How do you support students in a school system that isn’t meeting their needs? Start a new school that promotes academic and life success and incorporates the community’s core values. In Mississippi and Alabama, two committed educators of color are doing just that.
Consider Ambition Prep, founded by DeArchie Scott, on the Westside of Jackson, Mississippi. Ambition Prep emphasizes both academics and character development for its scholars, who are all students of color. The school’s prime emphasis is literacy; in addition to three hours of literacy daily, its scholars also have 120 minutes a day of mathematics, as well as music, art, physical education and other enrichment programs. Ambition Prep boasts a combination of a low student-teacher ratio, intense teacher development and an extended school day, adding up to a profound attention to the whole student.
Character building is incorporated directly into the curriculum. “We believe our scholars can be taught core values — community, urgency, self-discipline, professionalism, integrity, ambition. We focus on one core value each month, and weave it through the day,” says Scott. The school even offers rewards to students who demonstrate the core values.
Ambition Prep originally rented some former retail space, doing ongoing small renovations to make it workable for school purposes. Then, Scott came to BlueHub for a $7.2 million loan to do a comprehensive renovation. The reason: Scott felt it was critical to create a space that actively supports these scholars’ needs as they develop academic and life skills.
Urgency is one of our core values. For our scholars, this is their life. If we wait a year to implement something, they are a whole year behind. What impact does that have on them?”
One state over, in Montgomery, Alabama, Kia Debnam asked herself, “What are these children missing? What do they need?” The answer was simple. “They need to be seen.” So Debnam has worked to create a school with both rigorous academics and deep affirmation for the culture and heritage of the Black and Brown children who comprise 95% of the student body. Her school is LIFE Academy. “LIFE stands for Leaders Influencing Freedom and Excellence,” she says.
She continues, “Our parents spoke up. They wanted a back-to-basics K-8 school that could teach their children to read before it was too late. And they also wanted their children to learn to be leaders and entrepreneurs.” Children start studying financial literacy in 3rd grade. The level of rigor increases with each grade level, and in high school they can add training for a trade, so when they graduate they are equipped for a profession if they choose that path.
LIFE Academy is housed in the historic St. Jude Educational Institute, known as the site where 2,000 members of the Selma-to-Montgomery march sheltered in 1965. With a $2 million construction loan from BlueHub, our first in Alabama, LIFE renovated the building. They installed, among other things, sensory hallways where the students can see, hear and interact with educational materials. Debnam smiles. “They are always learning.”
She adds, “I push myself every day to give these students the future they deserve.”
In my experience, when you educate with the least privileged population in mind, everyone grows. We teach a full history. That gives students a better lens of where power lies and how they can affect change.”