August’s Empowering Cover Woman Christi McCully

Christi Bryan McCully, headmaster of The Foundry school, has spent the majority of her adult life working to redefine the available ways for children to learn, and helping and guiding families through the learning curve. She has relied on fellow parents, educators and her community to create and organize diverse learning platforms for children of all ages, because “it takes a village,” as the saying goes.

“My passion has always been education. Education is the equalizer. It gives us opportunities. And without the opportunity to find an educational format that works for you, you’re really going to be at a disadvantage for the rest of your life. Sometimes kids just need a different way of approaching education,” says Christi.

Her husband, Dan, is her biggest supporter. “Christi recognizes the individual learning needs of each student,” he says. “She does not force a square peg into a round hole when it comes to teaching a student. She gets to know each student personally and encourages her teachers to do the same, encouraging flexibility in teaching styles and methods. She absolutely refuses to let a student fall through the cracks.”

Born on a military base in Germany in 1967 while her dad, a West Point grad, was serving in the armed forces during the Vietnam War, Christi is the oldest child and only daughter of the four children of Don and Ronni Bryan. The Bryans returned to the U.S. when Christi was three years old, and she was raised in Albany where generations of her family lived. Everywhere she went, she saw evidence of her family’s influence in the community.

Her grandmothers and her mom were strong and steadfast role models. And her biggest influence was her grandmother Helen—Big Mama, they called her—who was “huge in Girl Scouts. She was actually the president of the council for the state of Georgia and the president of the council in Albany,” says Christi. “And her biggest influence was her aunt, my Aunt Margie, who actually started Girl Scouts in Japan and New Zealand. So these were the people I had to look up to, the examples that I had.”

Growing up, Christi was an energetic and successful student who earned academic scholarships to attend Deerfield School in Albany, and grew up hearing her uncle tell stories about playing football at Auburn, where she ultimately enrolled after high school.

Christi met Dan while attending Auburn University. “I think I found the most important thing at Auburn,” she muses. “I didn’t necessarily finish my degree there, but I found my husband and wouldn’t trade that for anything in the world.”

Christi and Dan started their family right away, and Christi found that finishing her degree was very difficult with two young children. “I tried to go to college, but it was hard. At one point I was bringing the baby in the baby carrier into the class because I didn’t have a babysitter. And we didn’t live close to home or anything like that. I finally just gave up for a little while in trying to finish my degree, so I started focusing on my kids.”

As her children reached school age, Christi recognized that her son, Sean, was an out-of-the-box thinker. He reminded her of herself when she was in school, having trouble sitting still in class. “He was always really creative. We tried the public school and the private school routes, and it was just heart wrenching. He would be so pent up with energy coming home from kindergarten or first grade. He would be so upset and would have to take off into the backyard to get out his energy before he could even tell me about his day.”

Christi wasn’t at all interested in homeschooling her kids but looked into it as an option, and once she did, her family embraced it and thrived. The McCullys moved to Coweta County in 2000, where Christi found out about a home educating organization called Eagle’s Nest Christian Home Educators’ Association where she was able to make many connections that benefitted her family.

As her kids were reaching middle school, she began to notice and hear about a number of educational deficiencies homeschooled kids exhibited when they got to high school, and she realized that kids that age needed an intermediary program to teach them how to take instruction from someone other than their parents. So through Eagle’s Nest, Christi started the Bridge program in 2003. The Bridge was created with the goal of preparing homeschooled fourth through eighth graders for high school by teaching them the skills they would need to be successful—things such as meeting deadlines, doing science labs, and taking notes and tests.

Though Eagle’s Nest had a high school program, the McCullys were a one-income family, and private schooling can get pricey. Even additional homeschooling classes can tend to push a budget, which led Christi to her next pet project: Soaring Eagles. It was a one day per week school in which parents would teach kids classes of their professional specialty. “In Fayette and Coweta Counties, we have some of the most educated people in the state of Georgia,” Christi explains. “Our population is extremely educated. We had stay-at-home moms who were engineers and other moms who were editors for newspapers. We had wonderful dads who taught music and geometry. And they all jumped in to teach! The beauty of it was that the classes never cost more than $5 per month per kid. It was a sweat equity thing. My big goal was to be able to make this available for everyone. I feel very strongly that amazing educational programs should be available for everyone who is looking for them.”

After her daughter, Casey, graduated high school, Christi stepped down from running the Soaring Eagles program, which left her wondering what to do next—a situation so many moms find themselves in. With encouragement from Dan, Christi enrolled at the University of West Georgia, eager to finally complete her degree in political science. “Those poor professors didn’t know what they were getting into with me,” she recalls. “I recognized what an opportunity this was, and I was not going to squander it.”

With college completed, Christi was searching for a new purpose. She thought back to her time at Soaring Eagles when so many parents approached her to ask if she would homeschool their children—parents who couldn’t afford to stay at home to do it themselves. “That’s not how homeschooling works,” explains Christi. “I can’t homeschool other people’s children. But I realized that there were a lot of people just like us who needed an option to educate their children. There are so many families who can’t homeschool because it would require them to make the choice between paying rent or staying home, and then there are plenty who just don’t feel comfortable homeschooling, so what choice do you have? Often times parents choose to leave their child at home by themselves to do online school, but it just doesn’t work to put a child in front of a computer all day and expect results.” So she started investigating what it would take to open a charter school.

She got a team of people together to formulate a plan to open what would be Liberty Tech Charter School in Brooks, and some amazing things began to happen. A group of supporters bought the team plane tickets to fly to San Diego, to visit High Tech High to gather ideas and inspiration. She wanted more than anything to open a project-based learning school like the ones she visited in California. “We applied twice to create a state charter school, and we named it Liberty Tech,” she remembers. “We were excited to have a high school option that embraced project-based learning, a learning format which is usually ignored during high school, but we were talked into starting with kids who were younger, so we opened with third through eighth grade.”

The second time Christi applied, the school plan was accepted through the State Charter Schools Commission, and it opened with students from nine counties. The team negotiated with Fayette County to use the former Brooks Elementary building. It was the first time in Georgia that a state charter school was able to negotiate with a local school district to rent a building. “It took four years for us to actually open the school,” she recalls. Christi served as the board chair for four years. And in the years since she stepped down from the board, Liberty Tech has expanded to serve children from kindergarten through eighth grades.

During its first year, the Liberty Tech board realized that in the State Charter School Commission, only one high school had survived due to the significantly lower funding a state charter school receives. The Board was forced to make a difficult decision and not open the high school. Several parents who had children at Liberty Tech were upset with the decision and approached Christi. So naturally, she set out to find a solution. That solution was to open a low-cost, private high school in Peachtree City called The Foundry which opened in 2018.

Foundry parent Ginger Reeves says, “Christi has done something special for our community that will certainly continue to bring attention to this area. When people ask me about my son’s school, I tell them that it is like Georgia Tech for high school. These students have learned so many things other than the regular topics, and they have spent time serving our community.”

The Foundry, in its third year, is intentionally small with only 40 students enrolled currently. It’s freshman class in 2018 was its only class; the following year, the school had sophomores and freshmen; subsequently, this year The Foundry has its first junior class along with new sophomore and freshman levels.

“We’ve been able to accomplish so much,” Christi says. “We believe that learning should be real and relevant. It should be rigorous and it should be engaging. We want to do more than just have kids memorize. We really want them to dive into topics and really understand them and get excited about them!”

The Foundry has created a system in which, over the four years of high school, the students work through a focus each year. The focus of freshman year is service. “The whole goal is for the kids to understand that they can do something right now to make the world a better place. Our motto at The Foundry is ‘Work Hard, Be Kind, Change the World.’ And we want them to know that they can change it today.”

The second year at The Foundry is about entrepreneurship: Teams of students create products to market and sell. And the third year’s focus is invention and technology.

The school is working with Creative Fuel, a local maker space where the students go each Friday and are able to learn laser cutting, drone building, woodworking, and 3D printing.

Last year, Foundry students created a project called Precious Plastics. They visited the Chattahoochee Riverkeepers on Lake Martin, Ala., and they were able to see the issues our local water systems are facing with plastics pollution. The students then built, from specs, a shredder, an injector, an extruder and a compressor, and began collecting plastics to shred and turn into things they could sell. Unfortunately, COVID-19 forced the school to move to a virtual platform in the middle of the project, but Christi plans to have the students pick up where the project left off when school begins again this year. The focus for this year’s class will be mechatronics, a type of engineering that combines electronic and mechanical systems. The students will be creating projects using Raspberry Pi to solve problems that exist in the world.

To keep costs down, Christi is The Foundry’s only full-time employee as headmaster while the teachers are all part-time employees who have full-time jobs in the field that they teach. “By having teachers who are subject experts and currently working in their fields, they actually bring cutting edge learning to our classes,” Christi expounds.

Christi feels strongly that one of the issues in our society today is that we “silo” ourselves off. The Foundry has a class time called House in which the students study books that lead them to think critically about topics outside their normal lives. “We live in neighborhoods with people like us, and thus we go to school with people like us, and so we don’t ever really get to know anyone who’s different,” explains Christi. “And when we are exposed to diversity, we automatically think it’s bad because we’ve never experienced that before. Diversity goes beyond race; it includes income level, thought, faith, and so much more, and we shouldn’t be frightened and combatant about differences. We feel that kids need a safe place where they can talk about differences, not to change their minds but to understand each other. We want to teach kids how to respect those differences.”

Christi remembers her own experiences with school that have shaped her path in creating new platforms for education for the success of children who thrive in a project-based environment. “I had a really hard time sitting still,” she recalls. “I can tell you that looking back, the things that I remember about school are the newspaper that I created about King Henry XIII and all of his wives, or the science fair projects that I did, and all the other hands-on projects I delved deeply into because they were interesting to me. I don’t remember the worksheets or the textbooks. I have to assume that if I’m like that, there must be other kids that are like that too.”

In addition to being incredibly passionate about education, Christi values downtime with her family. She and Dan are members of the Peachtree City Community Garden and still attend the occasional Auburn football game. Her kids now live in North Carolina and New York, but the whole family gathers often. And Christi certainly stays busy brainstorming new ideas with Dan (an aerospace engineer and teacher) for The Foundry.

Every day, Christi does her best to reassure parents and students that education is not one-size-fits-all, and that it is ok to try something different to help your children and your family succeed. “I see so many social media posts right now from people who are worried about putting their kids back in school, and who are looking at homeschooling but are worried about messing up their kids’ education. And I tell them it’s all going to be OK. I wish someone had told me that.”

“If children can be excited about learning, then the sky’s the limit.”

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