For Good: Academy Prep transforms lives of kids at risk

With its ambitious mission and dependence on private supporters, Academy Prep may seem like a losing proposition from the get-go.

Its goal: To take students fifth through eighth grade from low-income homes and give them an elite education, strong work ethic, and citizenship and behavior skills that will prepare them for continued success in high school and college.

And it would do it by requiring school days that stretch as long as 11 hours, a mandatory uniform policy and classes separated by gender. Parents or a family member must donate 40 hours of volunteer service a year to the school. Oh, and the school year? It runs 11 months, with just July off. Many Saturdays are taken up by mandatory field trips.

If those restrictions don’t seem challenging enough, consider this. Both Academy Prep campuses -- Tampa, opened in 2003 and St. Petersburg, first founded in 1997 as an all-boys school and now open to girls too, are located in sections of the cities where poverty is rampant and school drop-out rates are way above average.

“We think it’s vital to be right in the middle of the communities that need us the most,” says Tampa headmaster Lincoln Tamayo.

Despite those odds, Academy Prep now has the statistics to back up its pledge to make a difference on both sides of Tampa Bay. Tamayo, who also serves as VP for center operations for the Academy Prep Foundation that oversees both schools, says the educational project is no longer an experiment with no measured results.

“We’ve proven this works, beyond our imagination,” he says. 

So much that he’s now looking at a third location in this area – possibly Clearwater or Sarasota – in the next five years. And there’s no reason to limit the projections.

“I can envision 50 Academy Preps around the state,” he says. “What it takes is for the local community to buy into it. That means financial resources, volunteer help and corporate assistance.  Because in the end, the community will benefit.”

Lifting up low-income families

Academy Prep was once part of the NativityMiguel Network, founded in 1971 by the Jesuits in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The Catholic religious order, with its strong tradition of education, developed a rigorous educational model aimed at targeting inner-city kids during a crucial time in their lives.

Educators have long regarded middle school as a pivotal period for students. Lose them at this juncture, and statistics show a staggering loss in school retention. If they have fallen too far behind in math and reading skills by this age, they may never recover.

At one point, the network grew to 64 middle schools in 27 states, servicing some 5,000 students annually. Though it officially dissolved in 2012, more than 50 former partner schools are still in operation.

Tamayo says that foundation was crucial in helping build Academy Prep’s structure. Now independent, each local campus operates on about a $2 million budget, and is responsible for raising its own funds – through private donations, grants, foundations and fundraisers. 

In addition, each student receives $5,700 from a tax credit scholarship program through Step Up For Students.

The cost to educate each student runs about $17,000 a year – a figure that may seem high, Tamayo says.

“That’s because our kids are in school nearly year-round, and often on Saturdays,” he says. “When you break it down, the cost to educate a child, tax-wise, is pretty close. And we’ve got results that show we can be an agent of change for education.”

Nine classes have graduated from the Tampa campus since its founding.  The high school graduation rate for those who have reached that age is 97 percent -- compared to 44 percent of the public-school kids in the schools’ vicinity. Eighty-three percent of the students who are old enough to be in college have either earned their degrees or are enrolled in schools.

In St. Petersburg, Academy Prep is located in the same area as five neighborhood elementary schools considered among the worst in Florida. The figures are so alarming that the Tampa Bay Times recently published an investigative series on these schools called “Failure Factories,” detailing their downward slide over a 10-year period.

To Gina Tanase Burkett, who serves as head of school, that makes the Academy Prep success rate even more impressive. 

“We pour 100 percent into our students and more,” she says. “There is no telling what direction they may have gone if they weren’t here with us. The odds are against them coming from such poverty.”

Since its founding, the St. Petersburg campus has had 221 graduates. Ninety-three percent have earned their high-school diplomas, with another 69 percent either graduated or enrolled in college. Some of those institutions include Florida A & M University, Eckerd College, the University of Florida, Florida State University, the University of Central Florida, Assumption College (Massachusetts) and Tuskegee University (Alabama). 

Both schools now offer a Graduate Support Program, which provides mentoring to the students once they leave Academy Prep for high school and college. Burkett says the follow-through is a “key factor” in helping the students set and achieve academic and social goals.

And the numbers prove it. Before the program, the St. Petersburg school had a 74 percent rate of high-school graduates with diplomas; since the program went into effect in 2005, it has jumped to 95 percent.

“That’s not something the public-school system can offer. And that personal touch? It can make a huge difference in someone’s life, especially for those who come from single-parent homes,” Burkett says. “There’s an extra set of eyes watching over them.”

Her staff recently hosted its second “Breakfast of Faith” for local churches in a 10-mile radius. The purpose: To invite them in as school partners, such as recruiting volunteers from their congregations.

Some 30 churches responded – double the number from last year – and expressed an interest in helping in some way, Burkett says.

“That’s what makes Academy Prep work. We can’t do this alone,” she says.

Engaging family, friends leads to success

Tampa Academy Prep parent Tynese Randolph credits the school for helping her children achieve academic excellence. Of her four children, three are graduates. One is now a junior studying meteorology at Florida State, another is a sophomore pursuing wildlife ecology and zoology at University of Florida, and her youngest is a freshman at Cambridge Christian in Tampa. 

“The only reason my oldest didn’t come here is because it hadn’t opened yet,” says Randolph. Her ties to the school remain strong. She started out as a volunteer, like all parents, and now works on staff in the office. 

Making parental involvement mandatory – or, when that’s not possible, a relative or close family friend -- is a component that Randolph strongly endorses. 

“The mission of educating a child is an extremely important one. It’s true what they say – it takes a village,” she says. “What makes this place so spectacular is that we’re like one big family in a small setting, with a shared goal.”

For Tamayo, the value of education is evident in his own life. He moved to Tampa from Cuba as a youngster, getting his first lessons in English at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Ybor City. After graduating from Jesuit High School in Tampa, he earned successive degrees from the University of Notre Dame, the University of Florida and Harvard University.

Those degrees and his own tenacity opened doors that would seem an impossible dream, given his early beginnings. Among them: Assistant to the president of Boston University, a school principal in Chelsea, Mass., chairman of English for Children of Massachusetts, a successful initiative petition campaign to reform the state’s bilingual education laws, and a member of then Gov.-elect Mitt Romney’s transition team.

As fulfilling as all of those positions have been, the challenge of becoming head of school at Tampa’s Academy Prep was too intriguing to pass up. And he’s never had a moment of regret.

“It’s the best job I’ve had in my whole life,” he says. “For some of these kids, it’s the one last chance to get them turned around in the right direction. Being part of something like that is incredibly rewarding. We can be the agent of change, starting right here.”
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Michelle Bearden is a multimedia journalist and public speaker with extensive experience in print and broadcast media. She placed second in the nation behind a writer from Time magazine in the 2014 Religion Newswriters Association Supple Feature Religion Writer of the Year. Her “Keeping the Faith” segment on WFLA-TV was the country’s longest-running segment on faith and values among local affiliates. She’s a graduate of Central Michigan University, which inducted her in the school’s Journalism Hall of Fame in 2008 for her pioneer work in media convergence and investigative religion reporting. Michelle has won multiple awards for her work, including first-place honors in 2014 for column writing from the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors and beat reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists. She is also a two-time winner of the Supple Religion Reporter of the Year from the national Religion Newswriters Association. Michelle’s home and yard in the Ballast Point neighborhood in south Tampa are legendary for big gatherings and dinner parties. She finally realized her dream of getting a horse, and now has two Rocky Mountain mares, which she trail rides and trains every chance she gets. And she is a die-hard Tampa Bay Rays fan.