Expansion plans are on the table for a faith-based school in Santa Rosa County, including a new location.
Former Pace High School principal Frank Lay founded LEAD Academy in 2013. “LEAD” is an acronym for “Leadership, Enthusiasm, Attitude, and Discipline." Currently Kindergarten through Grade-4, plans are to move from its present location on Berryhill road to a 30-acre site on Chumuckla Highway and expand to K-through-12.
“It’s cleared property, it has a turn lane already and it has an access road,” said Lay. “It’s now on the outskirts of Pace per se, but in the days ahead it will be part of the community.”
In 2008, Lay was at the center of a lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of two Pace High students, alleging that school officials, including Lay, promoted religion and led prayers at school events in violation of constitutional separation of church and state.
A subsequent consent decree ended the lawsuit in 2009. Under it, prayer in school is allowed if it’s student-led with no direct involvement by faculty and staff. Lay retired, and said founding a private school had been on his heart since then.
“The lawsuit was some motivation,” Lay said. “As I exited public education, from a spiritual standpoint as well I felt like ‘Let’s do over and do better.’”
LEAD, which has grown from 25 students in 2013 to more than 200 today, is faith-based and classified as evangelical Christian. But Lay says there are students there who follow non-Christian religions, and some who follow no religion at all.
“We have parents who are atheist, but they want their child in a safe, comfortable, secure environment first,” said Lay. “And then they want to know that they’re cared for, loved and nurtured; and that they’re going to be pushed on academically.”
School administration appears to run in the Lay family. Frank’s daughter Kara is Principal at Learning Academy Charter School in Milton. She says they also try to instill the LEAD philosophy.
“Obviously, that works at any level, if you’re 50 or five [years old],” said Kara Lay. “If you follow those types of character traits, that you end up in a better way.”
Frank Lay says one of LEAD Academy’s major projects now is getting full accreditation. Another major issue, since LEAD Academy is private, is funding. Lay says only 10-15 percent of the population will send their kids to a private school. That means they have to do some marketing.
“We have to have a plan, we have to approach people and say, ‘Hey, give us your business [and] we’ll give you a good service,’” said Lay. “Our income base is tuition, we fight that well. Where do we set it? Because if it’s too high they won’t come, and if it’s too low you cost yourself.”
Target date for completion of the new facility on Chumuckla Highway is late 2018.