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CHAMPAIGN — A dream derived from the late-night ramblings of a married couple is 10 days away from coming true.

Academy High, a progressive private school with big plans — secured internships for all students, app development and stock market investments — is starting small. The incoming class is currently about 20 students, said Lisa Libman, one of the founders. Plans originally projected a class of 40.

"We are excited for the growth, but we're equally excited for the inception," Libman said.

The location — 2302 Fox Drive, in Champaign's Fox Development Corporate Center — is only temporary, with a four-year lease. After that, Libman said, they'll be looking to grow into a permanent space.

The founders previously planned for a spot in the prime-market location of the University of Illinois Research Park.

In order to be accepted into the private school, prospective students must first go through an application and interview process.

"I was looking for students with bold minds, adventurous spirits and compassionate hearts, and I think we found that with our pioneer class of 2021," said founding Head of School Darren Pascavage. "Academy High is not looking to appeal to every single student in the Champaign-Urbana area, and our success is not going to be measured by that standard."

Tuition for the school is $15,800, which is on the high end of the cost of other private schools in the area. A News-Gazette survey of 24 other local private schools last fall found that only Champaign's Countryside ($13,170 to $13,550) and St. Thomas More ($7,118 to $11,942) had ranges that reached five figures. Danville's Schlarman Academy ($2,900 to $9,400) and Urbana's Campus Middle School for Girls ($9,300) weren't far behind.

Another challenge: Academy is not yet accredited. Yet Pascavage, who relocated here after a stint as headmaster of Valwood School in Valdosta, Ga. — isn't worried about the success of the students.

"Establishing credibility is a significant challenge because, as an institution, we have no track record of success in a field of endeavor, which tends to value past performance above all else," he said. "We will become a candidate for accreditation this fall with several well-known and respected accrediting bodies, and I'm certain that the steps involved in the various processes will be beneficial to Academy High."

Professor: Resources a key

Parents do not seem to show concern, either, saying they have faith in Pascavage's work.

"I'm thinking about moving and one of the main reasons I think I wouldn't move is this school," said Justin Rhodes, a professor at the UI's Beckman Institute. "This is a private school, so it'll have a lot more resources. The kids who are going to be there are going to be incredibly well-prepared for college."

Rhodes, who attended a magnet school in New York City, said he plans to open up his lab for students to come and get hands-on experience — the type that many UI graduate students are just beginning to do.

With his own son Oliver, he said, "I was concerned about the quality of the (past) education." Rhodes was originally considering sending his son to Urbana's University Laboratory High School.

But he was sold on Academy, he said, knowing that "all of the parents and kids are going to be very interested in education and learning."

Extracurricular approach

Academy High's core curriculum includes a variety of basic classes, such as biology, foreign languages and literature. The students are taking end-of-the-day yoga lessons for their first round of physical education classes.

As for extracurriculars, the school is still finding its way by gauging student interest, Libman said.

Incoming students will take a survey, and Libman said school officials will then tailor the activities to fit those interests.

"We know it will grow in time," she said. "We're not going to have a football team from day one."

In order to create that certain sense of community that comes from attending sports games with peers, Libman said school officials have looked into getting tickets for UI football games.

"You just need to be creative," she said.

Students will have say

Rantoul native Joe Giuliani said his son, Joey, fell in love with the school from the start.

After the first hour-long meeting, "he didn't want to go anywhere else," Giuliani said. "It just clicked with him."

A key attraction was all of the "firsts" that the founding class will be setting.

"They get to set a lot of the benchmarks," Giuliani said. In one of the few formal classrooms is a bookshelf that students are able to vote on the colors and paint, and Libman said students will have a variety of other ways to personalize the space.

"It is foolish to think that any school could have a legitimate institutional identity without having students to help form it," Pascavage said, "so we will certainly call upon the Class of 2021 to take a lead role in giving their school its character."

The main point faculty want to stress is that each student is known and appreciated, Libman said.

One of the incoming students is an artist, Libman said, so they'll be hanging up her artwork around the hallways. People will be able to volunteer as greeters to welcome students individually as they come in for the day.

Libman said she hopes students will feel "the school truly cares."

Introducing the instructors on board at Champaign’s new independent high school

Natasha C


- Subject: Biology

- About her: She’s no stranger to area education, having taught at Unity and Tuscola high schools and now pursuing her Ph.D. at the UI. She earned her bachelor’s degree in biology from Canada’s Dalhousie University and two master’s in related fields, from North Texas and the UI, where she’s now pursuing a Ph.D.

Eileen Chen

- Subject: Mandarin

- About her: While teaching English as a foreign language in Illinois, she received two teaching excellence awards from the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office. After earning her bachelor’s degree from Taiwan’s Tamkang University, Chen received her master’s in human resource education from the UI.

Amy Chesser

- Subject: Communications

- About her: She’ll oversee what school officials promise will be a "dynamic" performance curriculum. Chesser, who earned her master’s degree in theater history from the UI, has extensive local teaching experience — both in homeschooling and in classroom settings (Unit 4, Champaign Countryside).

Amanda Heinsman

- Subject: Literature and writing

- About her: She spent her first four years in education teaching English language arts to sixth- through 12th-graders in St. Petersburg, Russia. Since returning to the U.S., the Bethel College grad (BA, English education) has taught middle and high school students in private and public schools in Champaign.

Young Kim

- Subject: Music

- About him: He’s a guitarist in the local quartet The Jaybirds and an adjunct faculty member at Parkland, where he also directs the college’s guitar ensemble. The owner of a master’s and Ph.D. from the UI, Kim will teach Introduction to Music Recording and Production and Survey of Non-Western Music at Academy High.

Darren Pascavage

- Subject: Math

- About him: The former Georgia Tech physics major is also the head of school. Since his own college days (master’s in education from Georgia, Ph.D. in social foundations from Georgia State), he has taught AP classes in calculus and statistics and was a six-time recipient of a statewide teaching award in Georgia.

Annie Tock Morrisette

- Subject: Social studies

- About her: She owns a bachelor’s degree in history (Hanover College), master’s degrees in European history (Eastern Illinois) and maritime studies and underwater archaeology (East Carolina) — and is currently writing a Ph.D. dissertation in Canadian-American history through the University of Maine.

Nathan Westerman

- Subject: Studio arts

- About him: After earning a bachelor’s in painting and sculpture with a minor in art history from Texas’ Sam Houston State, Westerman went to work on a master’s in sculpture at the UI. He has held positions at the UI, Parkland and Unit 4, and his work includes painting, sculpture, photography, video and installation.