Acton Academy of Washington, DC: A New Elementary Option Next Year


[Note: This interview discusses a new non-traditional elementary school option in Washington, DC. While my children attend a traditional DC Public School that we are very happy with, I recognize that we all have different ideas about what we want in our children’s education and believe parents should be aware of all the options available to them.]

Acton Academy of Washington, DC, is a new elementary school opening near the National Cathedral for the 2015/2016 school year.

KidFriendly DC recently spoke with Acton Academy of Washington, DC, founders, Nicole Spencer and David Kirby, about what makes the school different and why they felt compelled to establish an alternative to traditional schools.

Click here to learn more about Acton DC and to register for an information session.

KFDC: Why are you starting a school?

Nicole: I went to a nontraditional school as a child, The Antioch School in Yellow Springs Ohio, and I just loved it. I always knew I wanted to send my kids to a school like the one I went to as a child.

A few years ago, we discovered Acton Academy in Austin, Texas, and we were just blown away. The students there love to learn, love school, and love to challenge themselves and each other. It’s such a joy to see.

When we were expecting our daughter Madeleine, we started investigating schools more seriously, and we didn’t find anything like Acton in DC.

KFDC: What makes Acton Academy so different?

David: Acton believes that children are far more powerful than you ever imaged.

Acton’s mission is to inspire each child to find a calling. Not a job or a even career. A calling — deeply rooted in individual gifts, passions, and skills — that will inspire him or her to work hard, overcome challenges, and even change the world.

Acton students imagine themselves as the protagonists in their own heroic journey through life. Traditional schooling doesn’t invite students to ask the most critical questions: Who am I and where am I going? What makes me special? What gifts do I have? How can I use these gifts to do something great, even change the world? Acton does. And it’s so empowering for the students.

This process of self-discovery begins at a young age at Acton.

KFDC: Can you give me an example of what this looks like for Acton students?

Nicole: Sure. Take Ella Reese, a middle school student at Acton Academy in Austin. Elle Reese has discovered a calling in art and design.

Last Spring, Ella Reese landed an apprenticeship with a fashion entrepreneur in Los Angeles. In her cover letter, she wrote, “I hope to bring beauty to the world, and inspire everyone to be themselves, and have their own style.” This past fall, she sold her own designs at the Acton Children’s Business Fair, and her work is now carried at a couple local boutiques. She was even approached about a partnership with a fashion blogger with 750,000 followers.

Ella Reese is 12 years old! I wish I could hire 30-year-olds with as much vision and passion. Actually, I wish I had had that sort of vision and passion when I was 30!

David: I’ll give you another one. When you put kids in charge of their own learning, as Acton does, when you let them advance at their own pace in core skills like math and reading, they learn very fast.

Acton abhors standardized tests. But just as a benchmark, Acton administers the Stanford Achievement Test once a year.

Students who have been at Acton Academy in Austin through elementary school (and are now in middle school there) are on average 5.7 grade levels above age in reading and 5.6 grade levels above age in math. Basically, this means middle schoolers are maxing out the high school test.

KFDC: You make some bold promises at Acton. What are these promises and how do you hold yourselves accountable?

David: At Acton DC, we make six promises. We promise that your child will:

1. Discover his/her strengths and begin a hero’s journey
2. Learn to be a curious, independent learner
3. Realize the dedication required to develop real talent
4. Understand the importance of character
5. Value political, economic, and religious freedom
6. Cherish the arts, the wonders of the physical world, and the mystery of life

We take our promises so seriously, that each week we ask our customers—the parents and students—to rate the school. How did we do this week? What worked and what didn’t? We tie bonuses for our guides (we call our teachers “guides”) to these performance ratings.

Acton Academy of Washington, DC founders, Nicole Spencer and David Kirby, with their daughter Madeleine

Acton Academy of Washington, DC founders, Nicole Spencer and David Kirby, with their daughter Madeleine

KFDC: Who do you think Acton DC would appeal to?

David: Those who refuse to settle for the status quo. Montessori parents. Montessori kids learn in a self-paced, self-directed environment and often struggle in traditional schools, where thy have to sit in a desk all day and be lectured at (I don’t blame them). Homeschoolers who are looking to join a vibrant learning community. Unschoolers. Parents with an entrepreneurial spirit. Really, any parents looking for something better for their children.

KFDC: What do education experts say about Acton?

Nicole: The Clayton Christensen Institute, founded by the Harvard Business School professor who coined the term “disruptive innovation,” featured Acton Academy as one of the best blended schools in America.

Funny story. One of the researchers for The Christensen Institute was so impressed with Acton, she moved from Hawaii to Austin, Texas, so her five kids could enroll!

KFDC: I understand Acton has no grades. How do you track progress?

Nicole: Acton believes that learning requires students to get out of the classroom and engage with the real world. Real-world tests are far more powerful than letter grades. So instead of grades, Acton students judge their work in comparison to world-class examples, through participation in apprenticeships in middle and high school, and in public exhibitions like the Acton Children’s Business Fair. Instead of report cards, Acton students build a portfolio of their accomplishments.

KFDC: I understand that Acton Academy is growing fast.

David: Yes. There are currently eight Acton Academies that opened this year, and 15 more are opening in the coming year. We are very excited that Washington, DC, will join cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, New Orleans, Toronto, and London, in having an Acton Academy.

KFDC: What grades will you offer, and where will Acton Academy of Washington, DC, be located?

David: Acton Academy of Washington, DC will start with grades 1-3 and grow with its students, adding grade levels each year and eventually opening middle and high schools. Acton DC will be located near the National Cathedral.

KFDC: Where can parents learn more?

Nicole: For more information, and to sign up for our next information session, please visit our website at

Disclosure: This post is sponsored by Acton Academy of Washington, DC, however, I only promote events, activities, and programs that I truly believe in and/or think would appeal to KFDC readers.

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