Get Schooled

Staff and students at the Academy challenge the definition of learning.

For those who think they understand the ins and outs of the Liberty Academy, it’s time to get schooled. Located on Blackberry Drive, the Liberty Academy stands as a place of growth, education, and guidance for the 80-plus students who go there.

“I would describe the Academy as a small school environment that works to individualize learning to the interest and passions of the student,” LHS assistant principal Sara Wickham said. “They also provide a variety of options to help students achieve graduation if that particular student is not on track.”

Wickham serves as the liaison between LHS and the Academy.

“Each high school has 45 spots that we can fill with students who we think would be a good fit for the Academy,” Wickham said. “We evaluate students’ progress towards graduation credits, attendance and how they are acclimating to their home high school. A really large high school such as LHS or Liberty North can be overwhelming for some students. They aren’t for everyone.”

At first, not every student is excited about the possibility of attending the Academy.

“Sometimes students feel as if there are limited opportunities at the Academy,” Wickham said. “We are currently trying to expand that. For example, last year we worked really hard to make sure that students from the Academy could also go to the Northland Career Center. Now, we have some students that go to the Career Center in the morning and the Academy in the afternoon.”

Three Academy students sat down to have an unfiltered conversation about stereotypes, education, and traditional high school settings with Bell reporters. These students attend the Academy for a variety of reasons.

“Everyone thinks the Academy is just for kids who are addicted to drugs or made bad choices, but if you go to any high school you’ll find kids who do drugs, kids who are failing their classes, and kids who are just like us,” junior Abby Potter said. “It upsets me when people think that this school is only for certain kinds of kids. Honestly, there are a lot of kids who are here only because this is their last option to graduate.”

Most students at the Academy either attended LHS or LNHS before switching to the Academy to continue their education. Not all of the students look back on days at the traditional high schools in a positive way.

“Everyone there is just another sheep in a herd in my opinion,” senior Willie Burk said of his time at Liberty North. “At North, I wasn’t on track to graduate and I probably wouldn’t have even graduated if I had stayed there.”

This is all too familiar for Potter, who was failing many classes at LHS before attending school at the Academy.

“I missed a semester of school at LHS,” Potter said. “I didn’t make good grades. I had the moment in class a lot where I wouldn’t know what to say when the teacher told me to answer a question. I failed finals. I didn’t even take some finals. I first came to the Academy with only four credits but now I’m graduating early and I have a 3.0.”

Some students outside of the Liberty area still benefit from the varied and personalized learning experience that the Academy provides. This was the case for graduated Academy alum Chris Johnson.

“The Academy is really cool and I know that everyone outside of the academy thinks that it’s for kids that didn’t want to actually do the work but it’s not,” Johnson said. “I went to the Academy from Oak Park to finish high school and I was a part of the Missouri Options Program. I graduated early alongside a few other students that way.”

This sharp turnaround is not an uncommon case at the Academy. Potter, Johnson and their fellow classmates credit their academic success to a new approach to education the Academy has implemented.

“The teachers help you personalize your learning,” Burk said. “You get to learn how you want to learn. The teachers don’t tell you what to do. When they’re helping, it’s not them trying to get you to learn the way they want you to, it’s them helping you on your journey with the way you want to learn.”

The individualized learning takes its form in the way of projects, which is the main way students at the Academy earn credits.

“At every school, you have a set of standards for each class that determines your grade,” Burk said. “Here, we have one project where we connect all of the standards needed for one class to get our grade in the class and pass it. It is all project-based learning.”

The Liberty Academy has a staff of 17 people dedicated to helping Academy students excel. These teachers have seen how traditional schooling fails to benefit students who don’t learn in the same way as everyone else. One of these teachers is Art Smith, who has been teaching at the Academy for three years.

“The school model that is being used at the high schools is over 150 years old,” Smith said. “Its structure hasn’t changed much in the last century.  It was designed for a different time and the industrial revolution was the driving force behind that particular model. At that time jobs were different, society was different and career options were different.  Our school system hasn’t changed much since then and we need it to become more flexible, customizable, and student-centered if we want kids to be both challenged by it and find it meaningful. At the Academy we start with each individual student and work outwards to help them design their projects and build a daily and academic schedule that matches it.”

Seven teachers are a part of the school’s redesign of education, but along with helping students personalize their learning, they also help students who may have a little more on their plate.

“There are some seniors who work until two in the morning sometimes and then they have to get up early to come to school,” Burk said. “Some of these kids have to work 30 to 40 hours a week to help their families out. At our school, the teachers will let them take a nap because they understand what they’re going through.”

Along with academic success, some of the students feel they’ve had more social success by being in an environment they feel doesn’t have as pronounced cliques as their previous schools.

“We’re all friends,” junior Aman Buzuayene said. “We’re all cool with each other. You don’t get into situations or fights with kids here because the school doesn’t really let it happen. They’ll sit you down the same day and you have to talk about it. It doesn’t even feel like a school. It feels like a family.”

The Liberty Academy follows the “Unschooled challenge,” an innovative way to explore careers and work with business by doing creative and relevant school work. The challenge follows the ideology that it is imperative that the school curriculum keeps up with the way that society is changing. The Academy certainly is redefining learning, but how is it different from learning at LHS?

“I think it’s pretty important for anyone that works with kids to have rigorous conversation about what authentic learning is,” Smith said. “What is motivation? Is it intrinsic or extrinsic? How can freedom and autonomy play a larger role in a child’s school day? These are all questions that we discussed, debated, and vetted during our redesign process. It’s very hard to blame students for being products of their environment. Learning should look real, feel real, be student-driven and always be in context of something larger that each student owns.”

Academy students have the option of returning to the traditional high schools if significant progress is noticed by teachers and administrators. However, most students at the Academy say the Academy’s untraditional environment and education style is the right fit for them.

“Being here, for me, is a lot better than being at Liberty High School,” Potter said. “I’ve been through a lot in my life, so being able to come here and have teachers and other students understand is just amazing.”