Palestine's Landmark Academy shifts focus to success

Published on Monday, 19 May 2014 19:49 - Written by Betty Waters,


PALESTINE — In its early days, Landmark Academy had a reputation for being a dropout recovery campus. In recent years, the academy has disassociated from its initial focus and changed its purpose.

 After Honors Academy Charter School District based in Farmers Branch near Dallas acquired Landmark in 2001, the academy went to a more traditional approach. It is a free public school chartered by the Texas Education Agency that was started by Brenda Richardson.

 “It is still a rescue campus, but not necessarily for kids who have dropped out or gotten in trouble. Now, we’ve become more along the line of traditional results in terms of kids succeeding academically even though we still serve kids in need,” Mike Anderson said.

 Anderson, principal of Landmark and area superintendent responsible for Honors Academy schools outside of Dallas, said a lot of parents pick Landmark for their child out of concern about bullying in regular public schools.

 They were looking for a safer place, smaller classes and more intense education program working specifically on what their child’s weaknesses are, Anderson said.

 Anderson has led Landmark since 2005, although he was on medical leave a few months early this year recovering from injuries in a car wreck.

 Landmark was rated unacceptable in the state accountability ratings in 2004 but has been rated acceptable every year starting in 2005 under Anderson’s leadership.

 His first career was in retail management. He was a school volunteer and decided to become a teacher. He holds a bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Texas Southern University and a second master’s degree from Stephen F. Austin State University. Anderson has been in the education field for more than 20 years.

 “About half of the kids who come to school here come for the safe environment because they are supervised 100 percent of the time, and the classroom sizes are so small teachers can give individualized academic attention, too,” Anderson said.

 The academy is primarily a sixth- through ninth-grade campus, although it also served 10th grade this year. Currently, approximately 70 students are enrolled, and the academy has a small student-teacher ratio of 10 to 1.

 “That’s a real benefit because the teacher can get to know the kids very in-depth in terms of what their strengths and weaknesses are. You can go at a pace to cover a lot of material and still have time to spiral back and reteach and reapply,” Anderson said. “Our teachers are our No. 1 strength.”

 The teachers are young with an ‘I can teach the world type’ outlook, Anderson said.

“They are really serious and eager. It’s good for the kids when the teachers are so excited about teaching.”

 “Over the eight years I have been here, we have rapidly become more and more a scholastic environment district wide.”

 Landmark receives state funding based on average daily attendance and also some federal and state grants.

 The academy uses TEA curriculum and abides by state accountability standards. It also picks and chooses curriculum from different sources, Anderson said.

 For example, teachers in all classes pick a book appropriate for their grade for students to read, such as the life story of Helen Keller.

“We use that book for a six-week period as a basis to teach all of the core subjects,” Anderson said.

 The book puts students with different levels of knowledge and experience “on the same playing field … a level playing field,” he said. “They all start at the same place in terms of prior knowledge (because) they all know about the book.”

 “If we are writing, we use the characters in that book to write sentences and paragraphs. They do a math problem about that book. When they go to biology, it’s the same thing.”

 The academy provides transportation for 90 to 95 percent of its students with school buses and vans. The students come from the greater Palestine area.

 The academy has contracted Palestine ISD to bring lunch in hot boxes to the campus. Many of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

 “Our overall goal is to be a pleasant, cooperative alternative to regular public education, meaning we don’t want to compete with traditional public schools,” Anderson said.

 “Our goal is to be there for students that need something different, a different environment, a slower environment, a smaller environment. Our goal is to be there for the student who needs an alternative to the larger classroom, the larger school, the faster pace.”

 The academy teaches self-control as opposed to punitive discipline, Anderson said.

 The academy also has a new motto and is emphasizing leadership to groom students for leadership roles in the community.

 It is in an approximately 12,000-square-foot former strip shopping center at the intersection of Old Brushy Creek Road and Texas Highway 155. Classrooms are equipped with smart boards, overhead projectors, Elmo projectors, computers and other technology. Students are furnished an iPad for in-school use.

Teacher Brenna Nelson oversees Leading Ladies, an organization that teaches girls life skills, manners, how to be active in the community, arts and crafts, cooking classes, shows them opportunities to give back and brings in speakers on career opportunities.

 To qualify for membership, girls must have given three hours of community service and maintain passing grades.

 Teacher Jennifer Syverson works with tutors to provide one-on-one help for students based on their needs and analysis of their test performance.

 The academy also has an athletic program, with a fishing team, boys’ basketball, girls’ basketball, flag football and volleyball teams.