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Private Middle School Preparing Low-Income Students for Brighter Future


Everyone wants to improve the quality of education in America.

But there are no silver bullets to accomplish that.

Parental involvement, a more challenging curriculum and a longer school year are just some of the ideas regularly suggested for low graduation rates.

But in Midtown St. Petersburg, in one of the poorest and most educationally challenged areas of Pinellas County, a small, little known middle school is getting results that are raising some eyebrows.

It’s 7:30 a.m. and the fifth through eight graders at Academy Prep are lined up outside to recite the school pledge. It’s a cool February morning and they’re a little fidgety until Head of School Gina Burkett raises two fingers above her head and all goes quiet.

The pledge starts with “ Standing in this room are the greatest, most committed, most responsible people this world has ever known.”

That may sound slightly immodest but getting these kids to believe they are capable of great things is a big part of the curriculum here.

You see, Academy Prep is a private middle school exclusively for children whose families live below the poverty level and it is paid for entirely with corporate and private donations.

The school was started 17 years ago when the owners of a local resort overheard their employees talking about the problems their kids were having in the local public school.

So, using their own money and private donations they, along with some retired educators started this not-for-profit school in the heart of one of St. Petersburg’s most troubled neighborhoods.

There are plenty of challenges facing these kids, most of whom are African American. For starters, school officials estimate that somewhere between 80 to 90 percent of these children live in single parent households.

“I would say that some of our kids have some pretty difficult situations in their home life and we’re kind of that sanctuary,” Burkett said.

“I would say that when you have a mother that’s working two jobs and is trying to just keep a roof over their heads, it’s hard at the same time to get that parent involved.. But we keep trying, we keep doing that. We make phone calls," she said. "We let kids call us til 9 o’clock at night."

There are a few things you notice right away that are different from public schools, like the school uniforms in the school colors of blue and green.

Each child is supplied with a laptop to use while on campus and every classroom is equipped with an interactive smart board instead of the old chalkboard.

And, the kids are taught to interact with adults at Academy Prep. Children 10- and 11-years olds walk right up to you and, look you straight in the eye, introduce themselves and shakes hands.

That type of character training is part of a three-pillared approach to education that includes a rigorous curriculum, extracurricular activities such as chess and karate and weight years of graduate support including counseling, tutoring or financial support.

Destinee Pitts, a 12-year-old 6th grader at the school, hopes to one day be a veterinarian.

“School is kind of different because at my other school we never had homework," she said.  "But since I came to Academy Prep it’s been a better challenge and they actually challenge me better than the other school did.”

This past year about two-thirds of the kids who applied for enrollment at Academy Prep were accepted. There are other requirements for admission besides low income. Parents must commit to volunteer at the school for at least 40 hours over the course of the school year.

And yes there is an entrance exam. But Burkett says passing the exam is not the main factor in acceptance. Most students come into the school performing below their current grade level.

“What’s happening is that when we are bring kids in to the fifth grade we find that we’re having to spend a year or more, of just getting them to the place where they need to be," she said "Our hope is to get them at grade level before they hit our 7th and 8th grades. So then at that point we can get them above grade level, so we can have them recruited for some private schools and get into some of the high programs.”

If you were wondering, no an education at Academy Prep does not come cheaply. The cost per student for a full year at the school costs about $16,000 a year. Compare that to the cost of an average Florida public school education, which costs about half that.

But, students at Academy Prep put in longer hours and a have a longer school year than their public school counterparts.

Most students are at the school for around 11 hours a day, frequently six days a week and almost 11 months per year.

And there’s another cost. The school provides counseling and student support for eight years after graduation.

“So that’s where you get that sticker shock, that $16,000, it’s helpful for people to understand that so they don’t think we are just washing ourselves in gold over here,” she said.

The results, Burkett said, show. The school claims that in the past few years the high school graduation rate is 100 percent for students who graduate their middle school program.

Florida Department of Education statistics for 2013 report that the African American student high school graduation rate in Pinellas County at 54 percent.

Students like Destinee say they like that the school focuses on building character. She says it builds on her favorite role model.

"My hero is my Mom because she works multiple jobs and still goes to school and she still has time to take care of me, my cousins, my brother and everybody else that lives in the house."

Thanks to her mom and her school, Destinee says she knows she's headed for great things.

M.S. Butler joined WUSF in October, 2014 after becoming the first recipient of the Stephen Noble Intern Scholarship. A Bay Area resident since 1999, he became a full-time student at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg in Fall 2012.He has written articles for the school newspaper The Crow’s Nest covering topics ranging from seasonal flu shots to students carrying guns on campus.
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