MAXWELL:  Don’t let Academy Prep lose its focus

2/24/1999 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


When the founders of Academy Prep, a private school on St. Petersburg’s south side, which was originally established for African-American boys, announced last week that they would seek charter school status, I was disappointed. Charter schools are public schools operated by private groups but must follow certain public school guidelines.

As one of the school’s volunteer teachers, I see the value in remaining private. I also see the value in keeping the school mostly black and male. The unfortunate truth is that many young black males on the south side need the kind of attention that the boys _ fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders _ receive at Academy Prep.

What I like most about the school is that officials do not balk at their mission: saving black males and giving them the foundation to succeed. If the school can retain much of its character after going charter, the move might turn out to be highly beneficial. If, however, the school loses its character, I am not for it becoming a charter.

My faith in its focus on black males was reaffirmed Monday when I attended the school’s first official “role models” meeting. The founders asked nine other black men, one black woman and me to serve as permanent role models for the school’s 37 students, who are all black except one.

We were asked to become a genuine, ongoing presence in the boys’ lives. I, for example, will continue to teach classes there, bring them to the St. Petersburg Times to see me at work, take them to lunch, take them to movies and simply hang out with them.

The rest of the role models represent the best of the best, and the boys are lucky to have such people wanting to spend time with them.

These are the other role models: Bob Anders, a retired Pinellas educator and a co-founder of Academy Prep; Dr. Kenneth Bryant, a urologist; Dr. Paul McRae, a gastroenterologist; Julie Williamson, director of community relations for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays; Randy Winn, a Devil Rays outfielder; Quinton McCracken, a Devil Rays outfielder; Luke Williams, a major with the St. Petersburg Police Department; Thomas Wilkins, resident conductor of the Florida Orchestra; Leroy Sullivan, customer service manager of Tampa Electric Co.; Bob Williams, a business consultant for Paychex Business Solutions.

John Effinger, the school’s director, was unequivocal about why he wants us to be with the boys. Only six of the boys have fathers at home. “These boys need successful African-American men in their lives,” Effinger said. “All of them have been classified as at-risk by the Pinellas school system. They need to know that they, too, can succeed. They need more than just the teachers and staff here at the school.”

We had lunch with the seventh-graders and were impressed with their questions. They particularly wanted to know how the doctors chose their professions, how long they went to school and how much they had to study. Clearly, each child was excited that we were there.

As each man spoke, I sensed that the students began to understand that many black men are successful and caring, that they are not like the violent stereotypes each night on network and cable television.

Bob Williams, of Paychex, for example, spoke of being a Navy SEAL, a martial arts expert and a world-class scuba diver. He told the boys that he was able to accomplish so much because he developed the ability to compartmentalize, to concentrate on one thing at a time.

Dr. McRae explained that he had to put in many long hours to become a physician and encouraged the boys to work and study hard if they want to become physicians.

The presence of Maj. Williams was special because the boys got a chance to see a cop up close _ as one of the good guys. Williams discussed his three children, showing the boys that he, too, is human and that he wants to see them grow up to be law-abiding citizens. His presence was special, too, in light of the disturbances of two years ago when a white cop shot and killed TyRon Lewis.

I and several others told the boys about our being born into poor families and living in housing projects. We wanted them to know that poor circumstances need not keep them from succeeding.

After the boys returned to class, we adults discussed how we can be most effective. We made personal commitments to treat the boys respectfully, to become their friends and to let them see us as professionals and parents _ adults whom they can emulate.

All of us are are looking forward to making a positive difference in the lives of these children.