Whatever it takes.
That’s the daily mantra for Suzette and Daniel Dean, a Florida husband-and-wife team who founded a small private religious school in the heart of a struggling black community.
It’s a way of life that started almost from the moment the native Jamaicans met at their Miami church. Friends told Suzette that Daniel would only marry her if she was a teacher, so Suzette traded her nursing career for one in special education.
Soon after she graduated from the University of South Florida, Suzette’s tutoring gig went from two students to eight. The Deans converted a one-bedroom apartment above their garage in east Tampa and in 1999, Bible Truth Ministries Academy was born.
Word of mouth brought more students, so the couple took a second mortgage and Daniel, a pastor and businessman nicknamed “Preach,” took a second job building low-income housing. The extra dollars went toward renovating a former crack house into a bigger school.
Eventually, the Deans convinced a bank to loan them thousands of dollars to buy land for an even bigger school. Suzette, pregnant with their fifth child, got her contractor’s license so she could pull permits for her husband, who would leave his day job and work until midnight building the new school.
“I was a man on a mission,’’ he said. “Failure was not an option.’’
Today, the modest Bible Truth school sits behind the church the Deans built and where Daniel shares the word of God. Next door is a new 3,600-square-foot multipurpose building that houses the school’s lunchroom, library, and science and music labs.
It’s all part of a vision to serve the community that includes a center called H.O.P.E. There, residents can hunt for jobs, work on resumes, get their G.E.D. or learn to cook and sew.
But the school, with 86 students in VPK to high school, “is the machine of everything,’’ Daniel said. It’s where children, many of whom have been told they can’t learn, realize they can.
“Good education, holistic education, is part of a community’s development,’’ he said. “Not a cookie-cutter education. There must be an obligation on the teacher’s side and the child’s side.’’
On the last Monday morning of the school year, a yellow smear from the chicken-and-rice that soon will be served as lunch dotted Suzette’s white blouse – a testament to the many hats the school director wears to keep the school chugging.
Over in the church, kindergartners in uniforms rehearsed for graduation, their Mickey Mouse voices reciting religious lines after their teacher, Miss Tiffany: I know I can win, as long as I have His love within. Afterward, the children line up for a field trip.
Old McMicky’s Farm is only about a 30-minute drive from the inner-city neighborhood where the school is located, but it’s a world away for many of the kids. Most are from single-parent homes and use some sort of public assistance to attend the academy.
“I believe parents should have a choice,’’ said Suzette, who eagerly shares available school choice options. “They’re looking for better. They want more, but they don’t know how to get it.’’
For the 2012-13 school year, 25 students qualified for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which provides a private school tuition subsidy for low-income families. (The scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog). Twelve received the McKay Scholarship for students with special needs, eight used a VPK voucher and another 20 attracted school readiness funding. Only one family paid the full $4,040 tuition, Suzette said. The rest “pay what they can when they can.’’
When they come to the academy, many students are nearly two years behind their peers, the Deans said. At public schools, some were labeled learning disabled. “They come in with a crutch,’’ Daniel said.
Most catch up, eventually, with many, including the Deans’ children, performing a year to two years ahead of their public school counterparts, Suzette said.
She credits the academy’s structure. Classes are multi-graded, which helps make the most of limited resources. But the Deans are more interested in other benefits the arrangement brings. Students have more time to grasp concepts before moving on to something new. They also gain confidence.
“I believe the younger ones learn from the older ones,’’ Suzette said.
Daniel points to studies that show children who read to other children do better in school. “A preschooler cannot tell if you’re reading better than a first-grader,’’ he said. “At that time, you’re a hero.’’ And now the hero is motivated to read.
Fiercely religious, the couple decorated their school’s walls with quotes from the Bible. Yet, remarkably open-minded, the Deans forged a friendship with the co-founder of a think tank that promotes evolutionary research. (Read more about that on redefinED Tuesday.) Daniel believes “I can learn from this person, no matter what he believes or what he doesn’t believe,” Suzette said.
For their students, it’s a lesson in tolerance.
The Deans try to teach other life skills, too. Along with reading and math, students learn to sew and cook and, in some cases, to fix everything from lawn mowers to refrigerators. They also practice social skills, like how to properly shake hands and keep eye contact during conversations. Many of the kids greet strangers with “Sir’’ and “Ma’am.’’
And they learn to play chess. Judging by the sprawl of tournament trophies near the library, they’re pretty good at it, too.
Daniel is a master player who keeps separate chess sets in his truck, in his car and under his bed. He even has a version of the game on his computer. Chess teaches young minds to focus, strategize and think ahead, he said.
In chess and in life, “You are your own worst enemy,’’ Daniel likes to tell the children. “Your destiny is in your hands.’’
Whatever it takes.