By Ginny Wray
Gracie Agnew joined Carlisle School last summer in hopes of rounding out her career in education. Her 40-year career with the Henry County Schools had started in the classroom, moved into school administration and ended in the school division administration before she retired in 2014, though she never stopped working.
Now, as she is about to complete her rookie year as head of school at Carlisle, she said, “I think I have died and gone to heaven.”
That is because she said her work at the private Carlisle School has allowed Agnew to go back to doing what she and other educators believe is right for the students, not solely what the state dictates.
Agnew explained that when she started teaching English in Henry County Schools in 1974-75, she and others created a pilot honors English program.
“It was exciting,” she recalled recently. “We got to design the curriculum and teach students the way we knew they needed to be taught. It was an exciting time for me as a teacher because from the ground up, I was part of the planning.
“Fast forward to 2018,” Agnew continued. “I now have the opportunity to come to a school where it’s all about doing what you know is right and good in terms of education, where you, along with the teachers and educators can make those decisions without being dictated by the state.”
Agnew also told the story of her last year as principal at Bassett High School when the state sent out a notice that it was changing the kind of calculator to be used on Standards of Learning (SOL) tests. Agnew said she had just bought new calculators to replace old ones but they did not meet the new state requirement.
“We had no control. Whether it was right or wrong, we didn’t have a voice. Here, we have a voice,” she added.
Agnew became Carlisle’s head of school after Tommy Hudgins left the job last summer. She said she brought her passion for education and her love of children to Carlisle, and she found a strong curricula anchored by the goal of always having excellence in education.
“We trust teachers and we trust administrators to make sure the curriculum is strong and is being taught effectively to all students,” Agnew said. “You do that by making sure you have the right teachers in place, and we do. We have teachers who are passionate and who want to be here.”
Teachers are able to provide differentiating instruction, which means considering each child as an individual and teaching according to his or her learning style, Agnew said. “Teachers have the tools in place to take that child where he needs to be.”
“Differentiation means not all children learn the same way, not all children achieve at the same level. But your goal is to make sure each child achieves according to that child’s ability,” she added.
Carlisle teachers set the bar high for students, Agnew said, holding her hand up above her head. “The expectation is to bring the child up, never to teach to the middle. We don’t automatically think a child can’t do (something); we think they can. If you believe in them, they will want to please you. They will bring everything out of themselves to make sure they give you 110 percent,” she said.
Agnew said she is “reaping the rewards” of the quality education Carlisle is known for. “I think Carlisle has always had a sense of family, a sense of excellence. It always welcomed parents’ involvement. I’m here to take it to the next level,” she said.
That means not just offering a STEM program of science, technology, engineering and math. Next year, she said, Carlisle will have a STEAM Academy, adding arts to the mix. It will start with pre-kindergarten children learning coding and continue through all 12 grades at the school, Agnew said.
“We will not cut fine arts,” she said. “We recognize the importance of fine arts in a child’s education,” so it is incorporated throughout the curriculum.
The same is true for writing and community service, Agnew said, adding that students in all grades have to complete a certain number of community service hours each year.
Carlisle offers Spanish lessons in all grades, starting in pre-kindergarten. Next year French will be added, and Agnew said she is attempting to implement Mandarin instruction as well.
“When we said we want to prepare students to be global citizens, it has to start with pre-kindergarten,” she said.
The AP Capstone program also will begin in the fall. That will allow seniors to earn another diploma or certificate by taking additional research and seminar classes, she said. “That’s what colleges want to see, that students have taken the classes and done well,” she added.
Despite her satisfaction in what she is doing at Carlisle, Agnew said there have been challenges, including “stepping into a role more like a superintendent.”
With the Henry County schools, she had been a principal and was comfortable administering a school. But at Carlisle she oversees the lower school, middle school and high school, which is “more like a superintendent if you equate it to Henry County,” she said.
That also meant she had to learn how to work with the board that governs the school, something she had not done before. “We have a partnership but I have to understand I answer to the board,” she added.
Carlisle began the school year with 340 students in pre-kindergarten though 12th grade, and growing that enrollment to 400 students is a priority in the coming year. To do that, Agnew said the school will do a better job of marketing itself.
“If you’re looking for a choice and if you want that special touch and if you want an education that is truly individualized for your child, then it’s right in your backyard. It’s all about choice,” she said.
Agnew has been friends with Sandy Strayer, who also is completing her rookie year as superintendent of Henry County Schools, for many years. Agnew was principal and Strayer was assistant principal at Fieldale-Collinsville when it was a high school, and “we still work together,” Agnew said.
Both Agnew and Strayer said they meet and work together, their staffs are invited to each other’s professional development events, and they share experiences with things such as dismissing classes for inclement weather.
“I’m not sure who has the more difficult job,” Agnew said. “With me, it’s smaller. But it doesn’t matter how small it is. We’re on an equal level because we want a successful school division and that’s what we’re striving for. The way we get there might be a little different.”