Joe Santifer had little control over the choice to transfer from Sutton Middle School to Atlanta Classical Academy, both in Buckhead, after completing the seventh grade.
“It was my parents’ decision,” he said. “They wanted me to be in a smaller (school) community so I could focus on my grades. They just didn’t think that other high schools would be right for me due to the influence of other people.”
Santifer, who is a triplet, was joined by his brother, Daniel, and his sister, Aurora, as eighth-graders at Atlanta Classical when it opened in August 2014. The three siblings are part of the school’s first senior class and will graduate May 18.
The school opened as a K-8 charter school with plans to eventually become a K-12 school in the 2018-19 academic year. Its students are picked through an enrollment lottery in which any child living in the Atlanta Public Schools district can apply to transfer in, and has a waiting list of nearly 1,000. Today the school has 660 students, including 33 in the senior class.
“Well, my parents were right. Because of a smaller community, you’ve got close interaction with other people, more genuine interaction,” Santifer said.
Like Santifer, fellow senior Margaret Taylor transferred from Sutton to Atlanta Classical in the eighth grade when it opened due to the smaller class environment.
“So I had a conversation with my parents,” she said. “And they said, ‘You know, you’re in the eighth grade. This is your last year of middle school anyway, so this is the perfect time to just try out a different school. If it doesn’t work out, you can still go to the same high school your brother (Andrew) went to,’ which was North Atlanta. He had a great experience there and did very successfully. So it was just kind of like, let’s try this out.
“When I first met Dr. (Terrence) Moore, who was our first principal, I was really attracted to the way both he and Col. (Steve) Lambert, our vice principal at the time, just spoke about learning and, I guess, the key thing that they wanted Atlanta Classical students to do is speak for themselves authoritatively on texts instead of (just) reading textbooks.”
The move also paid off for Taylor, whose sister Charlotte started attending the school in 2014 when she was in the seventh grade and is now a junior.
“Clearly it worked out well; I’m still here,” she said. “This opportunity fell into my lap. I was glad to take it and to become a role model to other people, to become a role model to a school that is now a K-12 school, and to tell this story to a lot of people in our community.”
Principal Chris Knowles started working at the school in July after previously working at Westminster School at Oak Mountain in Birmingham, Alabama. Knowles said to see the school’s first senior class graduate is “a privilege I had very little to do with” since this is his first year at Atlanta Classical.
“That in and of itself has been amazing to jump in on this year, not just because it’s a re-charter year but because these seniors have done so many things, and the teachers who have been here such a long time and really have impacted them so significantly,” he said, referring to the fact that the school is renewing its charter this year.
“To me it’s twofold: one, it’s just the privilege of seeing where they are and the places that they’re going to be going and the type of activities they’ll be involved in, professions they’ll likely end up in. It’s a privilege to see them individually. But then also, to look at the legacy that they’re leaving at the school itself and to look at the impact they’ve had on other classes.”
Looking back on their five years at the school, Santifer and Taylor talked about what it means to be part of the school’s first senior class.
“I’m very proud that I was one of the people who were able to shape what (the school) could become for other students,” Santifer said. “As the leading class, we’re able to form a student government that’s now been running for the past three or four years. I think I’m proud that I was able to create something so special to me but also so special to other people.”
Taylor’s sister Charlotte also started attending the school in 2014 when she was in the seventh grade and is now a junior.
“It seems crazy that I’m just one year ahead of her and I’m supposed to be (a leader), because I’m (in) the first graduating class, that I have so much more to offer,” she said. “I don’t really feel that’s the case. I feel every class has so much to offer. Just because we’re the first, it’s an honor but it’s something we fell into, the people born in 2000 to 2001 fell into, basically by pure luck.”
Taylor said she felt lucky “this opportunity fell into my lap.” The senior said when she tells others she attends Atlanta Classical, not everyone knows about the school, so she’s had to “come up with a script” to explain what it is.
“In the past five years it’s become more recognizable, but it has not been originally. … So I’ve had the opportunity to kind of shape what the public opinion of the school is, and I feel really lucky I’ve had the opportunity to do that.”