In 2007, a pastor with broad vision and indefatigable will named Ruby Eldridge dreamed of a model school for the underprivileged community near her small church in Prichard, the impoverished (indeed, municipally bankrupt), nearly all-black city bordering Mobile, Alabama.
“Miss Ruby” had a grandson who had graduated from UMS-Wright, an elite, largely white, private school in Mobile, with financial aid. So she approached businessman Sandy Stimpson, former board chairman of UMS-Wright. The pastor had a persuasive manner. “These children [in Prichard] are smart,” she told Stimpson. “They really are. I’m going to build a UMS out here in Prichard. All they need is a better chance.”
Stimpson helped find financial support, and eventually even the Mobile County public school superintendent gave encouragement and the city of Prichard helped them find a usable property. Prichard Preparatory School (pre-K through fifth grade) opened its doors in the fall of 2008.
At about the same, a first grader named Kyland Camp was having trouble at a nearby, well-regarded public school called Indian Springs. He had been expelled in pre-K for bad behavior, and suspended at least twice from kindergarten and first grade. Two years and yet another (intervening) school later, Kyland’s mother discovered that Prichard Prep had hired a number of staffers she liked from Indian Springs, and she begged them to give Kyland a chance in the new school’s different atmosphere.
Kyland entered Prichard Prep at the beginning of fourth grade, and still misbehaved for the first few weeks. But by the year’s end, he was participating in a countywide spelling bee against competitors from public, parochial, and private schools, from grades four through eight all vying together, not by specific age group. Kyland finished in third place. In the whole county. The top two finishers were eighth graders, four years older than him. Kyland beat everybody else—fifth graders, sixth graders, seventh graders, eighth graders.
In May, with his behavioral problems long behind him, Kyland graduated from Prichard Prep’s fifth grade. In August, he will enroll at…yes, UMS-Wright.
Kyland Camp is just one of the many success stories in the young life of Prichard Preparatory. The school stands as testament to the potential inherent in educating children in an atmosphere freed from the bureaucratic demands—not to mention the unionized, anti-reformist zeal—of most public schools, even good ones like the aforementioned Indian Springs.
Every student at Prichard Preparatory is black. More than 60 percent are from single-parent homes, and a large majority are federal-free-lunch eligible. Most initially test at average intelligence. But in the small classes (14 per grade level), with individualized attention, with firm discipline matched by generous nurturing, with high academic expectations and an emphasis on character development, and with a gently non-denominational Christian orientation, almost all the students thrive.
The school provides a computer-assisted learning program called Accelerated Reader, along with interactive “Smart Boards,” daily music and phys-ed classes, plus both art and Bible classes twice weekly. It even offers a new violin program for an extra $110. It fits this broad curriculum into a lengthened school day from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. And it does it all for about $8,500 per student per year, compared to the per-pupil public school average in Alabama (in 2009, so it’s probably higher now) of $9,636.
About 80 percent of funds come from grants and charitable donations. But here’s a twist: With very rare exceptions, each student’s family contributes $50 per week ($2,000 per year) toward tuition. This was at the insistence of Miss Ruby, the founder who still serves on the board, whose theory was that parents will value their children’s education far more if they actually have a “stake” in it, even if that requires a bit of a sacrifice.
“Miss Ruby knows we must educate mind, body, and spirit,” Stimpson said. “How they act and what they do is as important as what they know. Because our expectations are high, the students are high achievers and in some cases over-achievers.”
Kyland’s mother, 33-year-old Kanecka James, smilingly (and proudly) says the philosophy works like a charm.
“Kyland used to be like a little terror,” said James, a single mom who is assistant director of security at a Mobile shopping mall. “But he wasn’t being challenged. This is a different setting. It’s a private, Christian environment. It’s like a family-type feeling. Everybody knows everybody. I can show up at any time and they are glad to see me. They really care. And they’ll stay on top of Kyland to make sure he stays busy, occupied, which also means less likely to get into any trouble.”
Kyland—not just a good speller, but a well-rounded child and athlete who loves football and baseball—reciprocates. On “administrative assistant day,” a number of the children wrote notes to the school’s do-everything bookkeeper, nurse, and traffic director, Angie Hannah. Hannah is one of several faculty who followed principal Rosalie Howley from Indian Springs, so she has known (and doted on) Kyland in both of his manifestations. After a beautifully written note to her, he added a post-script that made her melt: “P.S. You will always have the key to my heart.”
The thing is, Kyland’s impressiveness is matched by that of almost every child a visitor to Prichard Preparatory encounters. The children wear bright uniforms: Even the four-year old boys wear ties. And every kindergartner already is reading—some at a second grade level. Kids of all ages smile and wave at anybody walking past. Look into the classroom windows and you see every child appearing at rapt attention. Enter the rooms and they’ll eagerly, without extra prompting, show off their skills in reading or math. There’s not an unhappy or uninterested face around.
Clearly, the principles insisted upon by Stimpson and Eldridge work. But, as numerous studies of educational success have shown, even the best principles also require a great principal. Rosalie Howley brought 30 years of public school experience when she came to Prichard Preparatory in January of 2010, and her staff adores her. She speaks not just of what her full-time faculty of 12 does for the kids, but of what the children do for them:
“I think we all have learned and grown personally and spiritually, and it’s been a great experience. It’s great to be part of this opportunity for these children to go as far as they are capable of going and as high as they are capable of going.”
PERHAPS BY THIS POINT a reporter realizes his own story is starting to sound sugarcoated, or even saccharine. But it’s an impression even the most hard-bitten chronicler really can’t avoid: Without any advance warning of his visit, without any special effort on the staff’s part to impress him, without a single note or picture that sounded or looked the slightest bit false, Prichard Preparatory appeared as idyllic as any collection of 80 children could.
“When they arrive in the morning,” said Rosa Monteiro, a longtime public school P.E. teacher who now runs the technology, media, and library programs at Prichard Preparatory, “they all pile out of their cars smiling. They want to be here.”
Somewhere there’s a lesson that this school can teach not its students, but the rest of us. Non-partisan reformer Philip K. Howard, best-selling author of The Death of Common Sense and The Collapse of the Common Good, is one of those who has amassed significant evidence that good schools emerge from a principled jettisoning of excess bureaucracy. “Successful teaching and good school cultures don’t have a formula,” he wrote in April in the Atlantic, “but they have a necessary condition: Teachers and principals must feel free to act on their best instincts. Minute by minute, as they respond to students and each other, their focus must be on doing what’s right.”
Prichard Preparatory is doing a whole lot of things right. Other schools, public and private, should learn from it.