Wilson, who works with a group that provides oversight, helped start the school six years ago and is the mother of three students — a third-, sixth- and eighth-grader — at the school.
The International Academy of Smyrna originally opened in 2007 as Imagine International Academy, but last school year, the seven-member board of directors, along with parent and teacher support, cut ties with the education management company and now runs itself.
Wilson and co-principal Dr. Gwendolyn Miller credit each of those groups for the school’s continued growth.
“I’m truly impressed with the parents. … I just think it’s a sense of commitment from the community to support the school,” Miller said. “It’s been very rewarding to be a part of this school and to see the growth and to see the students and the parents.”
Miller had worked in the Atlanta and Fulton County school systems, and joined the academy’s staff two years ago when the board started the transition from operating under Imagine.
“I’ve really fallen in love with the school, and I like the fact that there is a sense of family and passion for what takes place here,” Miller said. “I think that’s why the school has been so successful.”
The two-story school off South Cobb Drive, where Rich’s department store once stood, serves 960 students in kindergarten through eighth-grade.
Wilson said the newly revamped building, which underwent renovations over the summer using a $17 million bond, can accommodate up to 1,200 students. So there is room for growth.
The school pulls students from Smyrna, Austell, Powder Springs and Mableton.
“The kids never want to leave,” Wilson said. “They are happy to be here, and when they go on break, they are ready to come back, which is unusual for kids, but they love the environment, and they love being here because it is a very caring environment. It’s like family.”
Teachers and parents
Miller said they have many young teachers — about 75 in all — and most of them have fewer than than five years of experience but are focused on the mission of the school.
“I think it’s a really good balance for us,” Miller said. “They’ve brought a lot to the table with them, and it’s not as hard for them to transition into a new way of teaching and a new style of teaching. They are young and energetic.”
The new style of teaching Miller refers to is the International Baccalaureate program, for which the school is in the midst of earning an authorization in primary and middle grades.
“That’s the core of our charter,” Wilson said. “It’s what differentiates us from other schools.”
The school should have its formal authorization within the next two or three months, but they have been using the program while serving as a candidate school since its opening.
Wilson said IB is a different way of teaching, “a more global world view.”
“It’s not specific lessons that are taught but the way you deliver that lesson,” she said. “For each IB program, they have different things that they focus on that you infuse in the subject areas.”
The IB program is what brought third-grade teacher Seri Kenemanisoth to the school three years ago.
“I like the diversity and the demographics here,” she said. “It’s a lot different than other schools in Cobb County.”
Kenemanisoth is from Gwinnett County and commutes daily. “I love the kids and definitely love the parents,” she said.
Speaking of parents, Wilson and Miller both applauded the amount of parental support they have at the academy.
Miller said they have parents in the building every day, volunteering in some way.
The charter requires single parents to volunteer at least 15 hours a year, and a couple at least 30 hours, but parents go above and beyond.
“We also have a very active (Parent Teacher Association),” Wilson said. “They provide the school with a lot of support and financial fundraisers, which come back to the school.”
Last year they helped pay for Smart Boards in many of the classrooms.
The parent involvement also has trickled down to how students perform.
“The bigger impact is with the students because when they see that their parents are involved, it also helps them to better in school,” Wilson said.
“It really sends a message to them that education is important,” Miller added.
Parents also help out with school supplies.
“If you are to ask any teacher, they will tell you how much they love their parent volunteers because they get copy paper, or whatever the need is,” Wilson said. “All they have to do is send out the email and they will get the response.”
One of those dedicated parents and long-time parent volunteer is Judy Aikpitanyi, whose daughter is a fourth-grader at the school and been enrolled since kindergarten.
She chose the academy after learning more about the IB program. “It was something that we needed for our daughter, so we came, we saw and we conquered,” she said.
Aikpitanyi, whose family lives in Smyrna, volunteers daily at the school, helping out in the front office. “For me as a parent, I love that the staff makes you comfortable,” she said. “They also take care of our kids like they are their own kids.”
Where did it all start?
One year prior to opening, Wilson said she learned about a group of Mableton parents who were interested in starting a charter school in their community.
“We wanted to offer parents in the community another choice, not that there was anything wrong with the other schools, but if parents wanted to choose something different, they had the opportunity,” she said.
Parents realized that charter schools are not a “one size fits all” concept and understood their school isn’t perfect for everyone but still wanted to have a choice.
“We’re very happy to be able to offer that to the community,” she said.
The school opened with nearly 500 students under Imagine Schools earning a five-year charter and was received approval for a second five-year charter from the Cobb County School Board last spring.
Since going off on their own, the school has continued to make strides but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still challenges. Wilson said the biggest one of all continues to be funding, especially in the maintenance and operations areas.
To resolve those issues, she said the board is looking to spend more time applying for grants and fundraising.
“We are doing more major fundraising to try and bridge the gap,” she said.
“So that we’re able to do things like have a smaller class size. Right now, that’s one thing that is very difficult because of the financial constraints.”