Article originally published on Gwinnett Daily Post by Chris Starrs.
Families choose private schools for a variety of reasons, one of which is the parents themselves attended an independent school and wanted their children to have a similar experience.
There are a number of students at Greater Atlanta Christian whose parents also went to private school, but more than half of the students at GAC come from what is termed “first-time private-school families.”
When asked what often goes into the decision to enroll children in a private school like GAC for the first time, Dr. Katherine White, GAC’s Vice President of Advancement, pointed to several factors, a number of which can apply to just about any independent school.
“There are different reasons for different families — some people look for the ability to bring their faith into the child’s learning experience,” said White, who grew up attending public school in Gwinnett County but enrolled her children at GAC. “Some are looking for consistency in leadership — we’ve been in Gwinnett County for 54 years and have only had three presidents in our history, so we’re consistent in leadership and you see that consistency in decision making."
“And private schools tend to have smaller class sizes, and sometimes offer more opportunity to do co-curricular type of activities. And we offer the ability for hybrid school and we have our own online school — families can have a more personalized educational experience ... and flexibility in being able to have more decision making in their child’s education.”
White also pointed to the consistency in curriculum, the spirit of collaboration and the feeling students have of being part of a small but significant community.
“There is consistency, and you know your child is going to be prepared coming out of fifth grade for middle school and coming out of eighth grade for high school,” she said. “We look at curriculum and we’re aligned from 2 to 12. Our high school teachers actually work with our elementary school teachers to make sure that curriculum is aligned."
“In addition, you can take band in elementary school with the same band director that you’re going to have in high school. You have experience and getting to know the teachers and coaches you’ll potentially have. What we hear really are the words ‘community’ and ‘family.’ When you have a school where all of your children attend, regardless of age, you really become invested in that community. It’s like smaller towns — it gives you that small-town community feel when you’re in the K-12 environment.”
GAC has grown a great deal since its founding in 1968 with some 150 students, and even though the student body now numbers in the 1,500s (with some 650 in the high school), the determination to offer small class sizes has not changed over the last seven decades.
“We maintain small class sizes,” said White. “We’re not going to go over the class sizes we (establish). It’s lower in the smaller grades — we may have in elementary school two teachers for between 16 and 20 students and in our high school we won’t go over a 1/24 teacher-student ratio. And the AP and Honors classes are even smaller, more like 1/18.”
GAC’s education model is so profound that the school shares its subjects and faculty with other students all over the world through Ethos, GAC’s online school, which was established and developed several years before the COVID pandemic made “zoom” a regular vocabulary word for students.
“We also have 300 students that take our classes from other private independent schools from all over the United States and even internationally,” said White. It’s online, a combination of synchronous and asynchronous (classes), with some zoom and some interactive online classwork that we’ve developed.
“We did that because there are other schools that because of their smaller size can’t offer some of the classes we can, because we’re the third-largest independent school in Georgia and we offer more AP classes than any other independent school in the state. We saw the need to start our own online school, Ethos, before COVID. And we started offering classes to our students who might want to take an extra fine arts class during the day and couldn’t fit it in.”
As is the case with most public and private schools, GAC has a host of traditions that the entire school community can be part of, including homecoming parades, family tailgates and Grandparents Day. White said two traditions she’s particularly proud of are the many travel experiences offered to students and the overnight retreats students go on at the start of each school year.
“One tradition that I really love is before the beginning of the school year, we take all of our students in high school on an overnight retreat,” she said. “It’s a great kickoff for the year, it grounds students and it brings them together socially, in addition to growing their faith.
“And we believe in travel. Students from fifth through 12 grade travel on class trips every year. We also travel for mission trips, and have over 300 students a year that travel on mission trips all over the world. It’s a great opportunity for students to get outside of their metro Atlanta area and learn about the world. That’s an important part of a student’s education, and many of those students go on to college and continue to do study abroad or mission trip travel.”
GAC also has an exemplary graduation rate of 100% and White said that 100% of GAC grads go on to continue their education after high school.
“There’s a lot of opportunity to find your passions and figure out what you excel in because of the small-class environment,” said White. “We have kids who graduate and go on to do great things in college and in life.”