LAKE WALES – There are, said Clare Jane Beck, definite benefits to being at the mall.
“Yesterday the students had a day off school, so we got lego bricks for the kids in the morning,” she said. “At lunch time we took them to the food court. The students like that. It’s not too shabby to be in the mall.”
Beck is not a mall patron, but instead operates a business at the Eagle Ridge Mall in Lake Wales. She doesn’t run what shoppers might consider the typical mall store, one that sells clothing, food, or other items. Instead, Beck, along with Geralyn Carr, runs Star Academy and Tutoring Center of Polk County, a special program that assists students who are struggling academically and need some extra help.
“We’re going to keep a small class size,” Beck said. “That’s exactly where a child becomes frustrated — in a larger setting, where they can’t understand math and are expected to understand it for the FCAT.”
So what exactly is Star Academy? Well, it all started with two Polk County teachers who were nearing retirement – but really didn’t want to get out of teaching, even if they were being forced to get out of the public school classrooms.
“It is two retired teachers, she said. “Geri and I have, for the past 10 years, been long time friends, and we talked that when we retired, we’d run a school together.”
Beck spent 33 years as a public school’s classroom teacher, and worked within the Polk County school system for 25 years. She also has experience in curriculum design, and teaching multi-age classes.
When Carr hit retirement age in June 2011, they decided to was time to move forward on this project.
“When she retired in June, it was time to either do it or forget it,” Beck said.
They needed an office, and initially, the mall wasn’t their first idea.
“We were hunting for a place for it, and had a place in Dundee in mind,” Beck said. “Then one day I was driving around and passed the Eagle Ridge Mall, and said ‘I think I’ll check with the mall.’ “
She contacted the mall management, which liked the idea.
“They said it would be an excellent service for the customers of the mall, and told us, ‘You’ve got a place,’ “ Beck said. “We have 35,000 square feet of space here, and our largest room would accommodate maybe 10 students, and we have a couple of those rooms, as well as rooms that would accommodate six or so students.”
It started, essentially, as an after school program that provided mentoring and teaching to students who were struggling in the public schools.
“We opened in July 2011,” Beck said, “and we have some 32-plus students with parents coming in twice a week, and it’s just really running very smoothly. We’re really very pleased. It has been building up from our reputation of helping students having trouble in the classroom. We recognize that some children need extra attention, so we have three to five students in a group, and maybe they need extra help with third grade reading or high school algebra, or whatever. We’re just pleased with our success, and moving forward, we’re trying to help them with FCAT, whether it’s on the elementary level or high school level.”
Beck and Carr don’t operate alone. Instead, they’ve built up a network of teachers who make themselves available to assist these students.
“We put together teacher friends,” Beck said. “We have a list of 20-plus teachers who have made themselves available to us, who have said ‘We’d like to help you in Spanish’ or ‘I can do high school math.’ They have signed with us, and we can call them and say ‘We need a class in high school algebra.’ We call on that group of staff that we have ready to help.”
It’s gone so well, in fact, that Star Academy is expanding in the next few months.
“We’re planning the fall opening of our full day school,” Beck said. “That would be in August 2012. It will be fully licensed. We’ll have fully certified teachers. We hope in March to open with parent conferences and parent training, and then have a May-June enrollment. And we’ll still have our after school tutoring service.”
Beck said it’s been a wonderfully rewarding way to spend her retirement years, even if it does involve creating an entirely new academic program in Polk County – quite an ambitious undertaking.
“We just feel like there’s a niche of students that are having difficulty in a regular classroom setting,” she said. “The pressure is very strong in the public schools. We want to make their progress more custom designed for their needs, and we have the experience to do that.”
The Eagle Ride Mall is at 451 Eagle Ridge Drive in Lake Wales. To learn more about the Star Academy, call 863-299-6965.
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