Independent schools have their roots in American Utopianism--think Brook Farm, Shakers, or the Abolitionist movement. At their most aspirational, they are intentional communities based on defined values; these values are often pitched high, at the acme of what we might hope for if we could buy some property, raise a few buildings, bring in some kids and teachers, and create our own tiny version of a better world.
Four years ago my colleague Rob Connor was called--as ministers are called, though he might not say so himself--to build and lead Christina Seix Academy. I’ll leave it to the reader to explore the school’s website, but the short version is that Christina Seix, an ultra-successful businesswoman of Puerto Rican heritage, wanted to start a school where young,"at-risk” kids would experience an immersive environment designed to stimulate their minds, hearts, and imaginations while preparing them for real academic success. Critically, the adults raising these kids--single parents and often grandparents--would be engaged, too, learning important skills to help them raise academically successful children in the tough environs of inner-city Trenton, New Jersey. As aspirations go, it’s about as fine as they get.
So Rob (he tweets @RobConnor) is now the head of a brand-new independent school, just opened in the fall of 2012, with 69 predominantly African American and Hispanic preschool and kindergarten students. Part of the deal is that all tuition and fees are covered by a scholarship--the founder’s endowment has taken care of that. Kids learn, eat, are transported, and will reside (starting in grade 4 as the school adds grades, through eighth) free. Christina Seix’s dream is now a reality, complete with kids and all their wonderful messiness.
What’s it like to lead a school like this? Rob is even more excited now than he was when he first explained the concept to me a few years back. Like other independent schools, Christina Seix Academy has had to make its purposes clear, even in its own community. “At the start we had the challenge of getting people to understand the larger intent. It’s about the misunderstanding of what independent schools are in general.” Attracting students has not been so hard--they’re looking for “families that are aspirational, who have high expectations for children.”
Partnering with parents is essential. Active Saturday programming gets parents on campus to meet teachers, see classes in action, and generally connect. The school has also worked with community-based organizations from hospitals to boys clubs to churches to keep students engaged in their own communities. Says Rob, “It’s a village, and we want to give everyone what they need to help kids succeed academically.” The Academy works with colleges to support teachers as well as with a local hospital for support with health and dental care.
Play is an important part of the program. Rob notes that “a lot of the schools set up to support the academic needs of kids of color feel overly structured. We know play helps kids develop the academic foundation to learn. We talk to public school leaders, and lots wish there were more time for their kids to play.” Rob quotes a public school principal who lamented, “I wish didn’t have to treat our first graders like they were college students these days.”
Christina Seix Academy is in its infancy, but all the pieces are in place. Says Rob, “We’re trying to keep it as simple as we can while we’re new and resist the pressure to layer things on. It’s about maintaining a laser focus on teaching and learning.”
So the next time your hear “independent school” and imagine some stuffy St. Grottlesex or the creepiest kids from Dalton Academy on Glee, close your eyes and imagine the playground at Christina Seix Academy. The kids are as young as three, their faces don’t quite fit your preppy stereotype, and they’re doing exactly what the people who started every school--including the public school system in your community, back in the day--hoped kids would do: use school as a springboard to a better, brighter future.
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