Jorge Perez remembers the first time he stepped behind the black iron gates surrounding Academy Prep Center of Tampa, Fla. The private school for students in grades 5-8 is wedged beside a Cuban bakery and the interstate in a faded neighborhood with sagging bungalows. Yet, something made it electric with opportunity.
“It was very different from other middle schools I had seen and the atmosphere was buzzing,’’ recalls Perez, then a rising sixth-grader. “It felt like a place where I could grow.’’
The story is all the more remarkable because, for Academy Prep, it’s not all that surprising. Since 2003, when the school was founded, many of its students – all of them low-income and almost all of them black or Hispanic – have moved on to top public and private high schools, and then to highly regarded public and private colleges.
No one at the school expects anything less.
It’s just after 7 on a Tuesday morning. Cars whiz by Academy Prep’s renovated red brick building, a former grammar school where children of cigar workers once learned to speak English. Students in uniforms haul backpacks and hurry inside even though school doesn’t officially start for another 30 minutes.
It’s breakfast time and everyone here qualifies for a free one. All 112 students also receive a Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, awarded to low-income families to help pay a portion of the school’s $16,000-plus annual tuition. (The scholarship program is administered by Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.) The rest of the money comes from private donors and foundations that have come together with one mission: to dramatically change the lives of low-income children through the power of education.
“It is incumbent upon us as a society to give everyone an opportunity,’’ said Principal Lincoln Tamayo, a Harvard graduate who grew up in Tampa and went to kindergarten a few blocks from the academy.
Academy Prep and its sister school in St. Petersburg, Fla. are modeled after the recently disbanded Nativity Miguel Network of Schools, acclaimed nonprofit schools that catered to economically disadvantaged children. Its tradition of excellence continues at Academy Prep, where the graduation rate stands at 94.4 percent, Tamayo said.
About 80 percent of the school’s graduates go on to private high schools, including Exeter and, closer to home, Tampa Prep. Many of the rest enroll in top, local public schools, including Blake Magnet School and Brooks DeBartolo Charter High School. About 82 percent then go on to college, the vast majority of them four-year schools, including top-tier institutions like the University of Florida, Bard College in New York and, now, Columbia.
None of this is by happenstance.
Students are eligible to enroll in Academy Prep in fifth or sixth grade, but not after. The school needs at least three years to give the students the continuity and structure they need to succeed, Tamayo said. But first, they must apply, a lengthy process that requires a teacher’s recommendation, written essays, and a passing score on a skills test to ensure they’ve mastered basic reading, spelling and math.
“We’re not designed for pre-readers,’’ Tamayo said. Or for students with behavioral issues: “If you come here with problems, we’ll work with you,’’ he said. “But accept God’s grace. There are consequences for your actions. If we don’t teach our kids that, we have failed as educators.’’
About four to seven students in each cohort end up leaving, he said. Some because their parents moved; others because they didn’t want to do the work or couldn’t maintain at least a C average.
“We are preparing them for success at a college preparatory school,’’ said Tamayo, who used to help oversee admissions at Boston University. “They’re not going to go if they have a 2.0.’’
Academy Prep school days are 11 hours long. The school year lasts 11 months, and includes some Saturdays. It’s not for everyone.
“I do remember wanting to switch schools mid-way through the year because of the rigor of classes, along with the very strict style of learning and discipline,’’ said Jorge, the graduate now at Columbia. “At times the work was overwhelming and very tough. Over time, however, the challenge begins to mold and shape work ethic and determination.’’
For Jorge, who graduated as valedictorian in 2008, that meant pushing himself even harder to earn a full scholarship to Exeter, a pipeline to the Ivy League. Four years later, with Academy Prep mentors at his side, he accepted another scholarship and became the first academy graduate to go to Columbia.
Today, Jorge is a 19-year-old sophomore studying philosophy and economics, and guiding his younger brother, Julian, on a similar path. Julian, an eighth-grader at Academy Prep, is now fielding scholarship offers from Exeter and the elite Saint Andrews Preparatory School in Boca Raton, Fla.
After breakfast, Academy Prep students line up by grade and wait to be greeted by Tamayo or another academy staff member. On this morning, it’s history teacher Henry Ibanez, who extends his right hand to every girl and boy, looks them in the eye and says, “Good morning.’’
The pleasantry is repeated at least 200 times with each student expected to emulate the gesture. Then everyone gathers quietly in a large room that doubles as the indoor gym and cafeteria. Dangling from the ceiling are pennants emblazoned with the names of the top-tier high schools they hope to attend.
“Dear Lord, we are human by our very nature very frail,’’ Tamayo says, reading from the Book of Deuteronomy, like a father praying with his family. Afterward, two students step on stage and take turns practicing public speaking by answering, “How can I be a better me?’’
It’s a theme that carries them throughout the day. Girls and boys are separated in core classes, except for some honors courses like algebra. In addition to math, science, history and language arts lessons, they also take art, music, P.E. and other enrichment classes like chess and sewing.
By the time they graduate, Tamayo said, most Academy Prep students are two to four years above grade level in reading and math.
That kind of academic success was what Tynese Randolph and her husband were looking for when they enrolled their twin boys, Levi and Sterling, in the academy’s fifth and sixth grades.
The boys came from a traditional public school where Sterling was promoted to a higher grade, but it was still too easy, Randolph said. “They tried, they really did,” she said. “But public school had nothing to offer my boys.’’
The first year at the academy was anything but easy. Some days, the twins went to school when it was dark and came home when it was dark. Randolph and her husband coordinated drop-offs and took turns volunteering on nights and weekends. “It was hard,’’ she recalled. “But so what? It’s your child.’’
The extra effort paid off, said Randolph, who eventually accepted a front office job at the academy and, later, enrolled her daughter in the school. The hope is that she will follow in her brothers’ footsteps.
Levi, now a senior at Tampa Prep, is considering several college choices. Sterling is studying meteorology as a freshman at Florida State University. His first semester, he racked up a 4.0 GPA.
Academy Prep gifted Jorge’s mother, Sophia Flores, with plane tickets so she and her son could visit Exeter before making any big decisions.
“They treated us like millionaires,’’ Flores said of the New Hampshire school’s administrators. When the family left, Flores asked her son if he knew what he wanted to do. She said his eyes watered as he told her, “Mom, this is where I want to be.’’
It was hard to have her first-born so far away, but it also gave her peace of mind.
“I used to wonder, ‘How will my kids go to college?’ ’’ said Flores, a high school graduate who sometimes worked three jobs to make ends meet. “I don’t know how to express, truly, every day, the blessings of the academy. … They are changing these kids’ lives forever.’’
Now halfway through his second year at Columbia, Jorge already is thinking about what’s next – maybe law school and, someday, a career in finance. It’s a vision, he said, that really started at Academy Prep.
“If I had to summarize my experience at Academy Prep with just one sentence,’’ Jorge said, “I would say that it was a realization of possibility.”