TMS Heroes: An interview with TMS Founder, Adela Yelton

By Emily Halevy

I’d heard about Adela Yelton long before I met her. Stories of a local hero who was one of the original founders of TMS and currently serving on the Avondale City Commission—I knew I had to meet her! I was grateful to finally have the chance at last year’s auction and even more grateful to have a chance to interview her. I was excited to learn how she became so involved in community and public service, and her take on how the school was formed.

Tell me about your family and your kids and how you ended up getting involved in the school.

We’re a family of five including three boys – Michael is 17, currently a junior at Druid Hills High School and Christian and Ryan are 13 and in 7th grade at Museum School. Michael was part of the founding 3rd grade class and the very first 8th grade graduating class at TMS.

Back in 2008, my husband, Rich and I first found out about a group of parents, some of which were part of the Avondale Education Association, who were interested in Education in Avondale Estates. At that time, the group had already worked with Avondale Elementary School and were meeting at City Hall and beginning to explore a state law change that would allow communities to create charter schools with approval directly from the state.

Did you know a lot of the other parents? How did you find out about the Avondale Education Association (AEA)?

I first found out about the AEA from my friendly neighbor and fellow TMS parent, Kate Lesser. She walked door to door on our street talking to families with small children who might be interested in knowing more about the education options in the community. But I didn’t really know anyone other than Kate. My first real meeting and involvement came years after with what has come to be known as the “founding group,” or the “original 8.” After a few meetings at City Hall initiated by then Avondale Estates resident, Laura Leckband, I attended a meeting at the home of Sasha Webb. We talked about this idea of creating a school. We didn’t have to talk about it too much, though – we all came to the meeting ready to do something. We all looked around the room at each other and asked “Hey, do we want to start a school?” and in that moment, we all said “YEAH. OK!”  And that’s how it started. And there was no looking back.

That original group included Tamara Shipley, Sasha Webb, Amy Crownover, Jennifer Cooper, Tish Craig, Laura Leckband, Mary Lamb and yourself.

How did you figure out how to start a school?

We had some great technical expertise and leadership in the group and also looked to examples of other schools who had already been through the startup stage. We spoke to the Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School leaders who were super busy with their own school and still made time to help. The Georgia Charter Schools Association had some great resources and support as well. But I will say, for a majority of issues that came our way, we just had to figure out. The core group started meeting pretty regularly – weekly every Thursday at 7 pm for a good 2 years. There were many late nights sometimes until early morning and then continue on for some of us with specific action items to be researched and delivered before the next meeting. We just had to push through and kind of figure it out.

Whew! This sounds like a full-time job! How were you able to balance three kids, a career and starting a new school?

After having twins, I was at a stage in my life where I had decided to stay home with my three boys after a 15-year corporate career in tax and human resources. I ended up essentially trading one hardworking job in business for another one at home! Being part of the TMS Founding group was a way for me to utilize my skills, but also learn something new and work with some really great talented, energetic, passionate people who were all leaders in their own right. When times got tough, I kept focused on the bigger picture and purpose – which was creating something of value for the greater community and for my children.

Was there a panic when the charter laws changed again? How did the Board respond at that time that were already enrolled in the school, especially when you were already seeing this wonderful teaching environment start to bloom?

There was some concern. But the group already been so conditioned to overcome obstacles that came our way. We had confidence in our leadership which came from all the hard moments of taking an idea, getting people on board, putting up resources, and solving problems that led to getting the school doors open and students in seats. We were determined to face these obstacles head on. I remember being at a meeting at city hall where some folks had expressed their concern about the impact of the law change. And, I remember saying “I’m confident based on our pattern of success and problem solving that the Board and school leaders will be able to figure it out.” And we did.

So what was the next step? Did you have to reapply for the charter?

Yes, the team put together the updated charter application and included more data that helped support the successful results the school was already experiencing in such a short time. Principal Katherine Kelbaugh through her leadership helped to build relationships within DeKalb County, because as I think you can imagine, there was still a lot of opportunity to strengthen those relationships.

Let’s talk about Katherine for a minute. I never in a million years would have thought that I would be reading e-mails from my kid’s school principal and start crying because of the way that she navigates tough issues like gun violence and concern over the flu. It’s just incredible to me that she has such a great perspective on everything. You guys hit the jackpot when you found her.

I agree with you 100%. What I know for sure about Katherine is that she is a leader who cares. She cares about the students and staff and all the people who are a part of this school. And that is true for all of us who have served on the board and the broader school community. We all truly care. When facing issues that are complex and difficult to navigate, we can at least start from that place of good intention, of being positive and solution-oriented. Coming from a place of caring and communication leads to developing strong relationships with parents over time.

We have something special in Katherine. I led the first Human Resources committee that conducted the search and chose her for our first school leader. She stood out from the beginning. We had some good candidates that interviewed for that position. She attended our evening meetings even before we even knew she was a potential candidate for principal. She again showed she cared. She cared about the parents’ efforts. She showed up and put in the extra effort and that was meaningful.

As you know, Katherine just accepted the role of Executive Director of the school and I am so excited. This position will allow her to focus on the school’s growth and strategic plan, which includes increasing diversity and creating a larger community impact with our curriculum model. What that looks like, we don’t quite know yet, but I’m excited to see where her leadership will take us over the next couple of years.

We are celebrating our 10th anniversary next year and our Kindergarten wait list is hundreds deep. When you started down this road did you ever guess our success- not even just the wait list, but topping all the state rankings for testing scores and winning Charter School of the Year? Did you ever think it would become what it is 10 years later?

Ten years ago, we all knew we were working on something bigger than any of us.

I don’t know if any of us had that exact picture of what the school would become painted in our heads yet. You may not believe this, but when we were trying to open the school in the beginning, some of us were concerned about whether or not we were going to have enough seats to be able to open the school and, in turn, to receive the funding that we needed to keep the school open. I know it sounds kind of crazy to say that based on the current wait lists! The school’s success has exceeded my expectations and I am proud of what this awesome Museum School community has become.

The curriculum model at the school is just extraordinary and I wish that every school would implement this model. How did you come across this particular curriculum model?

There were actually a few curriculum models we considered initially and chose the Museum School model through public meetings facilitated by Lisa Deutsch and Jess Coffman. Experts in the community spoke to us about certain aspects of the different models such as ELOB “expeditionary learning outward bound” and Reggio Emilia. We also developed a mission statement and core values for the school – all of which was done in a group setting and involved input from the parents in the community.

We heard from experts but we, as parents, were also learning – like our students learn – by using a hands-on, expedition-style approach. We visited Normal Park Museum Magnet School in Chattanooga. We went on a learning expedition and attended one of their exhibit nights. I mean, imagine if you had never experienced any type of exhibit night before. My own experience up to that point had been with traditional, direct instruction-type learning. It was life-changing to walk into a school, to see a community of people, to see the hallways crowded, with students taking the lead. Where students greeted you, answered your questions and described to you what it was that they were learning. That really did convince a lot of us to go that route and, luckily folks in the community thought the same way.

I will never forget our first exhibit night. It was so overwhelming, but at the same time it was like, “oh I get it now. I get all of this now.”

Yes, and it’s community-based, right?! So as the child is learning they’re also sharing their knowledge with you and you are also learning. And the teachers are also learning along with the students, so that everyone in the community benefits, all with the student at the center.

So through all of this, when did you decide to run for office?

Well, that was in the early fall of 2015. I had been involved as a volunteer in the community mostly through my work with the Museum School, and I also had owned a small co-working and child care business called Bean Work Play Café. Through those efforts, I got to see first-hand how creating something, a small business, a new school, can economically impact a city. An open city commission seat came up and I received some feedback from friends and neighbors- who said, “Hey, Adela, you should think about running.” I thought this might be a good way to kind of keep my skills fresh and continue to be a volunteer and give back to the community. It was my first time being involved in any type of election – I did a lot of knocking on doors and getting to know so many more neighbors. And through that, I got to learn about some of the issues impacting the city like education, downtown development, and infrastructure. I ended up winning, so I’m in my 3rd– approaching my 4th year of a 4-year term.

Where did your drive for community and public service come from?

I would say primarily it came from working through the Museum School and being connected to people in the community who are passionate and care about making a difference. I definitely learned a lot through that.

I think that there are many folks out there in our current school community, “leaders in waiting”, who will feel that spark, that catalyst to inspire them to make time and be of service and advocate for issues important to them and their families. It doesn’t have to hit you like an earthquake. It can also happen organically over time.

Looking to the next 10 years what would you like to see, how would you like to see the Museum School grow? Once we get this media center finished what would be next on your list of things that you would like to see the school take on?

I would love to see more students have the opportunity to experience all the benefits of the Museum School model; student-centered, hands-on and project-based. I would love to see the model expand into communities in a variety of geographies and incorporate the diverse life experiences and history of what makes each school and surrounding community special.

As any organization develops and continues to innovate, new leadership opportunities emerge. I feel positive every time I go to an exhibit night, or a Museum School meeting or function. I meet really excited parents – all potential leaders in their own right – who are ready and willing to give time, talent and resources to their school community. And I’m hopeful and confident that the school will continue to grow and innovate with these leaders.

You too can be a TMS Hero by contributing to the TMS Foundation! We are so close to raising all the funds we need for our new media center. We encourage you to make a one-time donation or make a monthly contribution here.

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