Dr. Alaina Chipman-Leeks understood from a young age that education was essential to success in individuals’ lives and careers. She also understood that there were some societal obstacles in place that prevented some from receiving the kind of education they deserved. As a person who truly recognized the value and importance of education, she chose to do something about it. And she was not going to let a pandemic deter her.

In 2020, Chipman-Leeks, a graduate of Spelman College, founded the Atlanta Unbound Academy, a K-8 charter school that has adopted unorthodox, yet highly successful, approaches to educating its young people.

Atlanta Unbound Academy, located in College Park, started its initial 2020-2021 school year with 80 students. In order to recruit as many new students as possible for the coming school year, Chipman-Leeks and her board of directors approached parents in some unusual places: apartment complexes, grocery stores, parking lots and shopping malls. The staff’s enthusiasm was well-received by parents in the community, so much so that 80 families opted to send their children to a school that, at the time, did not actually exist. 

During the current school year, Atlanta Unbound’s student body has grown to 180 kids. In fact, the growth was so significant that the student body has outgrown its current space. The school will move to a more spacious facility in time for the 2022-2023 academic year.

In order to fairly accommodate students and families who wish to attend Atlanta Unbound next year, the school had to incorporate a lottery system. Currently, there are 207 students on the academy’s waiting list. Atlanta Unbound will have a student body comprised of 345 students next year, an increase of 431% since the school’s inception year.

Assembling a staff at the brand-new school was also a trying task for Chipman-Leeks. The school’s first year of operation took place in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, team-building activities and the sharing of the school’s academic, disciplinary and cultural norms had to happen virtually. To combat stresses associated with the onset of coronavirus, the school partnered with Walk of Like, a Black-owned counseling center that provides free marriage and family counseling to the school’s staff, parents and students. Chipman-Leeks credits her teachers and administrators for maintaining a “super-intimate, close, relationship,” even as her staff tripled in size.

“We’ve been really successful,” she said. “Our leadership team is incredible. Our principal [Patrick Jackson] …is energetic. The energy and passion and commitment that he brings to our kids and our staff helps our school really, really thrive.”

Chipman-Leeks initially served as the founder, principal and executive director of the Atlanta Unbound Academy. This year, the head principal duties have been passed to Jackson.

The foundation of the academy can be attributed to Chipman-Leeks’ upbringing. A native of the Bahamas, her grandparents always stressed the importance of education, particularly in the way education provides access for whatever one wants to accomplish in life.

One of the ways that the academy sets itself apart from other schools is in its approach to student behavior and social development. Chipman-Leeks understands that children are finding their way in life, and mistakes will be made along the way. Her approach to assisting children in their educational and social development is to provide the proper resources, and to rely less on punitive measures.

“We have a very restorative approach to discipline,” Chipman-Leeks said. “No child is perfect. We [have] restorative conversations. We don’t just jump to a suspension. We have a social worker; we have a social-emotional learning manager. So, we have a whole team that is dedicated to social emotional learning.”

Another unique aspect of the academy stems from its freedom in approaches to teaching. Teachers at the school have the ability to utilize innovative approaches to instruction that may not mirror traditional teaching styles. This freedom may be a key reason that the academy retained 100% of its teachers from the previous school year.

The academy’s approach to education is working. 90% of the school’s students either met or exceeded the school’s annual growth goals. Middle school achievement goals are tracked by a program called the Achievement Network (ANet), which compares student results from schools across the country who utilize the same curriculum. Atlanta Unbound Academy normally ranks between the 1st and 3rd positions within that nationwide cohort.

Further, there is no cost for students to attend the Atlanta Unbound Academy. Along with incurring all student expenses, the academy provides laptops, snacks and all necessary school supplies for the academic year. The school’s primary funding source is the State Charter Schools Commission (SCSC) of Georgia. The academy also receives funds from redefinED, an Atlanta-based organization whose purpose is to promote equitable access to education opportunities and resources. Other means of financial support for the academy are the Charter School Growth Fund, the Walton Family Foundation and Microsoft.

Many of the members of the board of directors, as well as Chipman-Leeks, are HBCU graduates. As such, the board tried to identify those components that made the HBCU experience rewarding, and incorporate them into the experiences of the academy’s students. Those ideologies include being mindful and respectful of their classmates’ opinions, and being open to diversity in thought.

Along with receiving a quality education, Chipman-Leeks wants to continue to foster an environment that will positively affect young people throughout the course of their lives.

“Grades are important, but I want happy, healthy, self-assured, self-affirmed children,” she said. “I want kids to walk in this building and feel like, ‘I really can be this different from everybody else, and it’s okay. People here are going to embrace it, they’re going to love me, and I’m going to thrive here.’”