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It's a two-and-a-half hour drive to El Dorado from North Little Rock, and Leopoulos, 66, leaves no dead air. He talks about his daughter; his past; his friendship with Bill Clinton, who has pondered the possibility of introducing A+ to Haiti, and artist George Rodrigue, who is starting A+ in Louisiana through his foundation. He talks about the withering of unattended creativity as we age, theories of learning. He is 100 percent sure that A+ could make a huge difference in state schools for pennies on the dollar compared to other programs embraced by school districts, and the resulting achievement would in turn boost the state's attractiveness to new business. His zeal for better education for children fuels hours of talk.
"The power of her life, the power of her soul is what drives me every day," Leopoulos said of Thea. "It's all about this amazing young girl." He compared his daughter's influence to that of the young girl in Pakistan who was shot for advocating girls' education; that girl is "going to change the frickin' world. ... the women's movement has taken a rocket ride to the moon."
The A+ method "meets kids where they are and takes them where they can go," Leopoulos said. "I'm not a flaming liberal" who thinks "failure is impossible," he said, but A+ gives students confidence, a huge part of learning. "My vision is everyone has incredible potential." To hell, he says, with the bell curve, and writing off 25 percent of your students.
The A+ method, which originated in North Carolina, has been adopted by more than 70 schools in Oklahoma. The Windgate Foundation funded the group that brought A+ to Oklahoma — a consortium of Oklahoma college educators called the DaVinci Institute — and made grants of more than a half million dollars in 2002 and 2003 to the University of Arkansas's Great Expectations project, which oversaw the A+ pilot in Arkansas.
Teacher buy-in is critical to the success of any method; A+ is no different. A+ requires whole-school buy-in, summer and monthly training and more preparation. The principal plays a crucial role in the continuing commitment to the program. Thanks to personnel changes, a couple of the state's pilot A+ schools backed off the program, and Windgate dropped its funding in 2006. Hugh Goodwin, Cook Elementary and Woods Elementary, however, embraced the model and kept teaching it. Then, a newly-inspired Leopoulos picked up the ball, turning to the Oklahoma A+ office for advice and training help, getting the Windgate Foundation involved again and organizing the Arkansas A+ Schools network within Thea.
This year, 12 schools in Arkansas are A+ schools. New to the network are Arkansas KIPP schools in Helena-West Helena and Blytheville; Boone Park and Pike View elementary schools in the North Little Rock School District, and Rockefeller Elementary in Little Rock. Baldwin Elementary in Paragould has rejoined the network.
"Paul has given new life and energy" to the project, Windgate's John Brown said. "It helps that he's in Little Rock," because of its proximity to the state's education bureaucracy. "He's very eloquent and impassioned. ... I'm very pleased. I hope the model will grow and will be embraced more broadly."
Cook Elementary Principal Paul Spicer is also glad Leopolous has gotten involved. "It's been very beneficial to us knowing we have an advocate who's not afraid to talk to educators and legislators ... to help us keep this program going," he said. "Plenty of research shows kids who participate in art will score better. We know kids who are involved tend to stay in school" as they progress to graduation.
The Windgate Foundation is subsidizing A+ teacher training, conducted by A+ fellows, many of them retired teachers. One of them, Linda Glickert, is retired from the Paragould School District, which had an A+ program until a principal left. She witnessed a sea change in attitude in the teachers as well as the students: "It was almost like being born again as a teacher."
There is no A+ manual, and fellows don't lay down rules for teachers to follow. The method is fluid, adaptable, fed by the teachers' own creativity. After a long day of in-class training, fellows will "debrief" the teachers on what tweaks are needed to reach all students, no matter their learning style.
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