On Downs Boulevard in Franklin, New Hope Academy first graders are watching the dissection of a shark. Next door, their 1-year-older counterparts are learning the ancient mummification process by embalming a chicken. And just down the hall, pre-kindergarten classmates are discussing the effects of chlorophyll.
For New Hope Headmaster Stuart Tutler this type of forward-thinking curriculum is not a jaw-dropping one; it’s just another day at a school that he calls “a life-changing experience” for his students.
“This is an excellent educational experience for all students, but in particular students from low-income households,” he said. “We are committed to raising the $1.2 million in scholarships each year to be able to provide this opportunity.”
More than a decade ago, a local church was the stimulus for the idea of New Hope Academy, and what they hoped would produce lasting change for the low-income neighborhoods in Williamson County. Since 1996, the school has stuck to its original mission of providing a rigorous education to a student population that spans socioeconomic and cultural spectrums. Today, 40 to 50 percent of each classroom is on scholarship.
Tutler, who was asked to step in as interim headmaster back in 2003, has led the elementary school for 10 years. Though he didn’t have a background in education before—he left a career in information systems for the role—he has continued to help mold the success of New Hope into an inspirational model for like-minded institutions across the country.
“Our mission is to provide an excellent, Christ-centered education, and I would say our educational programs are exceptional in providing that,” he said. “Though we offer it to all families, what makes us unique is that we concentrate specifically on giving low-income students this opportunity. We are very intentional about serving students from all backgrounds.”
Through New Hope’s prevailing philosophy—that learning is a constant, lifelong process—Tutler said the school hopes to build a firm foundation for each child in five areas: spiritually, intellectually, emotionally, physically and socially.
The headmaster said that for New Hope instructors and school supporters, this type of education, coupled with the school’s structure, is necessary to change the mindset of the future generations attending the school.
“We learn through relationships at New Hope. We all need experience with different socioeconomic backgrounds to understand others’ needs,” he said. “Our founders recognized that a catalyst to meeting the poor community’s needs was a firm education.”
Cathy Irwin, New Hope admissions and community relations manager, has had years of similar experience at surrounding area private schools. She said that New Hope is a rare environment unlike any she’s seen: one that creates an intimate community by breaking down social barriers for a life-long impact.
“All the children here are friends and genuinely care for one another. That’s what’s so cool: they don’t even realize the difference between one another. They are oblivious,” she said. “It’s a family. I love the mission of this school and we really stay true to it.”
“This is an environment that fosters love, whether that’s among the students, between families or our staff,” Tutler added. “We celebrate God’s diversity and differences. We stress to the kids that He made all of us exactly the way we are supposed to be. There are no mistakes.”
Though the school places heavy emphasis on friendship and Biblical teaching, it also constructs a rigorous curriculum that ensures its students are more than prepared when they graduate sixth grade.
“It’s pretty amazing. Our fifth graders are learning more than most high school students do in their biology class,” Irwin said. “In sixth grade, they extract actual iron from their cereal.”
“We had a local leadership group take a tour and play a version of, ‘Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?’” Tutler said. “Afterwards, they said they didn’t want to play that game at New Hope again!”
In addition to its rich courses, New Hope also provides its students with forums that host working professionals. From the surgeon who operated on former President Ronald Reagan to the voice of Larry the Cucumber from Veggie Tales, the school hopes that the diverse group of speakers will act as role models for the children.
“We do a great job of exposing them to people of all walks of life,” Irwin said. “What we are giving these kids is a vision. Their lives are changed once they walk through those doors.”