"Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education." Martin Luther King, Jr.
It was a calm, overcast morning in St. Pete. At 7:30am Academy Prep students made their way into the main lecture hall of the school, an intimate room with acoustics fine enough that the teachers don't need mics. Gina Burkett, Head of Academy Prep, stands in front of a smart board detailing the importance of exhibiting rigor in not just their studies, but in what the students do outside of the classroom.
The students are collected, concentrated and engaged. These qualities define Academy Prep's character. Before students are dismissed, they are invited to express any achievements or troubles they're dealing with in their lives. Each morning, Gina Burkett considers these issues leads students in a prayer. This moment of kindness and contemplation is embraced by the student body. Not quite religious, this moment allows students to be aware of one another and to exercise positivity and sincerity.
Academy Prep is a not-for-profit private middle school in St. Pete (with a sister school in Tampa) that was founded in 1996 by Jeff Fortune. It's modeled after the Nativity Miguel Network of Schools, which has helped economically disadvantaged children utilize and value their education for over 40 years.
Students who attend Academy Prep must qualify for the free or reduced-price federal school meals program, setting their income near the U.S. poverty line. At this moment, there are 90 students enrolled at the school. They only accept applications for rising 5th and 6th graders and teach through the 8th grade. Students must also take an assessment test before entering the school and must be prepared for 11 hour days, 6 days a week, 11 months a year.
In the last 7 years (on the verge of 8), Academy Prep has experienced a 100% high school graduation rate for Academy Prep students. A vast majority, roughly 85%, elect to continue their education in college. Classes are held in all boy and all girl settings.
It's all in the execution. Academy Prep provides more than the physical tools for students to learn. Due to the smallness of class-size, faculty and students alike are more inclined to have a more familiar and comfortable relationship with their teachers. Burkett explains that she, along with the other instructors and educators at the school, accept the idea that they are never off the clock.
Students are given the cell/home phone numbers and email addresses for their teachers in case they need extra help with homework or have a general question about tomorrow's activities. On staff right now, Academy Prep has 8 core teachers and 7 Americorps teachers.
The teachers are encouraged to provide after school programs for students that extend beyond the basic curriculum. Duke Trott (AmeriCorps teacher) who also teaches English and Language Arts runs a fishing program. Hugh Culbreath (core staff) teaches History and Social Studies and runs the popular ping-pong program. Doak Mathias (core staff), part English teacher, part basketball coach, also runs the school's film club. Students can also learn dance, guitar, knitting, golf, track, chess, karate, tennis and more.
The 'more' we're referring to is the school's Robotics program. Academy Prep's Stem Lab is everything Bill Nye told us school should be. Students in the program competed in an underwater robotics contest just last year. The tables are made to be moved so that the classroom can accommodate whatever project the students are working on. Like every other class in the building, the lab is equipped with a smart board (provided by Tech Data). Computers line the back wall and at the front of the room are a row of bright orange footballs. The footballs will be used to test the functionality and integrity of the students next project.
In conversation with students Reniece (8th grade) and Remedy (5th grade), they described their experience at the school with fervor.
"I started enjoying math and science classes," said Remedy. "I actually want to go on and be an engineer." This conviction is a rare quality for any 5th grader. His first idea for an invention is every Marvel fanatics dream. "I want to design a machine that gives you super speed, strength, vision and gives you the ability to stretch really far." Why are we not funding this?
Reniece is a renowned athlete, whether it's track or basketball or baseball (she was the starting pitcher on an all boys team), she's managed to impress the students and staff. Though that doesn't quell her humble nature. "I love sports. I'm focused on science right now." Reniece has found Academy Prep's personal approach to education effective. "The teacher's know you and know when you need help and when you're ready to advance. There's less distractions in class because of it."
After leaving Academy Prep, she'll move on to Shorecrest Prep School. She hopes to join the basketball team there and has future desires to go into nursing.
South Pinellas is nationally known for its dismal academic records. Academy Prep stands as an educational beacon because it is a privately funded institution. They're allowed to develop their curriculum and teaching style toward the students.
When sitting in on Hugh Culbreath's 7th grade history class, more than just regurgitate information from their text book, students' analytical abilities were challenged. They were each tasked with designing posters depicting the space race and the Cold War. They each explained why they chose to illustrate the events the way they did, and how their designs related to the topics.
95% of their funds come from individuals, corporations and businesses. Academy Prep is located at 2301 22nd Avenue South. If you would like to learn more about Academy Prep, or are interested in investing in the education of a new generation, follow this link. You can stay up-to-date with the latest fundraising events and classroom happenings at Academy Prep by following them on Facebook.