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At this Florida school, lessons from gardens, food drives, furniture repair

Ryan Wallace left his big, cliquish high school last spring for The Foundation Academy, a non-denominational Christian school with vegetable gardens and an aquaponic farm. “I wanted a chance to try something new,’’ said Ryan, now a 17-year-old junior planning a dodge-ball fundraiser for his class president campaign.

Boys in Aaron Unthank’s single-gendered fifth- and sixth-grade class learn from each other, too. The setup gives Unthank more freedom to cater classes to meet boys’ learning styles.

Twelve-year-old Marc’Anthony Acevedo came to the academy as a second-grader after being bullied at his old school.  This year, he’s part of a single-gendered class of fifth- and sixth-grade boys. “Sometimes we have arguments, but we get over it,” he said. “We’re all friends.’’

For Cori Hudson, the Foundation was his last shot at a diploma. He messed up at the school district’s option of last resort. “I come to school every day now,’’ said the 16-year-old. “I feel like school is the most important thing to me.’’

These transformations are exactly what principal Nadia Hionides hoped for when she started the academy near Jacksonville Beach, Fla. nearly 25 years ago.

With a style that’s part Montessori, part Waldorf, the Foundation offers hands-on, project-based learning with a college-preparatory curriculum based on the philosophy that everyone learns differently.

The school has 280 students in kindergarten through 12th grade; 100 are in high school. They share a 23-acre campus that Hionides and her husband, a ship deck builder and painter, bought in 2008 for $600,000. The couple spent another $5 million for eight, prefabricated steel structures, which include a front-office foyer where the floor is made from vinyl records.

Tuition starts at $6,000 a year. But 81 students receive tuition assistance from Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that administers Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program for low-income kids and co-hosts this blog.

The academy separates students into groups of two grade levels – kindergarten and first-graders, second- and third-graders, etc.


“Because that’s real life,’’ Hionides said. Also, “they push each other to shine.’’

It seems to work in the fifth- and sixth-grade boys’ class – for the students and their teacher.

“It’s fantastic,’’ said Aaron Unthank, a longtime private school music teacher and baseball coach. “There’s a different kind of camaraderie as a class and there’s a lot more freedom I have as a teacher to talk about guy things.’’

The younger boys learn from the older boys, and the older boys gain confidence, Unthank said. He paraphrased Einstein:  “You don’t know a thing well enough unless you can talk about it.”

In another classroom, ninth- and 10th-graders do project-based learning where math, science and literature are rolled into one assignment. A recent example: students produced their own version of the classic science fiction novel, “The War of the Worlds.’’

Some  used foil and cardboard to fashion aliens in outer space. Others created graphic novels with three-dimensional illustrations.

Students – not teachers – evaluate one another’s work. They use a rubric that looks at the overall display and whether the project answered essential questions.

The academy is accredited by the National Independent Private School Association and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

There is no Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Private schools aren’t required to take the same standardized tests as their public school counterparts. But the Foundation does test tax credit scholarship students in grades three through 10, giving them approved norm-referenced assessment tests in reading, writing and math as required by law.

Hionides said she doesn’t like tests, preferring, instead, to focus on students’ spiritual, emotional, physical and mental well-being.

Cori Hudson, 16, came from a public alternative school where, he said, “you get sent after they are done with you.”

There’s a 30-minute Bible study every morning and optional Tai Chi, followed by classes in dance, art and music. Students take part in donation drives for local food banks. There’s even an artist in residence, James Lynch, who lives and works on the campus, and, this year, teaches students to build sets and props for theater productions.

The Foundation places a huge emphasis on self-sufficiency.

During lunch, youngsters man the tiny cafeteria and wash their own dishes. Then, while some meet with their advisor – a daily check-in on classes, homework and personal issues – others take naps. “Brain research shows rest is very important,’’ Hionides said as she walked by a student snoozing under a table.

In the gardens alongside the school, children take turns churning dirt and planting seeds.

Master gardener Amanda Tarkington fell in love with the school on a visit. Now two of her four children attend. Says the former home-school mom, “This school was absolutely the perfect fit.”

“They come in saying, ‘I don’t like gardening,’ ’’ said the academy’s master gardener, Amanda Tarkington. “Then I ask them, ‘What do you like to eat?’ ”

That gets the kids talking about tomatoes, sweet potatoes and beets. Then they grow them “and they make the connection,’’ Tarkington said.

The aquaponic farm is an experiment in the works. Giant tanks powered by a solar panel and filled with koi and catfish collect waste that is used to fertilize rows of plants without soil. The hope is the school will develop relationships with local restaurants and supply them with fresh herbs and vegetables.

In the Three R’s classroom, students recycle, repair and reuse furniture and other items. Along the way, they learn about repurposing their lives.

“I just see lives being changed,’’ said Jackie Meadows, a Foundation teacher who taught for 38 years in Illinois public schools.  There’s a benefit, she said, in “knowing you don’t have to throw something away.’’

The life lesson: “You don’t have to be thrown away.’’

While Meadows talked, her students hammered nails into old chairs and covered worn seat cushions with scrap denim.

Some of them will go on to become missionaries, Meadows said. Others will join the Navy or head to college. Many will look back at the Foundation as a place where they felt like family.

“This is home,” she said.

Editor’s note: The photos were taken by Jon East, vice president of policy and public affairs at Step Up For Students.

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BY Sherri Ackerman

Sherri Ackerman is the former associate editor of redefinED. She is a former correspondent for the Tampa Bay Times and reporter for The Tampa Tribune, writing about everything from cops and courts to social services and education. She grew up in Indiana and moved to Tampa as a teenager, graduating from Brandon High School and, later, from the University of South Florida with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications/news editing. Sherri passed away in March 2016.


Love the article! I’m glad that at their young age, these children are taught about these stuffs. It’s a good start to build this kind of foundation. Keep it up!

Sherri Ackerman

Hi, Dana. Thank you for reading the blog and I’m glad you enjoyed the story. The school offers students a completely different environment than what they encountered in their public school. And for the ones we spoke with, it seems to make a huge impact on how they view their education. They said they loved coming to school now, and thinking about what’s next.

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