Eagle Arts Academy, Infusing Art and Technology into Education
An Interview with Founder Greg Blount by Krista Martinelli
AW: What’s your passion when it comes to starting a new school? Why did you decide to do it?
GB: It all started with my daughter, who was in 3rd grade in the public education system – struggling to be engaged in school. She found school boring and was feeling disconnected. As a parent, I started questioning her school – why they weren’t infusing more of the arts or technology into their program? I was introduced to Greg Hauptner of G-Star School of the Arts, who later became a mentor to me. This was back in 2011, and he was telling me the steps of how to get a charter school started. He has a high school for the performing and production arts and suggested I open the kindergarten through 8th grade version. So I took a class that the School District of Palm Beach offered.
I started from the premise that not all children learn the same way, so we should not treat them the same. My daughter tried private school and she tried public school. She’s a creative visual learner much like myself. We cannot teach children out of a standardized box. We need to reach them and teach them different ways. I had her tested, put her in programs like Kumon, which I love. As it turns out that she has an auditory deficiency and needs the visual cues to help her learn and understand the lesson.
Meanwhile, I don’t truly believe in standardized testing. I think it’s only one part of the puzzle. A child’s personality, their arts skills, technology skills, and also their ability to do hands-on projects helps create the well-rounded child. I think school can be an amazing place and if we can engage the child, they will look at school differently.
Most people do not realize what it takes to create a charter school. It is not an easy process. First, you can only apply on one day a year here in Florida (August 1st), then you have to score a perfect score on all 19 sections (today’s charter application now has 22 sections). My first year, I scored 15 out of 19, so I had to wait another year to apply again. During that year, we visited many schools, studied their educational program and worked with curriculum specialists to figure how to instill more of the arts and technology into the classroom. Finally, we re-applied. Our first application was about 150 pages. Our second attempt was over 400-pages with all of the support documents. Finally, our application was approved.
AW: How long has Eagle Arts been in operation? How many students?
GB: We were originally incorporated in 2012. The school was approved in October, 2013. And in July of 2014, we received the final vote from school district to go forward, about 20 days before school opened. We opened with about 700 children and have remained about the same in that number. I’d like to say that I’ll never do that again – you need more time (than 20 days) in planning something this big. Some of the initial problems that were created can be attributed to opening the school so quickly.
Now, a lot of things have been resolved and we are moving forward in a positive direction. The school is currently for children from kindergarten through 8th grade. However, starting in August, we will be opening a preschool on the property. The preschool, Little Eaglets Academy, goes from 8am to 3:30pm, with the last hour and a half each day focused in on arts and technology.
We are happy to have Dr. Paul Copeland as our middle school principal and Stacey Taggart as our lower school principal and testing coordinator. As for me, I accomplished my goal of “stabilizing the ship.” We went from a D- to a C rating, which is remarkable in one year and we were just a few points away from a B rating. Personally, I will go back to focus on the business and marketing aspects now that the school is stabilized.
AW: Tell us about your faculty.
GB: We have great faculty. Dr. Copeland has his doctorate in Curriculum Design and Education. Stacey Taggart has proven her ability for great leadership. We have some new teachers this year, including our fabulous Encore arts teachers who will help us integrate the arts into all that we are doing. We just hired a new dance teacher, who is moving here from Los Angeles.
We’re cross marketing the curriculum, arts and technology, with our academic teachers and our Encore teachers. Dr. Copeland and I have been working on integrating these into the academic classrooms. We have a professional development plan already scheduled, plus a plan to focus on project-based learning and center-based learning for our teachers.
It is a proven fact that most children tune out after only 15 minutes. Each of our teachers will do a 15 minute lesson, then the kids are broken up into centers around the classroom. The kids will rotate to different centers during the rest of the class period. They key is re-engaging the child into the learning process. The law requires 90 minutes of reading, 90 minutes of writing and 60 minutes of math every day. But if children tune out after 15 minutes because they’re bored, behavior issues happen. All this rotation constantly re-engages the children.
One of my biggest influences is Sir Ken Robinson, author of “Creative Schools,” which is required reading for all of our teachers this summer. (Check out his Ted Talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” – https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity)
I believe that the true element of a child’s growing up and being happy really comes from their arts background. We teach 40 minutes in the arts every day. We have art, music, animation/coding, acting/drama, dance and TV production. Each child receives all 6 Encore subjects throughout the course of the school year in 6 week increments. We call this repetition learning. So if a child is in music class learning to play cords on a guitar, they will be back tomorrow continuing to learn. In 6 weeks, the students really determine their passion – whether it is being in front of the camera or being behind the camera. As young as age five, the students are introduced to potential job skills, and that’s what our school is all about.
We had a student, Kayden Muller, who just graduated from 8th grade and went out for the pilot season to L.A. She signed with a major agency and recently signed a contract to do an upcoming Disney movie. She’s going to continue to do some great things, so remember that name.
If a child finds their passion, we need to empower that. Schools need to empower that. “If you can dream it, you can do it,” said Walt Disney.
AW: Tell us about your facility and your equipment.
GB: We have a beautiful 13-acre campus, one of the most amazing in campuses in Palm Beach County. It includes a half million dollar TV production studio, a Mac animation lab, a professional dance studio, an acting studio, a library, and a science lab. We are truly blessed with all that we have. Recently we got a partial grant for a brand new fiber network (for better bandwidth), and we are running at 10 Gig per second. We have a 1 to 1 ratio of computer devices to students. We have over 500 Google Chrome books, and over 200 iPads or tablets, so when we say we infuse technology, we really do it.
AW: What’s the best thing about Eagle Arts Academy?
GB: I’d have to say the children and how happy they are. Once you can engage a child, and you start learning from them what their passion is, they look at school differently. We literally have children who wake their parents up and say “take me to school.” They are excited to learn. There’s more to education than the traditional education that’s been around since the 50’s. When children find their true interests, they became happy, creative children. To them, I am Mr. Greg. My wife Diane and I have gotten the chance to really get to know the children and their parents. I truly believe that what we’re doing and how we infuse the arts and technology into learning is remarkable.
AW: How would you address parents who have read negative press about your school?
GB: I am an Eagle Scout. Thus, the name of the school. The rank of Eagle Scout is the highest rank in the Boy Scouts. In our logo, the star represents the arts, the rope is what a boy scout carries. And of course, the eagle represents eagle scouts, as well as freedom. I live my life by the Scout Oath and Scout Law.
I’m a true fan of Waiting for Superman, famous movie about our educational process. Education is a personal choice, like picking a church. The interesting thing about the negative articles is that they are all coming from one reporter from one publication. This same reporter has written eight articles over the past 18 months. The fact is he has never been to the school when the children are on campus. When parents hear this, they are surprised and look at his articles as one-sided hearsay. I would challenge a parent to make their own educational choice, come for a tour and hear what I have to say. I would invite them to find out the truth on their own. For three years in a row, we have had about 700 students.
The recent articles attack me for making faculty changes. If I did not make these changes, we would have never reached our goal of getting our school grade higher. One teacher that I terminated, for instance, was let go two more times during this school year after Eagle Arts Academy. Another teacher was not turning in enough grades. So I would ask parents, “Wouldn’t you want me to make these changes?”
In terms of the school grades that just came out, we not only had over a 12 point gain, but we were only 8 points away from becoming a B. I’m excited about reaching that next goal.
My new motto is C is for Creativity. We will always strive to do better. My belief is in reaching the whole child. Standardized testing can be one measure, but certainly should not be the determining factor in a child’s success.
AW: Tell us about your background. What did you do before this?
GB: My background is in the entertainment industry – film production and fashion photography. When I was 27, I bought my first company, Peter Glenn Publications. I was producing projects and programs, when I moved to Florida in 2001. That included the Cosmo Girl and Elle Girl model searches. One of them that we discovered, Amber Heard, (formerly married to Johnny Depp) – who will appear in the new Aquaman film.
I’ve spent 30 years in the entertainment industry, built long standing relationships with producers, agents and photographers. I see many children who would benefit from careers in front of or behind the camera.
I’ve been an independent producer working with companies such as Disney, Universal Studios and MasterCard. My job was to work with and schedule the coaching and acting workshops for some of their casting directors and coaches from the Disney shows and Disney Channel movies. These have included High School Musical, Camp Rock, Teen Beach, and the Descendents. The TV shows include the Wizards of Waverly Place, Liv & Maddie, Austin & Ally and Jesse. We would teach workshops all over the country. In the end, eight of our attendees went on to star in different Disney or Nickelodeon TV shows. Some of those stars are still on and working today.
When I give our tour, people really see the opportunity that we offer. When a 5 year old gets up in front of the TV camera and does a commercial, they are doing this before the age of cognizant thinking. So by the age of 7, they have developed amazing skills and confidence and continue to blossom.
One of the Sir Robinson quotes, approximately is, “Children have a true desire up to age 12 of who they want to be when they grow up. By age 13, society kills that dream.” At that point it’s all about being a lawyer, being a doctor or making money. It’s sad that people don’t even say astronaut anymore when asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I’ve had a successful career on both sides of the camera.
I have worked with hundreds of aspiring young talents over my career. Many knew what they wanted – to pursue a career in the performing arts, but they did not get the support from their parents. So they went to college not knowing what they wanted to study. I think this is sad. Children can really find their passion here at Eagle Arts.
Another nice connection is Zack and Deborah Snyder, who produced the current Wonder Woman film. Deborah was my roommate when I moved to NYC after college to pursue my career. Their next movie is the Justice League. They are big fans of what we’re doing here at the school.
In my earlier days, I had a modeling contract with Zoli after college. I went on to sign with 8 different modeling agencies around the country. I continued with that while working with Peter Glenn Publications. Then I went back to the other side, behind the camera. I became a publisher and bought the company at 27. I found that I was missing the production industry. I worked on such films as “Days of Thunder” with Tom Cruise and Disney’s “Wild Hearts Can Be Broken.” In summary, I fell in love with being on both sides of the camera.
AW: What are your goals for the future with this school?
GB: It’s helping children find their true passion. We are expanding. I’ve chosen to step down as Principal and focus on the business aspects of the campus, including opening the new preschool. We are partnering with a church, the New Sound Church. We will remain separate, but they will use our space on Sundays when we are not there.
We are expanding our lights and audio systems in our gymnasium/ theatre. We would like to add continuing education classes for adults, including coding, game design, acting, and animation.
AW: Why do you think the arts are important in a child’s development? How do students get a better arts exposure / education at Eagle Arts?
GB: We have to engage children in the classroom – by involving them through games and project-based learning. It cannot be solely about a textbook or a test. Through the use of technology and apps today, we can really reach children. Just because a child is in 4th grade doesn’t mean their on a 4th grade reading or math level. In a different setting, that child could then become disruptive in class, or labeled ADD. When you can engage them and when they have ownership in the creativity process, it changes their mind and they want to focus.
Each month we’re doing a book to movie series, based on a Disney movie. Take Peter Pan, for example. Children have to read the book. They get to create a new character. They name the character, dress up as the character and write a new chapter for the Peter Pan story, then they have to give an oral presentation in front of their class. Because they “created” this new character and want to share with their classmates, they love it, because they have ownership.
We hired a couple specialty teachers who are really great at cartooning and drawing super heroes. So just imagine doing the story of Finding Nemo, and creating a digital storyboard. Then in science class we tie into the story with a unit on water conservation. In music class, we sing a song from the movie as a chorus. It’s an integrated circular involvement that we’re doing here at EAA on all levels.
AW: Tell us about your family.
GB: My Dad was a well-known architect in DC. He worked on the design of the National Gallery of Art, the Pentagon, and several airports. My Mom was the secretary to the Secretary of Agriculture (during Reagan/Bush). My wife Diane is our Admissions Director at Eagle Arts. We have been working hard at this together for 4 years, since she first met me. She’s been with me from the beginning of Eagle Arts. My step daughter Kristin is the Business Manager.
When people inquire about the school, it rings directly to Diane’s cell phone. When people come to our tours, they usually come to our school. Even with the negative press, they hear from our hearts and seem to enjoy the one-hour tour. When children come with their parents, they get excited about coding, game-based learning, or wanting to do projects like building a volcano or making a short film.
AW: Anything else?
GB: My challenge to people out there is to research our educational system, which was built in the 50s, before iPhones and iPads. There are a lot of new ways to reach and engage children. I am a creative visual learner. I have to get my hands on what I’m doing. It’s important to have an open mind. Come take a tour. Our next tour is July 8th. Sign up at our website. One tour is at 10am and another at noon on the 8th.
I’m trying to reach kids even at the preK level. One of the great projects – each child had to pick their favorite book of the year and do an oral presentation. They painted the cover of book on a t-shirt, painted the setting of the book on the sleeve, put their favorite part of the book on the back of the shirt and so forth. That type of ownership and creativity makes children engage in learning.
Eagle Arts Academy has made positive gains in every subject and in every grade level this past year. 100% of our 8th graders passed the Algebra 1 EOC test. We absolutely are teaching a solid curriculum, while using the arts and technology to do so. The proof is in the results, and I am grateful for our teachers, staff, parents and children who support us.
Eagle Arts Academy
1000 Wellington Trace
Wellington, FL 33414