Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 3, 2013

SALISBURY — When it opened 20 years ago, Salisbury Academy didn’t look much like the school it would become.

Its classes were held inside Haven Lutheran Church, which allowed the school to renovate and use its Sunday school classrooms during the week.

The independent school started with just 13 students, but in just a few years, enrollment grew to about 170. After a drop due to a tuition increase a few years ago, there are now 174 students enrolled.

Instead of a church building, Salisbury Academy is now located on Jake Alexander Boulevard North, with enough room on its property to expand some more.

The school started out in 1993 serving first- through third-graders, and it now includes junior kindergarten through eighth grade.

Salisbury Academy opened its middle school in 1997 in a facility near the VA hospital, donated by Joe Taylor and his wife. Soon, the school’s leaders knew the students needed to have their own space.

Diane Fisher, who led the PTA before taking on her current role as head of school, said she felt like Salisbury Academy was “the best-kept secret in town.”

“We felt hidden in the basement of Haven Lutheran,” she said. “We didn’t have our own identity.”

Salisbury Academy had started an athletics program, but it couldn’t schedule any home games. Students went to other facilities, like the Salisbury YMCA, to play games and practice.

They would take regular trips to the county’s public library, because the school didn’t have its own.

One day, Founder Georgi Goss’ mother heard about some available land on Jake Alexander Boulevard, and she bought the property and donated it to Salisbury Academy in honor of Goss’ father.

Construction on a permanent building began, and Salisbury Academy moved into its new home after 10 years. A donation by Paul Carter and his wife helped the school open its kindergarten on the property.

“I wanted children in the community to have the opportunity for a better education,” Carter said.

Goss said the school was founded to provide an enriching academic environment for students that was grounded in religion.

“I wanted my children and other children to go to school here and have more exposure to the arts, hands-on science labs and so forth,” Goss said. “It’s about experiencing what they’re learning instead of just reading about it.”

After 20 years, much about the school has stayed the same. Its class sizes remain small — with an 8-to-1 ratio of students to teachers — and it still focuses on hands-on, experiential learning.

But Salisbury Academy is more established in the community than it was 20 or even 10 years ago. Students still take field trips to the library and other community buildings, but other groups now use the facilities at Salisbury Academy, too. The school’s alumni number 223 and continue to grow.

“I have a lot of people come up to me in the community still and compliment me on things here, when I have nothing to do with it anymore,” Goss said. “The credit goes to the people who are running it now. … I think they’ve done a great job.”

Fisher, who has been head of school for about six years, said she would love to see Salisbury Academy continue to expand. It would be great, she said, to have enough students to add more activities like band and other after school programs, in addition to sports.

“We have the space and we have a plan. We could grow to two classes of each grade,” Fisher said. “I would love to be able to serve more families in our area.”

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Teachers and parents both say they were drawn to Salisbury Academy because they knew there was something different about it.

Laura Lewis said her 14-year-old daughter, Anna Louise Lewis, started attending the school last year. They had just moved from South Carolina, and Anna Louise hated to leave her old school, where she was going to be student vice president.

Now, if she were given the choice to stay or go back, Lewis’ daughter told her she would choose Salisbury Academy.

“We were a little worried about her coming in during middle school, because a lot of these students have been together forever,” Lewis said. “But they were very welcoming, and we really appreciate that.”

When Heather Coulter began her career as a high school English teacher, she started to think teaching wasn’t for her. She was about to go back to school and try a different career field when she interviewed with Goss for a job at Salisbury Academy.

“I didn’t have to speak to her for long to realize that this school was different than any other school I’ve been in,” Coulter said. “She was on a mission, I feel, that education could be different. We could expect more from the students, and we could teach the students to expect more from themselves.”

Coulter came to Salisbury Academy as a fourth grade teacher. She now teaches seventh and eighth grade language arts, and she is also the middle school division director. This is Coulter’s 18th year at the school.

“It’s exciting to see the longevity,” she said. “If we made it 20 years, then we can make it 40 or 100.”

Melissa Brown, a reading specialist, had been running a preschool when she came to Salisbury Academy in 1996.

“It was hands-on, challenging students and giving them knowledge — world knowledge,” Brown said.

Margaret Hattaway, teaches computer classes and eighth grade math. When she first came to work there, Hattaway said she was impressed that the school was more immersive and hands-on than most others at the time. It featured classic literature and culture, and students got to participate in activities like a Greek festival.

“It was definitely challenging students and doing everything in a fun way,” she said.

The teachers said they get to form stronger relationships with the children they teach than they might at a bigger school.

“These are great students, and they’re a joy to work with every single day,” Hattaway said.

Every year, during eighth grade graduation, Coulter speaks to each of the graduates — usually numbering about 20 – individually. She said they each get a personal quote that speaks to who they are and her wishes for their future.

Coulter said she is proud of what the school has become.

“I’m proud of all of us here,” Coulter said. “This doesn’t happen without a lot of dedication.”

Coulter, Brown and Hattaway all said they appreciate the support they get from other teachers and from administrators. They said Goss’ vision inspired them to work there, and they hope to continue to fulfill it.

Brown said the way the school has grown is “amazing.”

“Georgi had talked about this from the very beginning,” Brown said. “She had a dream, and she followed through on it.”