By Carla Caldwell
Since 2006, Pierian Springs school in Sandy Springs has grown from eight home schooled students meeting in a basement to 82 students in 9,000 square feet of a shopping center on Sandy Springs Place.
And with enrollment continuing to grow, school leaders already have an eye toward larger locations.
The Georgia-accredited private, college preparatory school serving students in grades six to 12, was started by Sandy Springs resident Karen Howes, an actor who in 1993 founded The Young Actors Ensemble which produces and tours professional plays.
Howes explained recently that the idea to provide classes came after she noticed some of the young actors, all of them bright, home schooled students, sitting offstage during practice breaks. They often were surrounded by textbooks, frustrated that they could not quite master this or that school material. At first she brought in tutors to help the students. They not only caught up, they aced their class work.
It wasn’t long before more students and families wanted to participate.
Howes responded by adding more teachers and subject matter. Within a year, enrollment had reached 17 students, so she relocated the group to rented space at Sandy Springs United Methodist Church.
The name Pierian Springs comes from a quote by English Poet Alexander Pope – “A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring…..”
Since the beginning, she has insisted that students be highly motivated and excel academically. She adopted a university model to provide students more flexibility in class scheduling and to help create an environment that most traditional middle and high schools don’t offer. Sofas are placed in hallways and classrooms to encourage students to gather to discuss their work or numerous outside projects.
Students can choose to take a light load of core and elective classes if their outside schedule is hectic at the time, or they can double up on courses to get ahead. Some Pierian Springs students also take courses at metro area colleges.
One Pierian Springs student, an actor, opted for a light semester to allow an extended stay in New York to perform in an independent film. Another chose a schedule that would accommodate a regular role on the Nickelodeon channel.
A large number of Pierian Springs students are actors due to the school’s background, and many have theatrical agents, Howes said. The flexible curriculum also works well for students who are heavily involved in sports, or in the corporate world.
Two students are world-ranked athletes – an inline skater and a fencer – who often must be away to train and compete. Another student has started a company and is working to grow the business.
Lectures are often made available online, and teachers communicate with students through text messages and phone conversations. Class sizes are small, most averaging no more than 10 students, so students and professors develop close working relationships, Howes said. Some 85 percent of teachers have an advanced degree, and many also teach at area universities and colleges.
Students who enroll at the school usually come from a home school or private school setting, although some transfer from public schools. Essays are used more than test scores for admission.
Tuition is held to $6,500 a year, not including books and lab fees, to provide access to more families. Students come from numerous academic, cultural, religious and racial backgrounds.
The common thread is that students are self-motivated to achieve both academically and outside of school, Howes said.
To graduate, students must complete core classes required by the state of Georgia and pass the Georgia High School Aptitude Test. Pierian Springs also requires 50 hours of community service, three additional writing classes and an additional foreign language class. The school is required to administer at least one national standardized test and chose the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS).
“A lot of people are trying to find solutions for educational malfunctions,” said Howes. “This works for some students. Not all. Students who are motivated to do something special, be that to start college early or to start a company or to move into pursuing their career – or who are already doing many of those things – thrive here.”
Students Vonte Simon, 17, of Dunwoody said he transferred to the school from Northview High School so that he could work on both completing his education and growing his company. He started a business to provide large youth conferences with speakers and music to churches. The business is expanding and he credits the support of teachers and fellow students.
That camaraderie and the emphasis on flexibility are working well for student Abby O’Callaghan, who transferred from North Atlanta High School. The sophomore is now excited about school, says her mother Jennifer O’Callaghan, who is quick to add that the family has three other children who thrived at area public and private schools, including the one Abby left.
Abby, however, is specifically interested in writing and creative work and found that at Pierian Springs she could focus on those areas while completing core classes.
Since enrolling at Pierian Springs, she has taken several language arts classes and an acting class that led to a role in a school play performed to five sold-out performances in the school’s professional quality black box theater.
“I am just so fortunate that we were able to find an educational environment where all of our children could thrive,” said O’Callaghan. “All children are very different when it comes to what they need. If you listen carefully and often enough, you will learn what your child needs and you can find it. For Abby, it was Pierian Springs.”
Simon said he’s fortunate that he and many of his classmates have also found the right fit.
“Students love this school so much that when it snowed, we didn’t want the school to close,” he said. “We contacted the school and asked them to stay open.”
School founder Howes confirms that students did ask her to open the school although most schools were shutting down.
“I received texts messages saying please open the doors, we’re coming anyway,” said Howes, smiling. “That means a lot to me.”
For more information about Pierian Springs school, call 404-943-0827, or go to the school’s Web site at www.pieriansprings.org.