This former public school teacher created her own school. Now she’s ‘100 percent free.’

 

JUPITER, Fla. — When you start your own school, you make the rules. You can even bring your dog.

The Andersen Academy serves 16 middle school students, nearly all of whom use state-supported education choice scholarships. Founder Carrie Andersen calls it a “concierge homeschool,” for parents who homeschool but want customized support.

She started it three years ago, after 22 years as an accomplished English teacher in one of the nation’s biggest school districts. She said she was tired of a system that smothered her knowledge and creativity and nearly extinguished the love of learning in her daughter, Brooke.

In second grade, Brooke wanted to be the female Albert Einstein. But a few years later, some students and teachers were badgering her for taking extra time with standardized tests, as allowed by her individual education plan. Meanwhile, repeated practice tests, which Brooke had to take despite scoring at the highest levels, aggravated her ADHD and made her physically ill.

“It all became recipe for disaster,” Andersen said. “She began to doubt herself and her abilities.”

At mom’s school, Brooke has rolled through four years of math in two years. Now she’s ready to take AP precalculus, a class usually reserved for advanced 11th– and 12th-graders, as a ninth grader this fall.

What that before-and-after shows, Andersen said, is “the system failed us.”

Thankfully, the system is changing.

As a teacher who founded her own school, Andersen is helping to lead that change.

The Anderson Academy is housed in a few rooms on the second floor of a nondescript office building. There are classic movie posters on the wall, a cutout of Daryl Dixon from “The Walking Dead,” and free-roaming Maggie, a Catahoula leopard dog whom Andersen rescued three years ago.

For Andersen, it adds up to freedom.

“I get to be the best teacher here,” she said. “There is nobody in my way. There’s nobody telling you what to do who has never spent a minute in your shoes.

“I am 100 percent free. And I love it.”

In choice-rich Florida, it’s easy to find former public school teachers who have leveraged choice programs to create their own schools and other learning options. And it’s noteworthy how many went their own way in part because of frustration with the education of their own children. (See here, here, and here.)

Andersen left the district in 2020. She had medical conditions that made her more susceptible to catching COVID-19, and more likely to suffer serious complications.

That fall, she started a learning pod to tutor a handful of students in her home. It worked out so well that Andersen told her husband, also a public school teacher, “I can do this.”

Six months later, The Andersen Academy was born.

The difference between working in the system and working for herself was stark.

Andersen recalled one year when administrators told her and other teachers that they’d be teaching state standards using a packet of reading content they were given. “The most boring material you’ve ever seen,” she said. Andersen thought her students would learn more if they dove deep into “To Kill a Mockingbird.” So, she ignored the directives, followed her gut, and endured charges of insubordination.

Once state test scores were released, one of the administrators rushed to tell her that her students had knocked it out of the park. “How did you do it?”  the administrator asked.

“I thought I was being punked,” Andersen said.

“I had to fight every day to do what was best for my kids,” she continued. Leaving her students and colleagues was heart-wrenching, she said. “But I was tired of fighting.”

Nearly all of Andersen’s students are also from public schools. They couldn’t be happier.

Many are strong students who nonetheless struggled in some subjects. Many experienced bullying.

The Andersen Academy does not give standardized tests. Progress monitoring is done with portfolios.

(Andersen’s students are registered homeschoolers, and nearly all of them use Florida’s Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities. That scholarship is an education savings account administered by nonprofits like Step Up For Students. Unlike the state’s other choice scholarships, it doesn’t require that students take a norm-referenced test. The parents pay Andersen out of pocket, then get reimbursed through the scholarship for home education and evaluation services.)

Every Andersen Academy student has a personalized learning plan made in tandem with them and their parents. The approach to teaching and learning depends on the student and subject.

About half the students come every day for a full day. The others come for a half day or less, and a couple, including one who lives in New Mexico (and does not have a Florida scholarship), join online.

The students do a lot of project-based collaborations with peers. They do community service and field trips on Fridays. They also enjoy a “Zen Den” for mental breaks, an art room for creativity, and the protective company of sweet Maggie.

Hyka McDowell, a seventh grader, attended public and private schools before enrolling in The Andersen Academy two years ago. At the time, Andersen said, she was a grade level or two behind in core subjects. Now she’s on grade level or ahead.

Hyka said the other students are friendly and supportive, and the school’s size is a plus. In a typical school, “you can get overwhelmed,” she said. “But in this school, you don’t have that problem. I love it.”

Andersen said most of her students will probably go to private schools for high school, but some will return to public schools. Her daughter is one of them, though she’ll be going back with her confidence restored.

“She’s walking proof,” Andersen said, “that I made the right decision.”


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BY Ron Matus

Ron Matus is director for policy and public affairs at Step Up for Students and a former editor of redefinED. He joined Step Up in February 2012 after 20 years in journalism, including eight years as an education reporter with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times). Ron can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 451-9830. Follow him on Twitter @RonMatus1 and on facebook at facebook.com/redefinedonline.

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