Written by: Toni Lepeska | photography by: Barbara Potter

School is in session at a former Best Buy in a nondescript strip mall in Antioch, Tenn., and not only is the whole community invited, but a history-making publication is in the works.

Knowledge Academies relies on the premise that children learn better when family members, business leaders and community partners involve themselves hands-on in student education. KA is using all sorts of methods to encourage participation, such as health and career fairs and even enlisting a Jazz band to play at one of its monthly family meetings.

“That opens the door to show them how we can best support their student in other areas,” said President Art Fuller, who founded KA after teaching mathematics in New England schools and working as a policy analyst and fiscal budget officer with the Tennessee State Board of Education. “You have to be real intentional with it. It doesn’t just happen.”

While engaging parents and other family members, KA also enlists businesses and colleges to demonstrate students are preparing for the real world in a classroom. One way the real world will be brought into the classroom involves a partnership between KA and The Connect Magazine. With 48 text pages, the student-driven magazine, Stay CONNECTed! Knowledge Academies, will be distributed throughout the Nashville community.

During the six-week program of interactive lectures and hands-on training, students will brainstorm story ideas and magazine content, including photos and graphics, to create the professional-quality magazine. Students will be given credit for their work, information that may be used on college applications and resumes. Officials also expect the program to build critical-thinking skills and improve student bonds with their communities.

Another business that’s involved in KAs efforts is Cavalry Logistics, which helps companies like Wal-Mart transport goods. Cavalry provides up to a dozen mentors at a time for KA students and requires vendors in its building to set aside some of its sales in the building for KA.

Cavalry moved to Antioch not too long ago, and the company founder, Bob King, picked out the location with an eye to community involvement.

“We want to change people’s lives,” said Mitchell Blom, a business development analyst with Cavalry. “What we hope is more organizations will get involved. Education is a responsibility for everybody.”

Stay CONNECTed! also will serve as a fundraising mechanism for KA through advertising revenue. The school is supported by tax dollars and grants primarily.

KA’s first classrooms opened in 2012 in Crossing Plaza, across from the Chevy place on Hickory Hollow Parkway. Situated outside of Nashville, the charter school network moved into empty strip mall space with a burger joint, dental care and gem store as its neighbors and a public library less than a mile from its doors. The school started out with fifth and sixth grades, then gradually ramped up each year. Taking up more and more of the strip mall space, KA is expected to use 125,000 square feet next year when the enrollment of 625 is projected to bulge to 850 students. It’s not a small school.

What’s got KA and its community partners so excited is the potential impact the school could have on economically-challenged families. Fuller, who comes from a family of educators, said he decided on building a charter school after seeing that many communities “didn’t have access” to choices. “Education is the pathway to get the best opportunities in life,” he said. “Families play an important, critical role.”

Ninety percent of the KA students are eligible for free and reduced price lunch. Enrollment is open to anyone who lives in Davidson County, and students represent a diversity of cultures: 42 percent African-American, 34 percent Hispanic, 20 percent Arabic, 3 percent Caucasian and 1 percent Asian. English is a second language for many students’ families, which complicates their helping children with homework and speaking with teachers. But KA, in partnership with Nashville Literacy, is helping those families by holding language classes on campus twice a week for family members. “In some countries, the teacher is given full authority,” said Cheryl Hadley, manager of the English for Language Learners class. “It’s been really cool to watch (parents) become more empowered and engaged.”

Also complicating involvement is the complexity of what students are being asked to learn these days, Fuller said, thus, it is harder for parents to help with homework. KA tries to bridge the gap by making the school a welcoming place that family members feel they can visit and ask questions. The school also has provided information to adults on how they may further their own education. At Family Council Meetings, held the third Thursday of each month, 100 or more families are typically represented. Fuller says that’s a significant show of support and not a one-time event. “We see our level of engagement is a lot higher than the norm,” Fuller said.

Adults also connect to the school through cultural celebrations held from time to time and “Saturday school” events like a walk for breast cancer awareness. School leaders work on inserting “real things happening in the community” into the atmosphere of the KA campus.
With an eye to getting students to further their education, KA exposes high schoolers to college life in a variety of ways. Students and families go to specified game nights at local colleges to watch basketball. In the classroom, Meharry Medical College graduate students worked with KA students on a dentistry project, and Belmont University’s Enactus student club taught business and entrepreneurship principles to some 55 KA students who then examined the financial ramifications of redevelopment projects using mathematics to determine profitability.

“It really is very in tune with Nashville now,” said John S. Gonas, associate professor of finance at Belmont. “These students are seeing whole neighborhoods torn up before their eyes.”

To further drive home the real-world application, KA’s students and the Belmont club piled into buses and visited a new investment property. The students peppered the property’s representatives with questions. They’d learned to apply all the financial considerations just as an investor would. “We couldn’t get them back in the bus, they were so intrigued,” Gonas said.

Students also will engage the real world while producing their magazine. They’ll learn to relate to an audience beyond the classroom. Students will be encouraged to write about issues beyond the surface and to consider alternative angles for stories and development. Each week, a Connect Magazine representative will visit with students. While production of a magazine is one goal, a broader-picture objective of the program is that students will learn the value of magazines in modern day society as a forum of debate and new ideas. They’ll become better thinkers and communicators.

While the anecdotal evidence appears strong, KA does not yet have statistical evidence that its way of teaching students leads to higher participation in college and better outcomes. The first students who started at the school at its inception don’t graduate until 2019. However, Fuller said there is an early indicator that Knowledge Academies is on track. The percentage of students enrolled in college AP classes is at the national average, whereas students of the same socio-economic background are typically below it, Fuller said. About a fourth of KA’s eligible high school students are enrolled, and that is actually at a rate higher than the state average.

“It’s very challenging work,” Fuller said, “but when you see that kind of stuff, that helps make it all worthwhile.”