Our Blog

Wichita Academy Leader: ‘This is What Education Can Look Like’

April 21, 2022 | Jeffrey Good
Wichita Academy Leader: ‘This is What Education Can Look Like’ Hero Image

At the Las Vegas branch of Acceleration Academies, Chris Turner proved himself a jack of all trades — and master of many.

Chris spread the word about the non-traditional high school to prospective students and community groups, provided math and science instruction, created spreadsheet tools to track academic engagement, and took ownership of orienting both new students and educators at a school whose enrollment has soared past 1,000.

“Chris is extraordinary,” says Wendy Thompson, head of the academy there. “He is not only brilliant but also kind and humble — a true team player.”

Now Chris is leading a team of his own, as founding director of the recently opened Wichita Acceleration Academies.

“I’m really excited to get something off the ground, a new site, a new community,” says the Great Plains native. “Because of the agility that we have to respond to student needs, we’re offering something new.”

Working in partnership with Wichita Public Schools, the academy offers a personalized, non-traditional program to high school students for whom traditional schools are not the best fit. After opening downtown, it joined a network of programs operating in Florida, South Carolina, Washington State and Texas that boasts more than 1,500 graduates.

In Las Vegas, Chris had the chance to work with Spanish-speaking students whose families had come to the United States from Mexico and other Latin American countries. In Wichita, he and his team also expect to welcome the children of Vietnamese families, students who are working to adjust not only to a new language but also to a dramatically different culture.

With flexible scheduling and ample one-on-one coaching, the school serves students who — regardless of whether they were born here or abroad — must balance their schoolwork with challenges including the need to work full-time to support themselves and their families, teen parenthood, learning differences and social anxiety. It also welcomes gifted students who want to accelerate their studies, graduate early and move on to college, military service and the kinds of jobs available only to high school grads.

Chris sports casually tousled hair and speaks in the mild tones of a Nebraska native, but don’t be fooled. He operates at top speed, driven by a commitment to opening doors for young people who have not found success in traditional schools.

“I tell them wherever you came from, the staff here at Acceleration Academies are more willing to go out of their way to help,” Chris says. “When you feel like your best isn’t good enough, you can always reach out to us and we’ll find a way to help you get through.”

Chris grew up in Omaha and majored in business at Iowa State University. While a strong student, he was also drawn to the great outdoors, leading trips around the country and building his skills at rock climbing, ice climbing, mountain biking and canyoneering.

“I had this business degree but I wasn’t all that interested in it,” he says. “I didn’t want to sit in a cubicle all the time.”

After earning his bachelor’s degree, he spent 7 months teaching high school classes at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Working with young people who struggle with poverty and discrimination persuaded him that he wanted to serve young people who had big dreams but also obstacles standing in the way.

That spirit led him to take a Teach for America assignment in Nevada. After two years of teaching 2nd graders, providing math and science tutoring in an independent program, and earning his master’s degree in education, Chris found his way two years ago to Acceleration Academies.

After beginning as an enrollment evangelist, he shifted gears when the Covid pandemic shuttered school buildings and temporarily halted door-to-door recruiting. In addition to helping graduation candidates with math and science learning, he branched out into orienting new graduation candidates and helping his colleagues use data to fuel student progress.

While Chris is a tech and data whiz, his heart lies in the one-on-work at the core of the Acceleration Academies’ mission. Many students arrive lacking the self-confidence and study habits to succeed. He motivates them with guidance that is warm but firm. He marvels at the way so many Acceleration Academies learners overcome challenges — including poverty, teen parenthood and the need to work full- or part-time — to graduate.

“The stuff they push through is inspiring,” he says.

Chris looks forward to building alliances with Wichita community groups, business owners and political leaders to not only spread word about the school but also provide opportunities for young learners to develop job skills, deepen their appreciation of the arts and contribute to their home city.

“This is what education can look like,” he says. “You’re not always on your own.”