Closer Look

Bartram Academy becoming transformative educational experience

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Brian Moffitt

Not far off 441 South sits Bartram Academy, Macon County’s alternative learning program. Formerly Union Academy, the name change came about at the beginning of the 2023-2024 school year. The new name pays homage to 18th century explorer and botanist William Bartram, the namesake of a 110-mile local trail as well as Blue Ridge Bartram Trail Conservancy. Bartram also wrote an important observation about his exploration, “Bartram’s Travels,” that has become a classic and includes a historical account of Macon County and surrounding areas.  

A new name, however, isn’t all that changed at the school. They also took on a new mascot, the Explorers, recognizing Bartram’s contributions and showing students, families, and the community that the school’s faculty and staff are willing to take on a new adventure. 

The new adventure at Bartram Academy has two bold goals: to change the way that modern high school looks and to create opportunities for student success every day. 

From an education standpoint, these are audacious goals. Not much has changed in our national public education system since its beginnings in the 1830s. What we know today as public education, especially at a high school level, was developed for factory jobs from the Industrial Revolution and the Civil War era.

THE NEW adventure at Bartram Academy has two bold goals: To change the way that modern high school looks and to create opportunities for student success every day.

But Bartram Academy wasn’t going to change for the sake of change. As an at-risk alternative school, we are charged with a great task. We enroll students who are lacking credits, are chronically absent, or find themselves in discipline-related issues. And, we try our best to make school work for them. The way that the school operated previously was a traditional school in much the same way but in a different setting. How do you take students who are referred to your school for being at-risk in a traditional setting and give them more of the same and expect a different outcome? We flipped the model a bit.

Bartram Academy, like many schools across the state, was short-staffed, and a new plan had to be made. The desire for change and the necessity of creating a unique schedule to fit the staff created an opportunity for Bartram Academy to change the education model, one that the Macon County School Board unanimously supported. 

While most students across the state attend school five days a week, Bartram Academy students are in-person four days. The fifth day is reserved for student remediation, absence makeup, and teacher training and planning. This four-day model is used in several alternative schools across the state. 

The four days that students are in-person look much like a community college schedule. Students have math and English classes on Mondays and Wednesdays, while social studies and science classes are on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Not having a full complement of certified teachers in several areas means that some teachers doubled their teaching load. The alternate schedule allows for them to teach eight classes over four days. 

To help incentivize attendance and engagement at school, Bartram Academy also offers online classes to its students. Students have the opportunity to participate in virtual classes while at school and are also able to complete coursework at home as well, allowing students to advance through their state requirements at a much greater pace than traditional high school. 

This flexibility has been appealing to Bartram Academy students, as the staff is willing to work with students who work either full- or part-time jobs, are returning high school dropouts, and who might even be teen parents. When a student first comes to us, we talk about their academics and what their goals are after high school. From there, we make the best plan to suit them and enable success. 

How did the flexibility withstand the first semester? Thirty-six Bartram Academy students walked across the stage to receive their diplomas during mid-year graduation exercises. Close to that same number is expected to graduate this spring. The mid-year graduation is an accomplishment that speaks volumes about the effectiveness of Bartram Academy’s student-centered approach and the dedication of its faculty.

However, perhaps the most noteworthy development at Bartram Academy is the innovative approach to managing behavioral incidents and suspensions. Previously, the school recorded 329 suspensions from August to April in the last academic year, a number that has been profoundly reduced to just 22 this school year. This dramatic decrease can be attributed to Bartram’s “reset” strategy.

Understanding that punitive measures often exacerbate the challenges at-risk students face, Bartram Academy has shifted toward a more restorative approach. “Resets” allow students experiencing frustration or stress to take necessary time off in a calm, quiet space, consult one of the school counselors, or engage with nature by spending time with the school’s goats or chickens. At times, if harm is done, students engage in helping build a structure, spreading mulch around campus, picking up trash, or sweeping out a bus. This method not only keeps students in class longer but also addresses the root causes of behavioral issues, promoting a sense of belonging and community among students.

What we are doing is helping our students. Our formula is working. They don’t have access to courses like art, music, and many of the much-needed, hands-on career courses, which would be so meaningful, so we have to be purposeful about creating those opportunities in unique ways. We’ve worked really hard to provide them with the skills they need to self-regulate, to make goals, and to be part of a team. Because of our changes, word is getting around. We’ve had to slow down enrollments because we’ve had great interest in what we are doing. 

Regarding Bartram Academy’s future needs, we need to be fully staffed for next fall, so we are looking for a math teacher and an English teacher. Additionally, we are always looking for local partners to come in and do demonstrations or allow our students to travel to see any demonstrations. We attempt to build skills where we currently cannot offer classes, such as welding and automotive education. 

Honestly, we are still worlds away from the school we want to be. We’re going to keep exploring this new adventure, even if we have to blaze our own trail.

Brian Moffitt is the principal at Bartram Academy.