Short on funds, but long on ingenuity and volunteer help, tiny Caldwell Academy in Greensboro, N.C., offers students grounds” for success”””

“It’s like Christmastime for us,” That’s how Joe Curlott, 49, operations manager at Caldwell Academy, describes the early fall. His six-person, full-time, year-round staff handles operations for the entire physical plant of Caldwell Academy, a classical Christian school in Greensboro, N.C.

A Caldwell student summer work crew installs construction fencing to save contractor fees.

Curlott and his team do everything from master planning to keeping classroom pencil sharpeners operational in the school that enrolls 750 K-12 students. The 22-acre school grounds and its landscaping are also an important part of the crew’s job mix. The time spent on athletic turf, says Curlott, is his “leftover” time, with the main part of the department’s time spent on the educational facilities.

From 10 to 15 percent of Curlott’s staff time, and that same amount of the department budget, is spent on the school’s athletic fields, which includes one field for boys’ and girls’ lacrosse and soccer in spring and fall and another field for spring baseball.

Sports at Caldwell are considered “a part of the package,” of fostering children’s spiritual, mental and physical development, says Curlott. There are 14 varsity sports played there, with games for all levels of student life. Curlott’s 26-year-old son, Joseph Curlott IV, manages the sports fields.

The senior Curlott says the buildings and grounds have to be ready in early fall for the onslaught of students, parents and spectators, who come to the campus to enroll and to attend the Eagles’ first home game. His main focus is making sure the fields are safe and in decent condition for competition.

“That 14 acres devoted to athletics is an old farm, and we still see glass and rock coming up through the soil,” he says, adding that the crew walks the grounds daily to inspect for these problems. The turf is all seed-grown, and all on the native red clay soil with no subsurface, due to the school’s tight operational budget, which is based on tuition income with no denominational income. Capital improvements come from specific donations, he adds.

Caldwell Academy

Mission Statement: The purpose ofCaldwell Academy is to assist parentsfrom a Biblical perspective in theinstruction of their child by providinga classical Christian education.
Location: Greensboro, N.C.
Founded: 1994 (first studentsmatriculated August 1995)
Students: 750 K-12
Footprint: 22.05 acres

The fields are bermudagrass overseeded with annual ryegrass. Curlott says, “They look best in summer, when there is no one here. The bermudagrass is the base to hold the ryegrass.”

The crew mows and lines the field when needed, paying special attention to high-traffic areas such as the sidelines and goal areas. However, because of time and budget limits, “We can never do anything as well as we want to,” says Curlott.

The academy recogizes the importance of sports and safe sports fields.

“I went to a turf management seminar in Memphis recently, and I learned a lot. We want to do our jobs better, but we have to be balanced and realistic. We know we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, so we take what we learn and apply it to our own circumstances and our own situation. Our biggest challenge is that we don’t have the resources we would like to,” he adds.

“I created my own job,” says Curlott, who has a background in the construction trades, as well as in air traffic control and retail management. “Working here is a passion for the operations staff as well as for the administrators, the teachers, the other staff.” This commitment to the school’s philosophy is why his crew is so productive.

Caldwell Academy is 17-year-old school founded by a group of parents who wanted to give their children and others a chance for a classical Christian education; it teaches in grammar, dialectical and rhetorical studies divisions, corresponding to elementary, middle and high school. It is the third largest such institution in the U.S.

Curlott’s crew is aided by a summer work crew of students and parents who volunteer on workdays at least three times a year. They do tasks like pick up sticks and rocks from fields, install strips in privacy fences and otherwise invest their time, Curlott says.

The volunteers recently planted bushes around a new athletic complex. The construction of the field house in that complex is an example of how things work at Caldwell. Curlott drew up the plan and acted as general contractor, an architect parent drew up the construction documents, an engineer parent signed off on them. Parents and students donate most of the labor, with an electrician overseeing the electrical work. And, much of the material was purchased at cost or was donated.

“We can’t always count on donations, but we have to shake the bushes and see what’s available,” says Curlott. For instance, one parent who imports plumbing supplies contributed toilets to a project for “pennies on the dollar,” saving the school $5,000, which was used to buy new computers.

The Caldwell Academy was founded in 1994 and offers a classical Christian education for 750 students.

Composite decking was also donated, and Curlott revamped his ideas about a concrete grandstand to building one from that decking. Curlott’s crew built the playground after gleaning ideas from catalog images.

All work is recorded. “I document everything we do with pictures,” says Curlott. This allows him to know what happened when, and where, for maintenance and as background when planning future projects. “And I give an end-of-the-year slideshow to show how much we’ve accomplished every year,” he says. “It is always well-received.”

Curlott uses native plants and trees to minimize care and watering, and chooses those that can best deal with stress. Extra attention is given to transplants and problem areas. “We try to be as frugal as possible in everything,” he notes.

This eye toward maintenance minimization works for construction materials as well, with concrete block often used as it is durable and easy to clean.

Curlott says he’s always surprised to find that summers are not busy times at other schools, as that’s when his team kicks into high gear to prepare for the upcoming school year.

At Caldwell, summer is when “we undertake an impossible amount of work,” Curlott says. The 10 to 15 students hired for the summer learn things like laying pavers and planting, as well as problem solving, and they also become on-campus advocates against littering and graffiti, a result of having spent so many hours fighting their effects.

“They develop a sense of ownership and put peer pressure on the other kids,” says Curlott. This student involvement is one reason our teams are so competitive; the kids are invested and play their hardest.”

Caldwell’s bermudagrass athletic fields are overseeded with rye.

However, when students wear a new walking path in the lawn in a logical area, he doesn’t fight it, instead he creates a new path and plants flowers along the edge.

The students logged a total of 3,000 hours of work this past summer, with 1,000 of those hours given to tasks like transplanting grass from thriving areas to tougher areas, introducing a hybrid bermudagrass sprig by sprig, and hand-pulling weeds.

Indeed, much of what happens on the school site supports the educational effort. Each grammar school classroom has a garden that is fertilized with manure from a chicken compound and compost made with lunchroom scraps.

“We go back to what their grandparents did; fertilizer is expensive,” says Curlott. The students are learning about botany and sustainability in conjunction with the virtues of service and frugality.

Parents of Caldwell Academy students and other adults often volunteer their time and talents with projects, recognizing the school’s modest grounds budget.

The grounds also offer amenities like butterfly gardens and registered bluebird houses.

Curlott has one more thing on his wish list for the school: a walking and fitness trail in the property’s woodland. It would be great for the track and cross-country teams, for walkers and outdoor readers, as well as for science studies, says Curlott. He’s still working on finding the time, finding the resources, and finding the best way to accomplish this trail, as a mixture of groundskeeping, creativity and education. It’s for Caldwell, after all.

Cindy Grahl is a freelance writer who specializes in reporting on the building trades industry and other contractor-related industries. She lives and works in Cleveland, Ohio.