When John Savage’s son was approaching high school graduation, someone asked him where he planned to attend college.
“I don’t know,” said the boy. “My father hasn’t opened one yet.”
Like many family jokes, this one is rooted in reality. It’s pretty much how founder and director Savage’s Academy for Individual Excellence grew, one grade at a time, from an actual one-room school house to the full K-through-12 educational facility it is today.
It grew as his five children’s educational needs grew, starting when the oldest was eight years old and the youngest hadn’t yet been born.
Thirty years ago, Savage was teaching in a small private school in Louisville and having trouble making ends meet. A fellow teacher approached him about starting a preschool. He worked on the financial backing, got the loan, signed the lease, bought the equipment and opened the doors.
“To meet my own kids’ needs, I thought, ‘Why not add Kindergarten?’ Then ‘Why not add first grade?’ Then ‘Why not second?’ ”
His degree was in elementary education, so he figured he’d go as far as third grade, and then be done. But when you’re building something, “done” often never happens.
From the beginning, his approach to education was based on personal growth rather than test scores, and it began to catch on around the community.
Today, that “community” extends to families from throughout Jefferson County, Bullitt and Spencer counties and Southern Indiana more than 400 students in all.
“I was never trying to build a school, so I didn’t depend on someone else’s design or curriculum or style,” Savage says. “It just developed day by day and grew into its identity.”
“It’s the students’ journeys, and they progress as they’re ready to progress,” he says.
“I wasn’t developing a program. I couldn’t afford a curriculum, or text books, or a faculty. So I was just teaching kids.”
He goes back to his own child-rearing as the model.
“I wanted the best for my kids, to havesuccessful adult lives,” he says. “I didn’t make decisions based on the norm, I made decisions based on what I believed would help them. I evaluated them on where they were yesterday and what they are doing today. It’s like any parent; We just get up every day and teach our children a little more than we’d taught them yesterday.”
It’s all done according to four key principles that Savage has come to develop.
Work ethic: “The common piece that I could praise every student for. Even with the students with learning issues, if I focused on their work ethic, they tended to stay eager and ready. They could ask for help without feeling they were making a negative statement.”
Engagement: “As youngsters, kids are always willing to try something new, without fear of failure. We learn a lot by trying, even by failing. And if they begin to identify themselves by engaging, rather than by failing, they lose their fear of trying.”
Accountability: “I don’t want our kids to fall into the trap of blaming others. ‘The teacher was too tough . . . The subject was hard.’ I want them to know that we’re measuring their approach to a problem, not their result. Where they end the process is not as important as how they do it. “The kids who can do just enough to get an A, learn simply to meet the bar. And the kids who have learning problems, or low IQs, or anxiety issues know, going in, that they can’t complete the work, so why bother to try? They blame everybody else, or ‘this is a stupid assignment,’ or ‘I don’t care.’ Which is not true, because all children care.”
Compassion: The kids at the top are encouraged not to look at the struggling students as holding them back or wasting their time, but to help so that everybody grows. “They’ll feel valuable because they helped, and the students that required the help will feel valuable because the smarter students took the time to help them.” And grades? Counterproductive, Savage says. “Do you grade your children on how they walk, talk, eat, potty? Of course not. You just watch for development, for opportunities for them to grow and advance. It’s all done gradually. It develops at each child’s own pace.”
The concept has found an audience. “Either parents will like our philosophy and buy into it, or they won’t,” Savage says. “So many people say, ‘Yes, finally!’ They’ve been so beat up elsewhere, frustrated, fighting with their children over homework and studying.”
The Academy assigns no homework. “I want children to go home and be with their families,” he says. “I don’t want to take the time away. I want parents to spend the time raising their children, working with them, encouraging them.”
Nor is there an honor roll. “If you have an honor roll, there has to be a dishonor roll. We want to honor all children, and forget who made the grades.”
Nor competitions. “We’re not going to have a spelling bee, when I have a child here with dyslexia or processing difficulties. If we make this a competition to see who’s going to win, we already know who’s going to lose. I can’t encourage them to try and win – they know they won’t win! Why put them through it? It encourages the likelihood that they’ll learn how to cheat, or copy or quit.”
Nor class valedictorians. “We just ask who wants to say something at graduation.”
In the spring, after being owned by ResCare for 19 years, Savage took the school back as a non-profit and created AIE Inc. He needed a loan to buy the building he was leasing and to have some working capital, but most banks saw only a brand new corporation that didn’t meet their lending criteria.
“But American Founders Bank decided they could work with us. They said, ‘What you’re doing is important work.’ ”
Also as of the spring, The Academy is part of the Kentucky Christian Athletic Association. But, Savage insists, “I don’t have a doctrine that I want to teach. That’s not my job, it’s the parents’ job. I’m not trying to convert to a religion, I’m trying to convert to a way of life.”
TO LEARN MORE
The Academy for Individual Excellence is at 3101 Bluebird Lane in Jeffersontown, 40299; (502) 267-6187; aiexcellence.com; email – [email protected]