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Steve and Katy Kelly plan to open Capstone Academy in the fall and are looking for a site. The mixed-age classrooms harken back to one-room schoolhouses, like the one pictured as the Gray-Campbell Farmstead at Nathanael Greene Park.
Heather Mosley | SBJ
Steve and Katy Kelly plan to open Capstone Academy in the fall and are looking for a site. The mixed-age classrooms harken back to one-room schoolhouses, like the one pictured as the Gray-Campbell Farmstead at Nathanael Greene Park.

Quest for Learning: New private school urges youths to try, fail and try again

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Founders Steve and Katy Kelly like to think of Capstone: An Acton Academy as a modern take on a one-room schoolhouse.

The husband and wife plan to open Capstone in the fall as a private school serving ages 7-9 at the outset.

Following the Acton Academy model, Capstone students will be in a mixed-age studio with a guide, rather than a classroom with a teacher – and in that studio, they’re encouraged to engage in self-directed discovery.

According to the Kellys, the model is reminiscent of 19th-century schoolhouses, with all ages together and peers helping peers to learn. The concept by Acton Academy in Austin, Texas, promotes independence, fosters curiosity and focuses on overcoming challenges and even failures.

Capstone has hired a guide in Springfield, Jamie Olivea, who has served as a Montessori elementary teacher for the past five years. A guide has a pivotal role in the classroom, according to Steve Kelly.

“The best way to think of it is as a teacher,” he said. “They are there to encourage, support, equip and inspire. They ask a lot of questions and are there to facilitate discussions, keep schedule and be there as an adult presence.”

Olivea said a successful guide must be observational, flexible and willing to sit on their hands as they offer learners freedom within limits.

Steve said in addition to Olivea, he and Katy will be present at Capstone, providing additional guidance and support.

In the Acton Academy model, the guide is a game-maker and a discussion prompter, directing learners within an independent learning environment.

“It’s a unique environment where failure and growth are really, really encouraged and celebrated,” Steve said. “If learners are struggling, a lot of it is backing off, letting them work through it, giving them an opportunity to struggle and overcome that. That’s where a lot of confidence and independence is built.”

A hero’s journey
The Acton Academy model has taken to heart the Hero’s Journey, or monomyth, established by literary scholar Joseph Campbell. Acton Academy’s website calls the Hero’s Journey the No. 1 element that defines an Acton learner-driven community.

The Hero’s Journey is reflected in numerous stories, ancient and contemporary, from Odysseus to Luke Skywalker to Nemo. The hero goes on a journey, gains knowledge, earns a victory and is transformed by the process.

“A hero is somebody that gets knocked down and gets back up,” Steve said. “Our learners are called heroes throughout – little heroes, young heroes. If you’re struggling or walking up a hill and you get knocked down or encounter dragons on the way, the goal is to keep going, keep fighting. It’s about learners being their own hero. We love that.”

The Acton Academy was started in 2008 and now has 270 affiliates around the world, with 18,000 active applications for launching new affiliates, Steve said.

Capstone will be the first Acton Academy school in the Springfield area.

Capstone plans
Ultimately, the Kellys would like to run a K-12 school, but they’re starting small. They have a 7-year-old son, and starting with that age level makes sense for their family. They also have a 5-year-old at home.

“As their age progresses, we’ll go to a middle school studio and then a launch pad, which is high school,” he said. “We want to be very focused on doing this right.”

Steve said when the first year is in the books, they can focus on what works and what doesn’t and make deliberate and thoughtful revisions for the next year.

The Kellys plan to run Capstone Academy as a nonprofit, though some Acton Academy schools follow a for-profit model. So far, they have invested their own money into starting the school, and Steve said they have received some fundraising support and in-kind donations. Five families are fully engaged as the founding group, he said.

“We definitely have room for adding more families,” he said. “This is year one of a startup private school, and it’s a different model not everyone’s familiar with. We want to create awareness for the Acton Academy self-directed learning model.”

The Kellys are scouting locations for the school. Their top prospect right now is in a commercial setting. Steve said the school needs about 1,500 square feet with access to green space, plus bathrooms and a kitchenette.

The first school location may not take Capstone past the first three or four years, Steve said.

“Most families involved are flexible and understanding,” he said. “It really does require patience and grace.”

Tuition is $7,500, and Steve figures on a year-one budget of $75,000-$100,000 to pay guide salary, rent, insurance and other expenses. The Kellys have paid for their own training in the Acton Academy program, and donors have pitched in for affiliate fees.

Steve called the audition for Acton affiliate status rigorous. A one-time $15,000 initiation fee was required, and 3% of a school’s annual revenue must be spent on curriculum for all Acton Academy schools to share.

The Acton Academy website states startup costs can begin at $65,000, including the initiation fees.

Steve said the long-term plan is to offer Capstone student scholarships.

“We have to walk before we can run, but that is definitely our vision,” he said.

Olivea said she is excited to bring another learner-driven education model to Springfield.

“I love that the Acton model provides experiential learning opportunities similar to homeschooling within a collaborative setting,” she said.

She said she is steeped in learner-driven education from her experience in a Montessori school, but guiding at Acton will look different.

“I think the biggest difference will be the Socratic nature of my role, never answering a question,” she said. “I’ve frequently utilized it in classrooms before, but this level of self-awareness and commitment will be a new challenge.”

Innovation in action
Steve Kelly moved to Springfield from Kansas City in 2018 to take on a commercial lending position at Arvest Bank. He’s since transitioned into an independent financial consultant role in real estate investments.

Katy also is an independent consultant under the Refresh Organizing brand. She works as a certified professional organizer in the KonMari Method by Marie Kondo.

Katy said after years of research, planning and preparation, she and Steve are looking forward to their first academic year.

“We are so excited to bring the first Acton Academy affiliate to Springfield – a city bustling with innovators and entrepreneurs – so that our local young heroes have access to this approach to learning,” she said.

The learning will happen through six- to seven-week units, called quests, each culminating in a public exhibition of what students have learned. It’s meant to resemble a business fair, Steve said, as Acton Academy incorporates entrepreneurship, financial literacy and business education in its lessons.

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