Braves Caravan unearths gem in Ron Clark Academy

Braves Caravan unearths gem in Ron Clark Academy

One of the many highlights of this year's Braves Country Caravan presented by Academy Sports + Outdoors was a trip to Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta. It was the first time the Caravan made a stop there, and to say it's a hidden gem is the understatement of the century. Current players Christian Bethancourt and Phil Gosselin were joined by Braves alumni Marquis Grissom, Javy Lopez and Charlie Leibrandt, as well as coaches Terry Pendleton and Bo Porter for the day's activities.

It's a brisk Thursday morning, and a large crew of Braves is along for the day's Caravan adventures. As the coaches, players and alumni shuffle out of the bus and button up their jerseys, they are greeted by a pint-size boy with the enthusiasm of a Disney character. He can barely keep the words in his mouth as the last Braves hop out, and as soon as he starts exclaiming, "How thrilled we are that you could join us today!" everyone can sense that this is going to be a memorable Caravan stop.

Before the players even reach the doorway, they hear music and young voices eagerly greeting them. The instant they walk through the door, they are grabbed by the hand and whisked through the crowd into a sea of middle schoolers getting down like they're in final scene of "Footloose." The colors of the walls are reminiscent of a Skittles commercial, and the exceptional manners of these adolescents stops everyone in their tracks.

In the middle of it all is teacher and school namesake Ron Clark, strapped into a harness doing flips on a trampoline and singing louder than any of the kids. As the room explodes to the tune of "Turn Down for What," the eyes of the players light up and their jaws simultaneously drop. Each one seems to be silently asking, "Is this really a school?" This wasn't the average Thursday morning that any of them remembered from middle school.

Literary references and décor can be found throughout the academy.

After an ample dance party, the music is cut, and Clark tells the story of the school and how Oprah Winfrey got involved; its mission to engage, stimulate and empower students; and the success the school has had so far. He touches on the excitement that the rest of the morning holds for the Braves, and suddenly, the anticipation is tangible.

The group is led out the back door and are now inside the gates of the castle-like school. As they enter the main building, the first thing that greets them is a two-story twisty slide that spits kids into the main entrance. Again the Braves think back to their respective middle school days and wonder, audibly, where a school like this was when they were growing up.

The tour hung a right to encounter hallways plastered with photographs of students past and present, and these weren't exactly the average class photos. In many of them, the students smiled back from exotic locations around the world, Oprah was in a few photos, and many were just your "usual" shot of a dance party in the parking lot with the principal.

As the tour came around another bend, a familiar tune started playing, and all those under the age of 30 quickly recognized it as the theme song from the "Harry Potter" movies. The cafeteria mimicked Hogwarts, with wooden tables and the colors of each school "house" on the walls. Yes, they were divided into four competing houses, just like Hogwarts. And the tour didn't stop there. The gymnasium featured a hand-painted floor to resemble a fire in honor of the school mascot, the Dragons, and each classroom followed a theme, among them Alice in Wonderland.

Finally, the tour arrived at Clark's classroom. Staring back at the visitors were two bookshelves that were, apparently, a hidden entrance that could only to be opened with a secret password. In honor of the Caravan visit, the password was "Braves," and on that command, the doors opened.

Standing on desks is one method teacher Ron Clark uses to keep students engaged.

The Caravan group took seats in the back of the room, where they prepared to relax for a math lesson. Before anyone could even settle in, they quickly learned why this school has a 100 percent graduation rate. Clark was standing on top of the desks asking questions, and the fifth graders cruised through a complex math equation (known as the "PYRAMID OF DOOM!") in such a way that it left each member of the Braves completely mesmerized. Hand motions, dances and chants were involved in each step of the equation. The students jumped on their desks, politely answered one another's questions, and were never found snoozing or texting or teasing. Even the coaches, who can always find something to say, were left speechless.

During the class, the Braves had the chance to join the houses and compete in a friendly math challenge. After a few rounds, a winning team was determined, and the reward was the push of a big red button on the wall, a reward that made all the kids "ooo" and "aah."

After a quick push from Leibrandt, "Turn Down for What" came over the speakers again, and in a blink the kids were dancing on their desks. And that wasn't even the end of it. Twenty seconds later the lights went out, strobe lights came on, and the students coerced players and coaches onto the desks to join in the dance party.

Each member of the Braves contingent got a turn on the slide.

The students then accompanied the visitors to the final stop on the tour: the slide. Every single Brave went down eagerly, and received their official "slide certified" button at the bottom. When the last Brave was pulled out of the slide, the students shook their hands, gave hugs and thanked them profusely for coming.

As the Caravan group headed out, Porter asked for an application for his son, Pendleton asked to go back to middle school, and everyone stood for a moment in shock and disbelief at what they had just experienced. Was this all real? Why isn't every school like this? It was an invigorating, life-changing morning -- one that cannot be explained, only experienced.

Ron Clark Academy, the Braves Caravan will be back.