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School caters to kids who'll work hard

Stroll through Lexington's MacPherson Academy, and you notice something right away. It's very quiet.

Students at the tiny private school are busily engaged with their studies and not talking. And they are not receiving continual direction from teachers. Students here are expected to be self-starters.

But that's not all that's unusual about MacPherson.

The school has only about 15 students, down right now because of a wave of graduations two years ago. Classes meet in the basement at Southern Heights Baptist Church, but MacPherson is not church-affiliated.

There is no set tuition, and teachers receive no regular salary.

"The school doesn't even have a bank account," founder Judy Mortkowitz said. "We're so non-profit that we're no profit.

"It's an unusual way to operate. But we wanted to design something that every child could attend. So far, it's worked out pretty well."

MacPherson accepts students from middle school through high school. The academy operates under Kentucky home-school regulations, and its students are classified as home-schooled. They attend classes at the academy two days a week but are expected to study and work at home under parental supervision the rest of the week.

Some students are taught by their parents at home, then come to MacPherson for weighty classes like biology or math. Others take all their classes at the academy.

Some students remain through high school and graduate from MacPherson. The school holds its own prom and boasts its own Beta Club chapter. It lacks many extracurricular activities available at public schools, including sports.

But Ben Coates, 14, of Nicholasville, skirts that issue. He attends MacPherson half the day and East Jessamine High School the other half so he can play baseball there. He hopes to land a college baseball scholarship some day.

"I'm taking biology, geometry and algebra 1 at MacPherson," Ben said. "It's kind of like a college setting because you attend class, do your work at home and turn it in. I like the idea of having more responsibility for my work."

Mortkowitz stresses that MacPherson isn't for everyone, because it demands that students work conscientiously and on their own. Strong parental support and involvement also are key, she says. When all those factors aren't present, students might be asked to leave, she says.

But students who stick around rave about the place.

"It's perfect for me," says Casey Newton, 16. Before enrolling last year, Casey had been home-schooled and had briefly attended another private school. Now, she plans to finish high school at MacPherson and study dentistry in college.

"I wanted a place with lots of time for study and a relaxed atmosphere," Casey said. "The teachers here really work hard to help, and I've been making straight A's."

Mortkowitz launched her school in 2001, after teaching in public schools in Kentucky, Florida and New Jersey. She called it Wellesley Academy at first, after the street she lived on. Classes met in her basement, and her own children were among her first students.

Lexington's Patrick Dunham, one of the first graduates from Wellesley, says he got a good education there. Now, he's finishing a five-year degree program in landscape architecture at the University of Kentucky.

"At the time I didn't want to attend public school and I heard about Wellesley from a friend," Dunham said. "You got as good an education there as you were willing to get. If you weren't motivated, it didn't work out as well."

Mortkowitz later changed the name to MacPherson Academy, after the Scottish Clan MacPherson, of which she is a member. Today, the school has a federal 501(3)(c) tax-exempt certification.

Mortkowitz says her goal always was to provide an education for students who demanded the best from themselves, worked hard and took responsibility for themselves. If they couldn't pay, that was no obstacle.

MacPherson charges no tuition. Instead, parents pay a basic fee of $40 a month for each one-hour class. Take six classes, for example, and the cost is $240 a month, not including books and materials.

Instead of paying the school, parents directly pay the teachers of their children's classes. Mortkowitz, who teaches some classes, gets the same fee other teachers receive. It's her only income from the school.

Students who can't pay get "scholarships." What is a scholarship? Teachers simply donate their time without pay.

That's possible, Mortkowitz says, because most MacPherson teachers are retired from public school teaching or have other income. The school also saves money because Southern Heights Baptist Church donates the space it uses.

"Our teachers probably spend more money on material for their classes than they make," Mortkowitz said.

Diane Carnes, a former University of Louisville teacher who joined the MacPherson faculty a few years ago when her grandson became a student there, says she would teach for free.

"We're here for the love of what we're doing, and the love of the kids," Carnes said. "We don't do it to make money."

Information about the school is available at

Mortkowitz says she hopes to see enrollment reach about 35 someday, but she doesn't want it to get much larger than that.

"When you get too large, your time goes to administrative duties," she said. "You start to slip away from the things you started out to do. I don't want that."