The essential Kim Bearden
Ask her students—Atlanta's Ron Clark Academy would not be the same without her
“Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do? Whatcha gonna do when they come for you?”
Inner Circle’s reggae song “Bad Boys” blares while a flashing blue light whirls around and around. The woman standing at the front of the room is wearing all black—black cap, black shirt and black pants tucked into black boots. She’s got a whistle around her neck, and her shirt and cap identify her as Police. But this is not a scene from the Fox television show “Cops.” This is Kim Bearden’s fifth-grade classroom. Her students are training to be Grammar Police, with a mission “to serve and correct.”
“What’s it called if I have two things that could be sentences, two independent clauses, and I smush them together, but I only fix it with a comma?” Bearden (BSEd ’87) asks.
“A comma splice!” the class answers.
“It’s called a comma splice, and those are evil and bad and horrible,” she replies.
On the edges of the classroom are about 40 teachers—some from Georgia, others from as far away as Indiana—observing Bearden and her students on this Friday in March. During the next hour they watch as Bearden acts like a traffic cop, using her whistle to lead an exercise that substitutes hand signals for punctuation marks. Three times the class breaks into song, reviewing grammatical concepts like verb conjugations, prepositions and linking verbs using lyrics that Bearden wrote and adapted to popular songs (the song on linking verbs is set to the tune of M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes,” for example). Frequently the students get out of their seats, stomping, hand signaling and dancing. It may seem unusual, but this is pretty much an average day at the Ron Clark Academy, where creativity is not just encouraged—it’s expected.
“Obama on the left, McCain on the right. We can talk politics all night, and you can vote however you like. I said, you can vote however you like.”
In February, 20-plus students from the Ron Clark Academy performed on stage at UGA’s Hodgson Hall. Dressed in navy sweaters, neckties and khaki pants or skirts, they danced while singing the song they wrote—set to the beat and melody of rapper T.I.’s “Whatever You Like”—during the 2008 presidential campaign. After a video of their song was posted on youtube.com, the students got lots of attention: 15 million hits from around the world, visits from CNN, and appearances on “Good Morning America,” the “Today” show and “ABC World News Tonight.” But they also got negative feedback, including racial slurs, from comments posted by thousands of YouTube users. How they handled the situation was part of Ron Clark’s message, and Bearden—co-founder and executive director of the Ron Clark Academy—came to help him deliver it.
Clark gave UGA’s 25th annual Holmes-Hunter Lecture, a series established to honor Dr. Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter-Gault, the first black students to enroll at UGA. Clark and Bearden brought the students to demonstrate how they use music and creativity to teach and to share the story of how their students are dealing with issues of race while in the public spotlight. Watching the students smile while performing, it’s difficult to believe that they could inspire negativity in anyone. It’s also difficult to believe that the Ron Clark Academy that produced these students was, 10 short years ago, just a dream shared by two friends.
Kim Bearden and Ron Clark met in Los Angeles in 2000, when both were nominated for Disney’s American Teacher Awards. Bearden had been teaching language arts in Cobb County for 13 years; Clark had begun teaching in North Carolina but moved in 1998 to Harlem to teach in inner-city schools. During the week of workshops and speeches that preceded the awards, Bearden was approached by a group of children who introduced themselves and complimented her use of a fashion show to teach creative writing. They were Clark’s students.
“It was the perfect living example of what we try to create in these students—to teach them to be able to have one-on-one interaction and to be able to ask people questions,” she says. “They made me feel so special, and it was the coolest thing. So immediately I was just so impressed.”
“I thought Kim sparkled,” Clark says of their first meeting. “She was full of life, energy, and she loved to teach. I thought we had a lot in common—we’re both innovative, creative, and we both pour our hearts and our souls into our students and our classrooms, so we just hit it off immediately.”
At the end of the week, Disney honored the creative spark they’d seen in each other—Bearden was named Outstanding Middle School Humanities Teacher and Clark was named American Teacher of the Year. During the next year they had several opportunities to spend time together, and early on they talked about creating a school, envisioning a two-room building where they would teach all subjects. That was before Oprah.
During a joint appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” the host suggested that Clark write a book. He took her advice and penned The Essential 55, which outlines his rules for creating a successful learning environment. A subsequent appearance on Oprah’s show helped the book become a New York Times best-seller, bringing in $1 million and making it possible for Clark and Bearden to build their dream school. There was just one problem—Clark was in Harlem and Bearden was in Atlanta. Bearden didn’t want to uproot her family (husband Scotty Bearden, who coaches soccer at RCA, and daughter Madison Stewart, now 20), so Clark moved to Atlanta.
“She was worth me moving my entire life here because she’s just that dynamic. The school would not be the school without her,” Clark says. “She’s the hardest working person I know. She sleeps about four hours a night, and every hour that she’s awake is a valuable hour where she’s going full force, 100 percent ahead for this school.”
“When we begin, we begin together. Parentheses first, now please be clever. Exponents come right next in line, gonna multiply and divide at the same time. Now subtraction and addition, walk it out with computation. It’s the order of operations. It’s the order of operations, -ations, -ations, A, A, plus.”
This song, set to Rihanna’s smash hit “Umbrella,” is how Clark taught his middle schoolers to do high-school level algebra. Today they sing various parts of the song as they work their way through equations that look daunting. Clark writes a new equation on the screen and steps up onto the long tables where the students sit. It’s one of his signature moves, and he sings to the tune of a Bonnie Tyler song as he walks down the row: “I need a hero. I’m holding out for a hero in this fifth grade class. You’ve gotta be strong and you’ve gotta be smart, and you’ve gotta be ready to pass.”
Teachers on tables is not actually the most unusual thing at the Ron Clark Academy. That honor goes to the famous Big Blue Slide, a large plastic tunnel that starts on the second floor and shoots sliders out onto the lobby floor. On the landing of the stairs is a giant scroll featuring the Essential 55 rules, based on Clark’s book, that the students are required to follow. Right next to it is the Great Wheel that determines which of four houses a student is placed in—just like Harry Potter. A local graffiti artist painted the school’s interior, and the classrooms feature colorful murals and, in Bearden’s case, a Volkswagen Beetle painted in psychedelic colors.
Creating this kind of stimulating environment wasn’t cheap. Bearden and Clark spent the $1 million book proceeds and then solicited an additional $2.5 million from donors while renovating the abandoned warehouse in southeast Atlanta they had chosen as the site for their school. They made the school private so they could select particular students they thought would respond to their teaching methods. With every class they choose a wide variety—roughly one-third are high achievers, one-third aren’t living up to their potential and one-third have had no previous academic success before attending RCA. All students are on scholarship, though each pays some tuition based on a sliding scale. And Bearden and Clark decided to focus on middle school, offering grades five through eight.
“Middle school is kind of that forgotten stepchild,” Bearden says. “We weren’t seeing a lot of things that were really happening that were making a difference in middle school students, and that’s kind of where you’re losing kids. If you wait till that ninth grade year and they’re already thinking about dropping out, it’s a really hard time to intervene.”
The Ron Clark Academy opened its doors in 2007. In 2006 the TNT network premiered “The Ron Clark Story,” a film version of Clark’s life starring Matthew Perry of “Friends” fame. Though Clark didn’t want the school named after him—“I’m not even dead,” he says—the school’s board of directors outvoted him. Bearden is fine with being in the background.
“It’s a blessing and a curse to have your name on the building,” she says. “Wherever he goes, everywhere he goes, he’s always Ron Clark, so I’m happy to be where I am—the one kind of behind the scenes here.”
Back in class, Clark is still making his way down the tables. He looks down to check on students’ progress and gives encouragement—“Come on, y’all, come on” and “Work it out, darling”—while walking. Sometimes he asks questions of all the students, and sometimes he asks just one. As the student works on the problem, the class is silent until he needs some encouragement: “You got it, Jerry,” followed by applause and drumming. There’s more silence and then a second round of cheers before Jerry gets the answer.
“Is Jerry on?” Clark asks the class.
“Wipe him down!” they reply.
This kind of support is found in all of the classrooms at the Ron Clark Academy.
“That was the first thing Mr. Clark taught us—that we’re all a family, and we have to stand behind each other,” Willie, 13, says. “We love each other very much.”
“We had a wreck this morning on the way here today, I said, we had a wreck this morning on the way to Ron Clark today, We didn’t see the stop light, and that car was in the way!”
This time the visiting teachers are performing, and their song is based on a true story. They’re attending teacher Susan Barnes’ “Writing the Blues” workshop, and they’re onstage—one costumed in a pink feather boa—singing to a blues tune. After working in groups to write lyrics, they’re now expressing their personal narratives in a way they probably never anticipated when they arrived this morning. About 3,000 teachers attend RCA’s training annually, and Bearden and Clark consider it one of the school’s primary missions.
“We think educators need opportunities to see each other in action, but this just doesn’t happen. Our model for training is unique, and the response from educators has been overwhelming,” Bearden says.
Trainees observe classes, participate in workshops like the one led by Barnes and learn strategies for bringing creativity into their own classrooms. They also learn about discipline the RCA way—every adult, from founder to janitor, goes through discipline training and has the authority to give consequences if students misbehave.
“On one hand, we are all about manners and discipline and structure and the family environment that we create here—the way that our students interact with each other, the way they lift each other up,” Bearden says. “On the other hand it’s all about passion, excitement, energy, enthusiasm. How do you create a classroom that’s dynamic and full of energy? It’s the blend of those two things that we think has led to the success that we’re able to have.”
Bearden is well known for coming up with innovative ways to teach. For a lesson on descriptive writing, she used dim lights and a smoke machine to transform her classroom into a planet from a different galaxy. She dressed up as an alien, adopted a funny voice and told the students they were stranded on the planet and had to write to NASA for help, using descriptions to communicate their location.
“Oh, I love Mrs. Bearden’s class!” Chi Chi, 13, says. “She is just so creative. I don’t know how that much creativity can be in one mind. It’s amazing.”
“I’m starting with the man in the mirror. I’m asking him to change his ways. And no message could’ve been any clearer. If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change.”
It’s the end of the day, and the students are performing again, this time in the lobby of the Ron Clark Academy. In a few minutes, the teachers who attended today’s training seminar will ascend the stairs, enter the Big Blue Slide, whoosh out onto the lobby floor and then receive a sticker that labels them as Slide Certified. But at the moment, they’re listening as 14-year-old Jordan sings lead, even imitating Michael Jackson’s repeated “Whoo!” Performers and audience are only a few feet away from each other, but despite the close scrutiny the kids aren’t nervous.
“They do away with that quickly,” says Charline Avril. “It’s pretty much necessary. And it becomes routine—being on stage, speaking in public, talking to adults in an interview format. So now it’s pretty much second nature.”
Avril witnessed this change in her son, Osei, 14, who was shy when he started sixth grade at RCA but now takes everything in stride—singing and dancing for an audience, giving interviews on CNN and traveling the world. In a few hours, Osei and the other eighth graders will depart with their teachers for South Africa, where they’ll visit orphanages and the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls. This year the eighth grade will also visit Australia, and the lower grades will travel as well: seventh to Greece and Rome, sixth to London and Paris and fifth to New York and Washington, D.C. By the time students graduate from the Ron Clark Academy, they will have visited six continents in four years.
Travel and public performances can sometimes make it difficult to fit in academics, but somehow they make it work. Bearden and Clark share a philosophy of teaching to their top students, using motivational tools and creative strategies to help the others reach the highest level. Avril remembers one particular assignment—the students had to draw the world map from memory.
“Mr. Clark gave them what seemed to be an impossible assignment, but I guess he just knows,” Avril says. “They actually were able to deliver.”
Chi Chi remembers her presentation on ancient Egypt.
“My idea was just so extreme and so out of the box, but I told it to Mr. Clark, and he was like, ‘I want you to do better. I want you to do more,’” she says. “So I really had to think on it. He challenges you—he really does.”
Despite the hard work, the kids love the place. Chi Chi is part of RCA’s first class that graduates this spring—when she saw graduation on the school calendar, her reaction was “Nooooo!” She and 50 other students signed a petition requesting that RCA start a high school. Their devotion is understandable since RCA functions like an extended family, with students able to call, text or e-mail their teachers at any time. Bearden takes students out to celebrate birthdays and hosts an annual New Year’s Eve sleepover at her house.
“It’s just another way for us to connect with her, and that makes her class even more fun because now we know how she lives and what she does and what her house looks like,” Robin, 10, says. “Because you know you wonder that about teachers sometimes, but they don’t really invite you over.” “
Mrs. Bearden is like the mother, really,” Ahjanae, 14, says. “Everyone goes to her—the girls talk to her about problems, the boys talk to her about what they’re dealing with. Mrs. Bearden has always been there for us, from the very beginning. She just gets us. She feels us.”
Bearden’s eyes get teary when she talks about Ahjanae.
“I still remember when she came in for her interview in a little pink sweatsuit and pigtails, and she was about yea high,” she says. “Very special girl.”
Next year Ahjanae will be attending a boarding school in Connecticut, with a full scholarship that covers tuition, travel expenses and spending money. And Bearden had a hand in it—she’s spent the previous weeks talking to the school’s admissions director and sending video of Ahjanae talking about her family. When the call about the scholarship came, Bearden immediately ran down the hall and into Ahjanae’s classroom, handing her the phone.
“They told her, and she hit the floor,” Bearden says. “Immediately, every kid in the room was crying and standing up and cheering because they’re so happy for her.” Going above and beyond—that’s one reason why Bearden receives Mother’s Day cards from her students.
“I really love her. She’s great. I’m going to miss her a lot,” Ahjanae says. “She’s just… there is no other Mrs. Bearden. There will never be.”
“They just love her to death,” he says. “She’s just the most wonderful person. Like I said at the lecture, she’s the best person I know. And I know a lot of people. I know Oprah.”
For a multimedia video/slideshow, visit http://photo.alumni.uga.edu/multimedia/kimbearden
Ron Clark Academy: www.ronclarkacademy.com
Ron Clark’s 2010 Holmes-Hunter Lecture: Download video at http://itunes.uga.edu