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Despite Covid, Academy Prep Center is a success

Amanda Hagood

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All photos: Academy Prep Center

A host of recent legislation – from the $122 billion slated for states and school districts in the Biden Administration’s Covid-19 relief bill, to a student retention act under discussion in the Florida Senate that would allow parents to request that their children repeat a grade – reflect an ongoing consideration of how the pandemic has impacted K-12 education and what strategies for recovery might look like. Many districts are now considering summer learning, extended-day or extended-year programs, and integrating tutoring into the regular school day as they seek to address the key problem of learning loss, a significant reversal in academic progress due to discontinuities or disruptions in a student’s education.

Between the shift to remote learning, adaptations required for face-to-face learning, and family and community stressors such as illness, loss of employment, and isolation, the pandemic has made this a difficult time for many students to learn.

But even amid this crisis, students at one area school are flourishing. Academy Prep Center of St. Petersburg serves approximately 140 students in grades 5 through 8 – many of whom live in St. Pete’s southside, and all of whom attend the school through need-based scholarships. The school was founded in 1997 by Jeff and Joan Fortune, then owners of the TradeWinds and other St. Pete beach resorts, in response to a need voiced by many of their employees: a school that better served the needs of young minority men, who faced high drop-out rates in local schools.

Using the Nativity Miguel Network of Schools model, which emphasizes working closely with low-income communities and providing post-graduation support, Academy Prep developed a rigorous academic program that features small student-to-teacher ratios, partnering with pupils’ families, single-gender classrooms and a lot of time spent in school. Students are typically involved in classes, enrichment or other school activities for 10-11 hours a day, six days a week, 11 months of the year.

While this may seem like an extraordinary expectation for middle school students, Chance Cook, Assistant Head of School and Academic Dean explains that it is, in fact, a “very purposeful intervention.” Much educational research has shown that grades 5-8 can set a critical trajectory for students facing the challenges of poverty, placing them on the path to either enrolling in college or dropping out of high school. Head of School Gina Burkett agrees, adding that many Academy Prep students are already in need of extra attention in reading or math when they enroll in the 5th grade. They will spend a portion of their first year working through extra instruction to help address these gaps and build the confidence they need to succeed.

Extra support continues after graduation, as students continue to work with counselors and other staff for another eight years while negotiating the hurdles of high school and college. Over time, this richly hands-on program has helped the school reach some impressive attainments. Since 2005, 97% of alumni have graduated high school on time; for reference, Florida’s state-wide graduation rate hit 90% in 2019-2020, after a steady climb up from 58.8% in 2005-2006. 

But what happens when a high-touch educational model has to go virtual? That conversation began early at Academy Prep, with initial planning meetings in December 2019. One critical issue was bridging the digital divide. In April 2020, the Pew Research Center found that 59% of low-income parents whose children were taking classes remotely said their students faced digital access obstacles to learning online. These could include having to complete homework on a cell phone, having to use public WiFi due to a lack of reliable internet at home, or being unable to complete coursework because they lacked access to a computer at home.

Academy Prep’s families were no exception in this regard. Thanks to generous support from the school’s board, families received Chromebooks and wireless hotspots over Spring Break 2020, meaning all students were able to begin remote instruction on their first day back.

Class schedules also were adapted to reduce Zoom fatigue while still creating multiple points in the week for check-in activities such as teacher office hours and extra-curricular enrichment. The school was able to keep its attendance rates high (98.5% most days) and even develop new ways of connecting with students. Burkett recalls, for instance, that many students benefited from the new availability of virtual music lessons offered by school faculty.

Throughout these changes, faculty and staff upheld high expectations for students in the digital learning environment – like keeping cameras on and actively participating in lessons – and checked in with parents when those standards were not being met. “I think parents developed a new appreciation for the quality of instruction at Academy Prep,” Burkett notes, “because they now had a front-seat view of what happens in our classrooms.”

Classes are resuming onsite this month, in rooms newly equipped with bipolar ionization filters and hand sanitizing stations. Reversing their typical school day choreography, students will stay together in learning pods as teachers move from room to room. And because approximately 30 students will remain online, faculty are devoting at least one hour of professional development a week to exploring best practices for hybrid learning.

These many interventions have helped the school not just survive, but thrive during these uncertain times. Enrollment has increased from 129 students in 2019-2020 to 137 students in this final quarter of the 2020-2021 school year (nearly full capacity). Students have maintained an average GPA of 3.16 this year, on par with a normal year. Additionally, standardized test scores–a key indicator concerning many schools at this time–have on average increased over the past year for the student body.

 “The change has been phenomenal. We are tremendously grateful beyond anything we could have expected,” Burkett declares. This transformation could not have occurred without the many people who keep Academy Prep, in her words, “strong in their hearts.” Faculty and staff were ready and willing to adapt their teaching methods. The board backed the school’s decisions and supplied critical funding. And students and families overcame many obstacles to stay engaged with students’ education.

Cook notes that there are a number of lessons from the pandemic that the school will hold onto going forward. He mentions the importance of weekly meetings to discuss student concerns, and plans to keep the network of communication between faculty, staff, and parents strong. He also describes a new skill-based grading system, implemented just before the pandemic began, that provides a common language of student achievement. And of course, as we are all learning, the value of flexibility. The pandemic has also stimulated renewed important conversations around making the curriculum more culturally responsive and bringing courageous conversations into the school community.

 As they are enumerating these findings, Burkett pipes in with one more: “a huge ingredient in student success” that dates back to pre-pandemic days. Each day at Academy Prep begins with an all-school convocation. This is a time for announcements, guest speakers and saying the school pledge, a kind of group mantra that emphasizes responsibility and self-efficacy.

Convocation is also a time for reflection and a simple, non-denominational prayer, often uplifting concerns about students, families, and the whole school community. “The change that happens here,” says Cook, “is more profound than any one child’s journey. It’s about changing perceptions of what education can be.”

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