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ATL Business Chronicle Maria Saporta

Column: Ben Franklin Academy raises almost $2 million for expansion

Martha Burdette Martha Burdette of the Ben Franklin Academy

By Maria Saporta
As published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Nov. 24, 2017

The Ben Franklin Academy, an independent, small college-prep high school near Emory University, has raised nearly $2 million to complete an expansion of its campus.

Martha Burdette

Martha Burdette of the Ben Franklin Academy

“We finished everything without any debt,” said Dr. Martha Burdette, Ben Franklin Academy’s head of school. “Our goal was $1.75 million, and we raised almost $2 million.

BFA’s campus is unlike any high school. It is located in two houses (one that was recently expanded by 2,300 square feet), nestled among trees and nature. and its teacher-to-student ratio is 1-to-4 – allowing for individualized learning opportunities for students to master a subject before going to the next level.

The expansion includes a room in honor of the late Dr. Wood “Doc” Smethurst, who co-founded the Academy with Burdette in 1987, to offer students a rigorous academic curriculum tailored to their individual learning style, needs and special interests.

The school’s enrollment grew from about 98 students in 2009 to a total of 139 students in both the half-day and full-day programs. That growth translated into the need for additional space.

Ben Franklin Academy

Ben Franklin Academy with addition

The expansion includes specialized learning spaces for hands-on experimentation – specifically in the arts and sciences, conference and work room additions providing flexible spaces for study, instruction, testing and meetings. It also includes an elevator for increased accessibility, outdoor spaces that beautify the school and create more gathering spaces on campus, new technology and new furniture to keep the current classrooms functional and comfortable.

“Our vision has always been to remain small and be really good at what we do,” Burdette said. “We like where we are. Since the beginning, it’s been about quality, innovation, individualized attention and the nurturing of students.”

Burdette said BFA received 157 gifts to pay for the expansion, and the major donors were the Lettie Pate Evans Foundation, Jane and Dameron Black III, the Duvall and Rex Fuqua family, the Sartain Lanier Family Foundation, Julian Williams and her late husband John Y. Williams, and SunTrust’s Thomas Guy Woolford Charitable Trust. Burdette said she was especially pleased on how well the addition blends in with the older homes on the property. “It all fits well together,” she said.

LaGrange College gift

Atlanta businessman Jerry Wilkinson and his family have donated $1 million to LaGrange College to support its “From Promise to Prominence Campaign,” specifically its Servant Scholars Program.

The program will now be known as the Wilkinson Family Servant Scholars Program. Wilkinson, a member of the college’s Board of Trustees, is the founder and chairman of the Wilkinson Companies, a real estate management firm. Since 1984, he has directed the operations and growth of the company and its subsidiaries, including properties in LaGrange.

“I am profoundly grateful for this generous, transformative gift in support of our Servant Scholars Program,” said Dan McAlexander, president of LaGrange College. “The Wilkinson family has a deep passion for and commitment to serving others. Their support will help this program become a national model for how students at small liberal arts colleges can transform the community in which they live through service, finding themselves transformed as a result.”


LaGrange College celebration

Steve Nygren and Serenbe

Steve Nygren, the founder and CEO of the Serenbe community southwest of Atlanta near the Chattahoochee River, received the “Leader in Innovation Award” at the 2017 Global Wellness Summit in October. In September, he also received Southface’s 2017 Argon Award.

Both prestigious awards recognized Nygren for being an industry leader in the world of sustainability and for creating one of the first wellness communities in the world. The Global Wellness Institute is a nonprofit organization with the mission to educate the public and private sectors about preventative health and wellness.

The Leader in Innovation Award was presented to Nygren for creating Serenbe and for protecting the rural land of Chattahoochee Hills.

Callanwolde leadership change

Peggy Still Johnson, executive director of the Callanwolde Fine Arts Center, is stepping down after five years. When she started at Callanwolde, the board gave her a list of priorities – restore all seven buildings on the 12-acre campus and expand the program offerings to better serve Atlanta’s diverse arts community. On Oct. 25, Johnson accomplished those goals. A ribbon-cutting was held for the final restoration project at the estate thanks to a successful $2.1 million capital campaign that Johnson helped lead. For the first time in its history, Callanwolde now is able to use the entire campus for arts education.

“Being the executive director, for nearly five years, has been one of the most amazing, hardest and best experiences of my career,” Johnson said. “I am so proud of what we have been able to accomplish in what we thought would take 10 years to do in the transformation of Callanwolde.” A search for the new executive director is underway.


Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.


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