Story By Dorothy Markulis
John Hairston is boldly going where no man has gone before – at least, not in the Akron area, or for that matter, Ohio.
In September 2013 the educator founded the Next Frontier Academy featuring agricultural-based curriculum.
As a guidance counselor and high school history teacher, Hairston, 60, saw many students withdrawing from education.
“The students were more focused on their cell phones than learning in the classroom,” Hairston said.
Many of the students were from dysfunctional families, struggling from day to day.
“I kept asking God what tools I could use to bring them back to education,” Hairston said.
He said he kept thinking about tools, which reminded him of his own background using farm tools.
“We lived in Ravenna and our grandparents lived with us. We had a garden. We had chickens and ducks. We canned much of our food. We sustained ourselves,” the academy founder recalled.
Now he’s using those basic things learned in his childhood to bring purpose and interest to disaffected students with the Next Frontier Academy.
“I came from a great home and I am so grateful, but as a guidance counselor I saw the students’ lack of accountability and lack of respect. They weren’t taught the proper dress or even the proper way to eat,” Hairston said. “In our society the family structure is so fractured.”
Hairston is passionate in his desire to bring students back into the learning process. His voice breaks as he expresses his desire to bring hope to the dispossessed student in a caring, tuition free environment.
His message to students is this: “If you’re a good person, and your heart is in the right place, I will be your bridge. You can walk across my back to succeed.”
One of Hairston’s goals is countering the bad press from some existing charter schools.
“I want people to understand charter schools and that’s no easy task. We’re trying to illustrate entrepreneurship, healthy living, nutrition. That’s what separates us from the others. We are not a regular charter school,” Hairston said. “They open up and then they’re gone. We are here to stay.”
He said his academy is not taking students from public schools. Many of his students are the disenfranchised.
“With the high dropout rate, what do you do with these kids? We want to be part of the solution. We care about these kids,” he said.
And a path to the solution is through agriculture.
“The rubber shops and industry has fallen by the wayside. Twenty-two percent of the jobs in Ohio are in agriculture,” Hairston said.
The academy is the pathway to independent living, responsibility and the capacity to earn a living through hard work and entrepreneurism, according to Hairston.
Enrollment at the academy is 50 students. Hairston hopes to have 150 but has the capacity to expand to 200. They started with grades 7 through 9 and have expanded through grade 12. He said the enrollment is growing, largely due to word of mouth recommendations from existing students.
The academy is located in a 13,000-square-foot building – a former church – at 1127 Copley Road in Akron.
The programs already in progress at the academy are impressive.
“Four students have already earned their black jackets,” Hairston added.
According to Hairston, the road to chef-dom is similar to Karate, earning different color belts. In the cooking world, a black jacket is the first step towards a white one.
“Crop King has donated a $30,000 greenhouse for our use. It’s a great opportunity for research and development. It will also generate revenue,” Hairston said.
The new greenhouse will enable students to plant more than 400 heads of lettuce which will be available for sale.
The students have already learned valuable lessons in entrepreneurship. This past summer they farmed three acres of land in Deerfield, learning all the technology required to cultivate and harvest corn.
“They had to learn how to be on time or they would be left behind. It was a really, really powerful lesson in commerce. The money they would have earned was then given to their colleagues who did make it on time,” Hairston said.
He is in the process of forging a relationship with a Kent State University professor to institute an internship program.
The academy features blended learning with 520 hours class-room work and 520 hours of computer or online work.
For more information on the agricultural-based curriculum academy, visit Thenextfrontieracademy.org or call the school at 330-835-9755.