by Michelle Wirth
Genesis Innovation Academy for Boys and Genesis Innovation Academy for Girls are among the newest state-approved charter schools to open their doors this fall. The schools are co-located in a brightly lit campus along Custer Avenue in Atlanta. Genesis Innovation Academy offers single gender classrooms for students in grades Kindergarten through the sixth grade.
Both schools are led by Gavin Samms, a graduate of the Georgia Institute of Technology and Harvard University (pictured on the left with students). Samms previously served as founding principal of Fulton Leadership Academy. The school’s mission is to create students who become innovators and take content and apply it rather than simply learning the information to pass a test. He believes learning the skills necessary for innovation are important as computers increasingly perform more tasks and the dynamics of the global marketplace shift.
“We feel that will give them a competitive edge in a world that is increasingly being automated,” says Samms. “Learning facts are really not going to get you there because you can look everything up on your phone, so what’s going to be the difference going forward? It’s going to be people who can actually take information and apply it in interesting and creative ways.”
Samms decided to open schools with single gender classrooms to better engage male students living in Atlanta’s urban core and to bridge the gender gap for females in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math career fields. He says research shows girls are more confident and perform better in school when there are fewer boys in the classroom.
“We’re trying to ensure that our girls feel empowered in every class, including math and science, which have traditionally been areas in which girls have underperformed,” says Samms. “We want our girls to be in a room where the expectation is that they all can do it.”
Samms says the single-gender approach along with character-driven instruction is needed for boys to ensure more students of color can graduate and go onto future career success. Genesis Innovation Academy also seeks to improve reading proficiency rates and academic performance for male students.
“They learn how to respect the academic process, how to respect each other and their teachers. At this age for boys it’s a challenge, but it’s also a requirement. If we don’t teach them how to that, we’ll lose them, and we’ve been losing far too many to underperformance,” says Samms. “It’s not that they are not capable but you do have to set an expectation that’s extremely high for them on every level and ask them to reach that high bar. Otherwise, they won’t get there.”
Samms says the school’s curriculum is standards based but requires students to go more in-depth when it comes to articulation and application. The school uses the E5 curriculum model, which emphasizes comprehension, problem-solving and real world application to the study of Engineering, Economics, Entrepreneurship, Ethics, and Expression. Samms says the model allows teachers to map a core subject like math to economics and finance so students can see that math is used for something in the real world. Teachers at Genesis innovation Academy have also received training in Project Based Learning and are beginning to implement the teaching method into the school’s classrooms so students can show that they’ve learned and mastered their classroom material.
Samms gained approval for Genesis Innovation Academy with help from Georgia Charter Schools Association’s incubator program.
“Having a place to go to vet your ideas and to have feedback about what was and wasn’t possible was helpful,” said Samms. “You can ask and vet things in a safer space and the incubator’s role is to help you through that, to help you through those challenges…There’s even a fair amount of advocacy, making calls and using the networks of the incubator to go and figure things out and take things off your plate.”
Samms says he decided to start both schools to be part of the solution as educators in Atlanta and across the country figure out the best educational approaches to move the needle for students in urban areas where academic performance has historically been a challenge.
“This is an effort to help public education. This is not an effort to compete with anyone,” says Samms. “It’s a labor of love. You start something because you really believe this is something that will matter for kids. If you can figure out how to help kids who have had results that are not acceptable to almost any of us, if you can figure out how to move them forward, that’s a benefit to everybody.”
Samms has a history of increasing academic performance, most recently during his time as principal of Fulton Leadership Academy in South Fulton. Under his leadership, African-American males far exceeded state performance benchmarks. He hopes to share what he learned at Fulton Leadership Academy and the additional lessons he will gain at Genesis Innovation Academy with other public school districts in Atlanta, the state of Georgia and throughout the country.