When school founder Kate Kennedy learned of the many Atlanta-area students who suffer academically due to extreme levels of financial hardship, she felt compelled to find a solution to an ever-growing problem. With no permanent address to call home, homeless students frequently transfer from school to school, falling further behind their classroom peers in the process.
The Boyce L. Ansley School is a tuition-free private school specifically catering to underprivileged children experiencing, or those who have experienced, homelessness. With assistance from St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, what began as a daycare program to assist destitute parents looking for work eventually morphed into a fully-operational school for preschoolers, that has been growing in size and outreach ever since.
The school first found a home in St. Luke’s basement, officially opening its doors in time for the 2018-19 academic year in August. The school’s namesake, Boyce L. Ansley, was a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal and played an instrumental role in the school’s founding. Also serving as Kennedy’s mentor, Ansley motivated Kennedy to start the school before passing away in 2016.
A quality private education typically comes at a high cost in Atlanta, with parents and guardians paying an average $16,301 annually to keep their students enrolled, according to data from Private School Review. At the Boyce L. Ansley School, however, all supplies are free of charge in order to provide relief to parents who are already struggling financially.
Despite the absence of fees to attend, the Ansley School provides many of the same resources private schools with fees tend to offer: breakfast and lunch for students, school supplies, snacks and school uniforms – all at no cost to parents. The school structures its curriculum and principles around Bronfenbrenner’s theory of child development, which focuses on utilizing many relationships in a child’s life in order to inspire excellent academic achievement.
The Ansley School also offers small classroom sizes to ensure each child receives the individualized attention they need from instructors.
Leah Skinner, head of school at the Boyce L. Ansley School, said students tend to perform well academically under the school’s curriculum, due to their enhanced analytical and problem-solving abilities, disproving the stigma that underprivileged youth naturally fall behind their more affluent peers.
“Our story is one of resilience,” Skinner said. “We don’t want anybody to feel sorry for us.”
Skinner also said the school’s in-house social workers and therapists work in conjunction with teachers to ensure each child is mentally and emotionally prepared to learn at the beginning of each school day. This concept, called “social-emotional learning,” places emotional and mental wellness at the forefront of academic readiness.
The school’s faculty and leadership also understand the importance of a proper and stable home environment for students. According to the school’s website, the Boyce L. Ansley School schedules visits to students’ homes each month, in order to ensure families are physically and financially capable of supporting their kids academically, mentally and emotionally.
This year, the school also began developing individualized family success plans to improve the wellbeing of students’ family members and caretakers. Skinner said that in doing so, the staff at the Ansley School is also improving the wellbeing of the students they care for. Each student and guardian creates a success plan with the school’s social workers in order to map out future goals and allow school leadership to know the areas in which certain families are struggling.
Mental health is a priority among teachers, faculty and staff at Boyce L. Ansley, Skinner said, since many students arrive for class each day despite facing traumatizing experiences outside of school hours. Teachers at Boyce L. Ansley are trained to handle traumatic situations when hired, and are required to obtain an official teaching certification before being considered for positions.
“Our classrooms have to be a home away from home,” Skinner said. “Most of [our kids] don’t have homes – they might be in hotels, they might be in shelters, they might be living in a dilapidated [environment]. So when they come here, they have to have a safe place.”
The Ansley School relies heavily upon assistance from their organizational partners, who help their students perform well in the classroom, while helping parents foster safe environments for their kids outside of the classroom. As head of school, Skinner is responsible for managing fundraising programs and ensuring the school earns enough money each year to provide for their growing student body.
The school’s next financial goal is to receive more funding through grants from the state and federal government. Skinner said next year’s school budget, taking effect this summer, is increasing to $2.1 million, $300,000 higher than the budget from the previous fiscal year.
Despite the school’s continued growth and exposure to new potential donors, Mariel Hicks, director of development at the Ansley School, said that she takes pride in the fact that Boyce L. Ansley is largely supported by local organizations and members of the Atlanta community.
“If people contribute to us, they can watch us grow right before their eyes,” Hicks said. “We’re homegrown; we’re ‘for Atlanta, by Atlanta.’ This is our city, and these are our kids.”
While fundraising efforts are challenging and overwhelming for Skinner and her staff, Skinner said the advancement of families enrolled in the Ansley School’s social service programs – which has helped parents land jobs, go back to school and attain adequate housing – is the most rewarding aspect of the job.
“Just seeing that growth of the kid and the entire family is what makes this all worth it,” Skinner said. “It’s stressful [for the director of development and I] to raise money, but when we see those kids and those families every single day, we just keep grinding.”