Acton Academy

Acton Academy

A small charter school serving grades 1 to 9, located in Austin, TX. Students use online programs for most instruction with face-to-face teachers providing support.

Location: Austin, TX Type: Private Founded: 2009
# of Students: 80 Grades Served: 1-9* %FRL: 0%

*Planning to expand through 12th grade by 2015


Acton Academy was founded by Laura Sandefer and her husband Jeff Sandefer, the founder of the Acton School of Business as a school deeply rooted in an overarching theme of a Hero’s Journey. The school focuses students around a search for their life’s “calling, teaching content through online game-based tools, Socratic discussion and face-to-face projects the school calls “quests.”

Opening its doors in 2009 with 12 students, Acton offered families a tech-enriched alternative to Montessori education. Acton Academy has since grown to offer 36 spots in its Elementary School and 36 spots in its Middle School. The school will launch a mixed grade High School with 36 students in 2015.

Acton Academy is offering “kits” to entrepreneurs and parents in other cities interested in opening their own schools with a similar model. By fall of 2014 there will be three Acton Academies in Austin and locations in Chicago; Houston; Wausau, Wisconsin; Venice Beach, California, Toronto and Guatemala City. By fall of 2015 twenty five Acton Academies are expected to be open, including additional schools in Austin; Atlanta; Washington D.C., and London.

The main Austin campus charges $850 a month or $9,350 a year. Once the school is at full capacity in its Elementary, Middle and High School, the administration expects costs (including cost of facilities) to be $2,000 per student.

Approach to Teaching and Learning

The school’s founders believe in a “learner driven education” where students are responsible for leading each other, designing their own learning, and even making their own rules to govern the school.

Adults in this model -- referred to as “Guides” --curate resources and encourage students, gradually withdrawing to give students greater autonomy over their learning environment. Guides are not allowed to answer any questions, merely to ask questions and offer choices.

Approach to Technology

“We are using blended learning to empower students… to give them control over their learning,” says Kaylie Reed, a former Acton Guide.

With student ownership as a central tenant for learning at Acton, technology is simply a tool that gives students more independence and control over what they learn. Students have so much control over their learning that they can even choose the types of technology tools they use and can propose new tools when they find them. Central to the entire process of picking and choosing technology is the idea that students are the ones who know their learning best, and therefore, should be the ones calling the shots on purchasing decisions.

Students at Acton enjoy game-based adaptive learning tools most, but are encouraged to go outside traditional programs to find what they need wherever they can - on the internet, from each other, or even by picking up the phone to call an expert.

In a elementary class of 36 to 40 students there currently are two Guides; the middle school has one Guide for 36 students, though the number of Guides is expected to drop as high school students take over these responsibilities. No professional development is done to support technology implementation.

Program Model

Program Model: Flex

Clayton Christensen Model Description: The face-to-face teacher never lectures. Students choose from a menu of online and other options for learning. Many student use online programs for certain subjects, with face-to-face teacher providing help as-needed.

Take a peek at Acton Academy and you may wonder if you’ve stepped into a mythical world where students are heroes, learning is a quest, and adults are guides for the journey. In this one-room-schoolhouse approach, 36 K-5 students share one space, while 36 6-8th graders share another. The adult is merely a guide, as students have autonomy in almost every facet of their learning.

Students are also encouraged to “find a calling that will change the world.” The idea of the ‘hero’s journey’ inspires the development of curriculum at Acton. Students not only embark and reflect on their own journey, filled with challenges, allies, and enemies, they also examine how famous scientists, scholars, and historical figures heed their own calls to adventure and roadblocks along the way and take part in real world apprenticeships.

Students are in mixed age groups of 36 to 40 students in one large open studio room, supported by adult ‘Guides’ (soon expected to be replaced by high school students.) Students work on project-based assignments called “quests;” work independently on the core skills of reading, writing and math and control how they use and set their time based on SMART. At different times throughout the day, the group comes together for Socratic discussions.

At different times throughout the day, the teacher may bring the whole group together to facilitate a socrative-style dialogue to discuss and dive into themes or issues that arise in their projects. However, there is no set schedule and activities are dictated by student needs.

During independent work on core skills such as reading, writing and math, students use adaptive software based on their needs and preferences. They choose which skill they want to work on, based on goals they set with their ‘running partner,’ and even the type of tool they use to learn that skill. Some students can choose to use Khan Academy to catch up on adding fractions, some might be in a corner reading, or others brushing up on grammar skills on NoRedInk. Students also spend this time helping each other out when needed. The teacher is there to support when needed, but does not facilitate direct instruction.

Technology Ingredients + Implementation

Recipe For Instruction

Khan Academy:

  • Who: All Students
  • For What: Assessment and tracking student growth
  • How: Students assess their math skills using assessments tools on Khan Academy. Then they transition to use different math content tools to learn the skill and come back to khan to test their progress.
  • Why: Khan provides a good user interface and allows students to track progress over time. It also allows parents to have one place to go to track their child’s progress. Guides also use Khan to keep track of where most of the class is with their math skills.


  • Who: Student Choice
  • For What: Content Skills Practice and Assessment
  • How: Students choose whether they want to use Dreambox. If they do, they use the tool during Core Skill time to practice skills on the platform. They must pass the unit test that Dreambox’s LMS delivers before students may move forward with material.


  • Who: Student Choice
  • For What: Content Skills Practice
  • How: Students choose whether they want to use Magna to practice their math skills by playing games. They can spend Core Skill time playing the games and brushing up on their skills before they go back to Khan to assess their progress.


  • Who: All Students
  • For What: Socratic Discussions, Group Work, Assessment
  • How: Newsela is used to give all students access to texts at the appropriate reading level. Given that Acton’s classrooms are made up of mixed-age groups, students can all read the same content from Newslea but at different lexile levels. This allows guides to focus on one common text during a socratic discussion or for peer-to-peer critique. It also helps them keep track of their reading comprehension level. Students work on it to gauge how much progress they are making in reading which is often practiced the old-fashioned way with physical books. Guides also use the tool to check for understanding, critical thinking, and text analysis.


  • Who: All Students
  • For What: Skill Practice
  • How: All students at Acton are expected to complete all levels on NoRedInk by High School. They use the tool to practice their grammar skills during Core Skills time.

Rosetta Stone:

  • Who: All Elementary Students
  • For What: Foreign Language Practice
  • How: Students use it to learn a language. However, some students are struggling to understand the context and importance of learning a second language with only the tools as the guide.

Recipe for Infrastructure


  • Who: Every student; Acton has a 1:1 Chromebook model. Students can take their
  • device home with them
  • How: Use to access web based resources, curriculum, and content online.
  • Why: The school used to have Dell Laptops, for which they payed $800 a piece. However, they prefer Chromebooks because the devices don’t require a heavy amount of IT support, which is imperative for a small school. To support students who need to download materials or use downloaded software, they have a few Dell computers available as needed.

Paper and Digital Storage

  • Who: All Students
  • For What: Tracking their goals
  • How: Students post their own progress and track goals on paper goal sheets with their “running partners” (peer coach). They take pictures of them and save them digitally, but much of this process is done on paper. In the future, Acton hopes to have their high school students build their own Learning Management System to track this data.


Funding: The school operations are fully funded by each student’s tuition of $8,600 per year.

Staffing: In a class of 36 to 40 students there are one or two Guides. The school expects to continually reduce the number of adults in the studio as middle school and high school students assume larger roles in creating learning challenges.

Data: Students take short-cycle assessments on the program of their choice. For example, students using Dreambox must pass a unit test that Dreambox’s LMS delivers before moving on. Parents are also responsible for tracking student progress. The school sends parents a list of grade-specific standards home with students. It is then up to parents to check their student’s progress and monitor their results. Students also take the SAT10 standardized test once a year to track comprehensive progress.

Acton believes deeply in customer feedback so student and parent satisfaction is surveyed weekly and the results are shared with the community.


While the school does not believe standardized assessments are important, they do administer standardized tests at the beginning and end of the year to measure baseline data. Students have been advancing far faster than in traditional schools (averaging as much as three grade levels gained each year), despite the fact that many students came into Acton with poor standardized test scores.

Quality is largely judged by students by comparing their “best work” to world class examples or through public exhibitions where results are judged by the marketplace.  

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