From a castle in the country to a little school of choice

Julie Taylor launched Alane Academy, named after her mother, with a team of driven educators who align with her philosophy that excellent character and leadership are equally as important as academics.

WAUCHULA, Fla. – When Julie Taylor was 10 years old, she turned the family shed into a classroom, complete with letters of the alphabet taped to the walls and spelling tests for her siblings. At 15, she became a dual enrollment pioneer, plowing through classes at a nearby college.

At 19, she earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and began teaching at the highest poverty school in her district. A few years later, as the school rose from worst to first in math performance, Taylor was named her district’s Teacher of the Year.

If anybody was born to be a teacher, it’s Julie Taylor. But when the time came to shift into administration, Taylor hit pause.

She didn’t like the focus on standardized testing. She wanted more character education and social and emotional learning. She knew that in a district school, even the principal could only change so much.

“I thought, I’m going to go into leadership, and I’m going to lead a whole school into doing something I don’t believe in,” Taylor said. “I was thinking, I can’t do this. But I couldn’t imagine changing careers.”

Fortunately, Taylor didn’t have to.

Thanks to school choice, her grandpa’s creative spirit, and her own guts and drive, Taylor forged her own, DIY path.

On the outskirts of Wauchula, pop. 4,694, she planted the seed for a little private school. Eleven years later, the dream of a “small-town, Southern soul” is bearing fruit.

Named after Taylor’s mother, Alane Academy is in a little white building with a tin roof, next to a little cow pasture, caddy corner to a little orange grove. Taylor started the school as a K-5 with nine students. Now it’s a PreK-8 with 70 students.

Launching the school was no breeze. But Taylor and her resourceful team kept at it. Now they have a success story that can bring a little hope to other teachers with dreams.

Seventy miles southeast of Tampa, Hardee County, pop. 25,327, is known for cattle and citrus and phosphate.

Taylor grew up in Solomon’s Castle, the artistic vision of her father, Howard Solomon.

It’s also known for a particularly whimsical roadside attraction, a place called Solomon’s Castle.

Bear with me for a brief detour …

In 1972, a year after Disney opened, an eclectic artist/craftsman named Howard Solomon began building his own little castle near Ona, pop. 199. Solomon covered his castle with discarded printing plates from the local newspaper. He filled it with art he fashioned from castoffs.

Over the years, more and more people felt compelled to drive way out of their way, down curvy country roads and past giant oaks and weathered barns, to see what the “Rembrandt of Reclamation” had built from scratch in the middle of nowhere. Solomon died in 2016, but people still stream through Ona to see his shiny castle and eat at the Boat in the Moat, the quirky restaurant next door.

And this is relevant to school choice because …

Julie Taylor grew up in Solomon’s Castle.

She’s Solomon’s granddaughter.

“Grandpa always thought outside the box,” Taylor said. “He gave me courage and vision.”

Two other relatives are key to the story.

Taylor’s mom, Alane Solomon, has always been her daughter’s biggest cheerleader. She encouraged Taylor to visit a private school that a distant cousin founded in Orlando. Seeing it made the light bulb go on.

“I thought, ‘You know what? I can do this,’ ” Taylor said.

Alane Academy’s success didn’t happen overnight. Even for a teacher as accomplished as Taylor, growing a school was tough. There was no guidebook, nobody to consult who’d been-there-done-that.

“You don’t even know what questions to ask,” Taylor said.

From the business plan to zoning rules to taxes, Taylor just had to figure it out on her own. For the site plan, she needed approval from the fire department, health department, road department. To pass the fire inspection, she needed fire-resistant paint that cost $93 a gallon.

“I didn’t know all that,” Taylor said. “I just needed a little school.”

“I went through it. I did it. I’m here,” Taylor continued. “But it was such a roller coaster.”

The ride isn’t over just yet.

Alane Academy has 10 employees, including five classroom teachers. Taylor strives to offer salaries that are close to what the district offers. But the state’s campaign to boost public school teacher pay has made that a bigger challenge

Taylor has still managed to assemble a driven team that lines up with her vision. Part of that vision includes dispelling myths about the academic rigor of rural private schools.

“I want people to know there are schools like ours in small towns,” Taylor said. “We have kids who are learning. We are monitoring growth. We are doing diagnostic assessments.”

Tuition at Alane Academy is $8,300, or about 75% of average per pupil spending in Florida district schools. Half the students use choice scholarships. (The scholarships are administered by Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that hosts this blog.)

One result is the kind of economic diversity that district schools often lack and private schools rarely get credit for. Farmers, ranchers, receptionists, linemen, correctional officers, nurses, financial advisers and yes, public school teachers, all send their kids here.

Alane Academy strives to provide a hands-on learning environment where an exciting and engaging atmosphere will foster a love of learning. The school offers individualized instruction and interventions to close gaps in student achievement and enrichment to challenge students and encourage them to rise above standard expectations.

They like that the school is small, the classes are small, and the emphasis isn’t solely on academics. Taylor said the school helps families raise kids who are respectful and hard-working and lift each other up. “Most importantly,” she says in a 10-year anniversary video, “they are kind.”

Lydia Snyder and her husband had planned to home school their daughter Hailey when she reached sixth grade, given the drama their older daughters experienced in middle school. But when bullying became a problem in second grade, they enrolled Hailey in Alane Academy using a choice scholarship.

Snyder said she knew the school was right as soon as she walked in. “You could feel the love,” said Snyder, who runs a day care. “All the kids were polite. Not crazy. Not running around.”

The change in Hailey was huge. “When she got there, she was in a shell. You couldn’t get her to talk to anybody,” Snyder said. “Now she’s a blossom … and you can’t get her to stop talking.”

Logan Harned said she and her son, Bass, both struggle with a reading disability. In his prior school, Bass felt frustrated and stigmatized. By second grade, he stopped wanting to go. At home, he’d throw tantrums when it was time to read.

After three months at Alane Academy, Bass was a different kid, said Harned, who works as a secretary for a landscaping company. His teachers gave him more one-on-one attention. They exercised patience. More than anything, Harned said, they worked to boost his confidence. Three years later, Bass is reading on grade level and, better yet, reading at home without prodding from mom.

Harned said she’s grateful Taylor’s school gave her an option, and that she could use a choice scholarship to access it.

“This was my kid’s life,” she said.

Taylor said if she had waited longer before taking the leap, Alane Academy might not have happened. Having children – she has two now – would have made it tougher to take those risks. But she did. And it worked out, not only for her family, but dozens of others.

“We were always taught to follow your dreams,” she said.

Growing up in a castle, it’s a given.