He’s known by many as “America’s educator,” and he’s taught the country a lesson on how to better educate its youth.
Ron Clark, co-founder along with his friend Kim Bearden of the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, shared the story of his career path and vision for his school while also giving a pep talk to University of Southern Mississippi Luckyday Scholars Jan. 26 on the Hattiesburg campus.
The Ron Clark Academy is a middle school in Atlanta that has earned international praise and honored by the White House for its use of out-of-the-box curriculum and methods to educate young students from disadvantaged and underserved backgrounds. Its students graduate from high school and enter college at a rate well above their peers in the region.
Clark said turning around what he sees as a failing American education system will mean taking a chance on doing things differently by joining creativity with rigor in the classroom. He talked of how he did just that throughout his career teaching disadvantaged students from rural North Carolina to Harlem, N.Y., which was depicted in the 2006 movie “The Ron Clark Story” starring Matthew Perry as Clark.
“We’ve dumbed down our schools,” said Clark, a North Carolina native who, along with Bearden, is recipient of a Disney Teacher of the Year award. “We teach to the test. We need to change the culture in our schools, improve what we do not just by making it harder, but by making school a place where kids want to be.”
Improving education will mean not only finding a better way to teach and shape curriculum, but making teaching an attractive career choice to the best and brightest. “No fifth-grader says they want to be a teacher. They see us, sitting behind a desk, kids being disrespectful - it’s a miserable-looking job.
“We have a shortage not of bodies, but of the highly-educated (in teaching). It’s just not attractive. We need to do whatever we can to uplift educators, and if we don’t the situation is just going to get worse.”
Doing that, Clark said, will mean taking a new approach to how classrooms are operated and teachers teach, allowing for more creativity and innovation that inspires not only teachers but the students they hope to reach. Clark’s educational philosophy employs music, art and activities that may find both teacher and students in costume exploring innovative ways to learn concepts across the school’s curriculum.
The Clark Academy is now in its 10th year. According to Clark, the school boasts a 100 percent high school graduation rate among its students, 99 percent of whom have gone on to college. He’s also welcomed more than 39,000 educators over the last decade to visit the academy and learn about its programming and approach to instruction.
Clark told the students who packed the Thad Cochran Center ballroom that the generation before them – their parents, teachers and other adults who were supposed to be role models – had created a generation that is “soft” from being coddled. He called on them to “get some grit” to succeed after graduation in work and the communities they live in, where breaks won’t be acquired so easily.
“We gave you all trophies even when you didn’t deserve trophies,” Clark said. “We didn’t challenge y’all. We’ve always told you how special you are. But after this (college), you’re going out into a dog-eat-dog world.”
He asked the students to avoid self-absorption and instead appreciate and take advantage of their opportunities – including those provided through their Luckyday Scholarship - to live life to the fullest and make the world a better place after graduation.
“You’re in your prime. You’ve got energy,” he said. “You have such a power to come into this world and change it.”
Clark is also a New York Times bestelling author and a highly-sought motivational speaker. Jada Speed, a Luckyday Scholar from Laurel, Miss. and a sophomore education major, said Clark's presentation not only motivated and inspired her, but also reinforced her decision to become a teacher.
“He makes me want to be the best teacher I can be,” she said. “I want to take what he does into my own classroom, and really make a difference in kids’ lives.”