Jeff Truesdell
June 23, 2008 12:00 PM

Ron Clark, 36


The Eiffel Tower’s twinkling lights go dark post-midnight as Paris shuts down for the evening. But for the 11- and 12-year-old American kids bounding beneath its massive base, playtime has just begun. Racing onto a bridge straddling the Seine, they meet a few college students singing in Spanish, then clap along and join the easy chorus before launching into their own concert of Broadway show tunes. One of the children, Jordan Brown, defines the moment. “It was like the whole world was there just for us.”

And that, says the man who brought them there, is exactly the lesson he hoped they’d learn. Ron Clark, bestselling author, brand-name educator and hero of a TV movie (The Ron Clark Story, starring Matthew Perry), just completed a school year fulfilling his life’s dream. Last September he opened the Ron Clark Academy in a downtrodden section of south Atlanta—a middle school in which the kids are guaranteed they will visit six continents by the time they graduate. Says Clark: “We’re training them to think differently, to see the world differently—and to make them hungry, to make them want more.”

It’s an idea endorsed by many education professionals—along with the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Sen. Hillary Clinton. “Helping children come into contact with cultures from other countries is very valuable. If the teachers are well-prepared and are really passionate about developing this global curriculum, this can be a very enriching experience,” says Fernando Reimers, who directs the International Education Policy Program at Harvard.

Many of the 60 students at the academy (fifth and six graders so far, with the other grades to open in the coming years), chosen by staffers seeking “untapped potential” and a commitment to education from their parents or guardians, traveled a remarkable psychological distance before their road trips. One, says Clark, lived with family members in a car. Others had a history of academic and behavioral struggles. Parents say they could see immediate results. “He’s become more mature,” says Kimberly McKoy about her son Travis, 12. “He’s also gone from social studies being his worst subject in the whole world to being his favorite.”

Clark may not have planned for a career in teaching, but as a seasoned traveler he comes well prepared. After growing up in tiny Aurora, N.C. (pop. 600), and graduating from East Carolina University, he backpacked across Europe, and a new world opened up before him. While he was back home recuperating from a rare bad travel incident (he got sick dining on rats with locals in Romania), his mother encouraged him to meet with a local principal. When a fifth grader asked if he was going to be their new instructor, he decided on the spot. “I just fell in love with it. I’d been out there and seen the world. These kids, they had no idea.”

Clark went on to win honors for his teaching style in rural North Carolina and New York City. He issues strict classroom rules and requires school uniforms, while allowing himself and the kids the freedom to dance and recite history lessons in rap poems. He also taught math by bringing students to a bowling alley to count pins. “When I first saw Mr. Clark jump on a desk, I was like, ‘He must be out of his mind!'” says sixth grader Ajee Jenkins.

The Ron Clark Academy, opened in an abandoned factory, attempts to keep education personal. Students have Clark’s cell number and ring him at all hours—he’s single, and he’s not bothered by the calls in the middle of the night. Tuition is $14,000, but scholarships supported by fund-raising and teacher-training workshops let most students pay only $30 a month. That includes travel, much of it donated by companies like Delta Air Lines, which covers all airfares.

While shepherding 30 sixth graders on their first overseas adventure in April—nine days bounding through London, Paris and Amsterdam—Clark calls the experience “the realization of a dream.” His young charges are impressed too. America is “so big,” says Jacob Bonner, 12. And yet: “I never thought there was so much other stuff I was missing out on.” Jonathan Bryant, 12, already sees the benefits. At his old school, he says, “I was scared to raise my hand because of what everyone else was saying: ‘You’re stupid, you’ll never understand.'” Knowing the stories behind paintings and sculptures in the most famous museums in the world, he says, “made me feel smart. Mr. Clark and the other faculty, they help me do what I want to do. They make me want to go higher. I know I can go to college.”

Some lessons transcend geography. “Did you ever come across a moment when you were really scared?” Alex Bussey, 12, asks in a London restaurant where Clark once waited tables. Clark thinks: Broke, surviving on peanut-butter-and-cucumber sandwiches at the time, he couldn’t admit that to his parents. “I was scared in some ways, but I was always up for the adventure,” he tells her. “If you don’t put yourself out there, you’re never really living.” It’s a motto he personifies. “If you set the tone, the kids will follow,” Clark says. “These trips are not just about taking trips. We’re teaching life.”

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