Markowitz was promoted to principal, and the school has earned a B rating the last two years.
“We instituted a vision of student engagement for all students through Kagan Cooperative Learning, the performing arts and technology,” Markowitz said. “We now have a Google Chromebook computer for every student, and we’re all about accountability and promoting positive social skills.”
Each classroom has an Epson projector, Google Chromecast and an interactive whiteboard. Educators and families use Schoology, a learning management system, to communicate, monitor grades and access digital curriculum. The school also offers clubs that focus on web design, coding and programming.
To help students develop positive social skills, teachers and administrators hand out “Owl Bucks” whenever they see a student commit an act of kindness, such as picking up dropped papers, holding doors open for others and generally displaying good manners. Owl Bucks can be used at the school’s store, which sells snacks, small toys, books, fidget spinners and other items.
For Cassie, the school is perfect. She participates in a choral program that performs several times a year, and she appreciates that classes have fewer than 20 students. Her experiences there have helped fuel her dreams.
“I plan on going to college and becoming an oncologist,” she said. “I’m also a dancer, so someday I want to own a dance school.”
Cassie was at her neighborhood school until fifth grade. Her mother, Sherry Meacham, said she didn’t even know charter schools existed, until an out-of-state relative mentioned charters during a conversation about Cassie’s education.
Cassie was on a waiting list for about four years before she enrolled. Once Meacham saw how Cassie was being challenged, encouraged and engaged at the school, she enrolled son Logan as soon as a spot came open.
“I started my other school in kindergarten and it was good and bad at the same time,” Logan said. “By second grade, I realized I wasn’t really learning anything.”
Now, Logan, 10, a budding drummer, says he enjoys every subject but science.
“I’m going to go to college and someday be a video game developer,” he said. “If that backfires, I want to be in a band.”
Sisters Natasha and Brianna Behner, in sixth and fourth grade, respectively, said they struggled in almost every subject at the neighborhood school they used to attend.
Through their own hard work and individual attention from dedicated educators, the sisters are thriving academically and socially at Athenian Academy.
Asked how long they have attended the school, they answered in unison: “Three years.”
“There were a lot of kids at my other school,” said Brianna, 9, a chatty, precocious girl. “My teachers were mean, and one day this girl got me into trouble for no reason.”
Natasha, 11, who is more reserved than her little sister, nodded as Brianna spoke.
“The teachers are nice here,” she said. “If anyone is ever mean, the teachers or principals do something about it, unlike the other school.”
The sisters already have tentative career plans. Natasha wants to become a chef, while Brianna wants to be a teacher.
“I didn’t want to be a teacher until I got here,” Brianna said. “I used to struggle in math, reading and science – until I got here. I can ask the teachers questions here and they will go over it with me – whatever I need.”
Natasha and Brianna both sing in the chorus, and Natasha gets free after-school tutoring – which is offered to all students – in math.
On a recent weekday, music teacher Alexis Carro led the chorus, including Cassie, Natasha and Brianna, through rehearsals for the song “She’s In Love” from “The Little Mermaid.” Other recent performances have included selections from “Aladdin” and “The Lion King.”
In one corner of the portable classroom was a drum set. In another corner were keyboards and a sound board. Amplifiers were stacked on either side of the room and 21 acoustic guitars were carefully arranged against a wall.
A third-grade class watched the rehearsal.
“You will be respectful,” Carro told the talkative group, as the music started.
Soon, the chorus was executing choreographed dance moves while their voices rose and fell in harmony.
Markowitz smiled. His team’s vision had become a reality.