Patrice Meadows, Atlanta SMART Academy

Monday, April 18, 2022

This interview transcript is a part of TARA's Visionary School Founder Series where we highlight innovative educational models and the courageous founders behind them.

“There is something about integrating fun that just changes things”

LAURA: Hey guys! Today, I’m super excited to talk to Patrice Meadows- the founder of Atlanta SMART Academy.

“I’m really just looking forward to opening our doors to those families and 192 fifth and sixth graders and getting them started on this educational journey that we know will change their lives forever”

LAURA: Can you start by giving listeners a little background information on where you grew up, what your educational background was like, and then - end with how you got into education as an adult?

PATRICE: Absolutely! I am originally born and raised in Fort Washington, Maryland - which is a small suburb right outside of Washington DC. I went to performing arts school for K-8 grades. I’m definitely finding that is a unique situation, so I’ve always been grateful for that opportunity. I majored in Dance in high school. From there, I went to NC State and spent some time trying to decide if I wanted to continue the dance route or if I wanted to try something different.  I actually ended up majoring in biology and decided that I wanted to go to med school. In my senior year I started to feel like I should do something different! I met with a recruiter for Teach for America and I was totally convinced. My first choice was to go to Atlanta to teach high school. Within a couple months, I moved there right after graduation with a couple boxes and no friends or family in the area. I fell in love with Southwest Atlanta and the communities and families that grow there.

LAURA: Thank you for sharing that with me! I would like to know more about why Atlanta SMART Academy was founded - What makes your school unique?

PATRICE: Yeah! When  I was a high school chemistry teacher in Southwest Atlanta, I found that I had students who were really excited about learning, however, they hadn't had the appropriate level of rigor or challenge from their prior school experiences. I found that students were multiple grade levels behind in reading and math but they had a really strong desire to learn. I found that some schools in that area just weren't providing them with the level of engagement that they needed to really be successful. I started thinking about my experience growing up and being able to attend a performing arts school and having a really strong foundation in the sciences. I thought about how I could take those experiences in the arts and in the sciences and bring them together to create a school that gives students a well-rounded education. SMART stands for science, math, and the arts. We want our students to be well prepared with a rigorous, advanced education in science and in math. Those foundations are necessary if we want students to be able to enter STEM careers- which are really growing and blooming creatively. We also want our students to be prepared to go into the arts and entertainment sector- which is definitely booming in Atlanta right now. Lastly, we want students to build communication skills and their ability to collaborate and work with a variety of different people to be able to thrive in college and a career of their choosing.

LAURA: So, as a school leader and founding principal - it’s a given that you’ve already experienced some highs and lows - but let’s start on a positive note! What would you say is your greatest achievement so far as a charter school founder and leader?

PATRICE: Great question! If I had to choose just one, I would say where we are right now is our greatest accomplishment so far. About two years ago, in 2018, I left my job as assistant principal at a high performing charter school. I decided to go out into the unknown and start this journey of building Atlanta SMART Academy. Literally, from ground zero, I built a founding board of other dedicated professionals who were committed to our vision for using science, math, and the arts to build innovative solutions in Southwest Atlanta. We went out into the community and spoke with our neighbors, city council officials, homeowners associations and presidents - pretty much anyone who would listen! We also compiled a very large list of families who were interested in sending their children to Atlanta SMART Academy. Now, we have many of those families committed to enroll in August of this year. We are extremely grateful for all of that support that we have been able to build, but also excited for the families and students. Right here, where we are in this moment, is our greatest achievement so far.

“This is extremely difficult work and it takes time, rightfully so, building something this important should take time”

LAURA: That is so impressive and I can’t imagine all the hard work and long hours that went into making this dream a reality. What advice would you give to people who have this same goal in mind or are thinking about starting a charter school in their community?

PATRICE: I would tell them to build a team of people who are committed to the vision. This is extremely difficult work and it takes time, rightfully so, building something this important should take time - but you absolutely need the right people around you who can persevere through any challenge that may come. You need people who can do the work and be on the ground with you. They need to be your advocates. On those days where you feel like giving up, those days where you feel like you’ve failed - they will be the ones who will encourage you to keep going. My advice to any aspiring school leader would be to find the right team. You can’t do it alone.

LAURA: Absolutely. I’m sure it makes such a big difference to have people to trust and lean on. How did you find your team?

PATRICE: I took lots of different measures to find them! One connection I’m really grateful for is The Georgia Charter School Association. Their incubator program has been absolutely instrumental in our success. They helped to give us over a year’s time, the training and resources that we needed to understand how founding a school works, and they also put us in connection with the right people who can help us. They gave us some tips and strategies around how to recruit board members. I definitely took their advice. I reached out to my professional networks from college, from Teach For America, from my experience in Atlanta Public Schools to really find people with a diverse skill set. I found board members with experience in education, finance, business, and real estate to build my team. Word of mouth was definitely very helpful, as well.

LAURA: For such a large task - founding a school that doesn’t exist - you need to surround yourself with a supportive and diverse skill set. It definitely sounds like you’ve done that! Have you experienced any challenges along the way that stand out in your mind?

PATRICE: I would say our greatest challenge is - during this planning phase, it is our responsibility to fund raise or find sponsors or organizations that will help support you in the work. Then, you have to use your personal resources to fill in the gaps. During this time, our greatest challenge has been to make sure that all areas are covered, that we continuously fundraise and meet all of our financial goals that will allow us to start really strong on Day 1.

LAURA: I could definitely understand that being challenging - How did your team tackle this?

PATRICE: As a team, we really came together to strategize. We developed a couple different methods. One of those methods is applying for grants. As a not-for-profit, we are able to apply for grants that will support our work. One of those being a federal grant - The Charter School Planning Grant. We are very fortunate in being able to put together a strong application. We received an $800,000 grant to help us prior to opening the school. That was incredible and absolutely needed in our first year. Also, our crowdsourcing campaign was instrumental in raising funds. We have a Fundly listed on our website. We set a goal of $20,000 to help offset the costs of our planning year. Our friends and family have really come through in a huge way. Family, friends, and local business owners have all rallied beyond us to help us meet our goal. We raised almost $15,000 to date - just from our small network of supporters. Lastly, we planned events and small fundraisers that will build up to a large impact. We had fundraising events with local restaurants, spirit nights, we’ve sold t-shirts - anything to really get people excited about the vision and give them alternative ways to support.

“To have people support something that they really can’t see just yet is absolutely humbling”

LAURA: It must feel so exciting and humbling to have all these people rally around you and support your vision.

PATRICE: Yes, absolutely. Every day, I am humbled because I know that these people don’t have to support us. This is still a vision until we actually open our doors in August. So, to have people support something that they really can’t see just yet is absolutely humbling.

LAURA: To wrap up today - I wanted to ask you a question that our team at TARA is always thinking about and focusing on. What do you want education to look like in the year 2050?

PATRICE: In 2050, I want education to be fun! I think that’s something that is so underrated and overlooked. But - I think it’s something that is so important for us to realize and commit to. I know that it is hard work for both the staff and the students. There is something about integrating fun that just changes things. It makes you want to work harder, it makes you want to be successful, it makes you want to show up every day and give it your all when you know that you are going to enjoy that experience. It seems so simple, but it’s something that we haven’t really been able to grasp in our current education system. I want education to be fun in 2050.

“I think that when we take autonomy away from teachers, oftentimes, we take their creativity along with that”

LAURA: Right! Speaking as a former teacher, when the students are having fun, the teacher is having fun! If students are sitting there independently feeling bored, the teacher is most likely feeling the same way. Making sure your students are enjoying the experience reminds us why we got into education and why we enjoy the profession. What do you think schools and teachers could be doing right now to integrate fun and work towards this goal?

PATRICE: I think that we should treat teachers like professionals and I think that teachers can demand that from their higher ups. I think that when we take autonomy away from teachers, oftentimes, we take their creativity along with that. We need to be able to give standards and expectations for teachers- but give them the flexibility to be creative. If you are in a large district, that is difficult to do. What works in one community may not work in another. It is very difficult to place expectations, like scripted curriculums, without any room for flexibility and creativity. I would say giving teachers back their autonomy, but providing them the support that they need to really instruct their students successfully.

LAURA: We can’t rely on this ‘One Size Fits All’ model anymore. Especially in Atlanta, with how diverse the school districts are here.

LAURA: That’s all we have! Thank you so much for talking with me today. If any listeners want to follow what’s going on at your school on social media- where can they find you?

PATRICE: We are all over social media! We are on Instagram and Facebook @ Atlanta SMART Academy. On Twitter, we are @atlantasmartac1.

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