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Excellence in Action

By Melanie Moffett
In Center Block
Apr 25th, 2014
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Roosevelt Wright’s gambit to change the game of education with his new school, Excellence Academy.

article by Michael DeVault | photography by Joli Livaudais

When the Monroe City School Board approved granting a charter for a new middle school, few people in the community believed the organizers would ever open the doors—much less that the group of religious leaders, parents and community activists would open on time for the 2013-14 school year. That lack of faith didn’t deter the group, who set about immediately renovating an abandoned furniture store into a state of the art school for sixth, seventh and eighth graders.
“Fifty-two days,” says Roosevelt Wright. “We did this in 52 days.”

On this particular Thursday afternoon, Wright is standing in the lobby of Excellence Academy. He’s wearing a bright red blazer embroidered with the school’s logo, a crisply pressed white shirt and equally crisp khakis. It’s the uniform of every student and employee of Excellence Academy, and today is a special day. The Sonima Foundation is paying a visit with two of their biggest stars—rising country-folk singer Caroline Jones and Stedman Graham. The Stedman Graham.

Jones’s appearance at the school is part of a day-long AIR session, or Artist-In-Residence program. Throughout the course of the morning, Jones has presented master classes to students, visited classrooms and discussed the importance of music and the arts to becoming fully formed individuals, and conversed one-on-one with many of Excellence Academy’s 239 students. Her part of the festivities will culminate in the afternoon at an assembly in the school meeting room and cafeteria, where she will perform a concert. The idea of a young country singer performing for a group of minority students at a school serving underprivileged students isn’t lost on Wright, who notes that he was more than a little concerned that the students might not take to “someone who’s not performing Hip Hop or Rap.”

But for the 230 or so students and faculty packed into rows of white chairs for Jones’s performance, it’s pretty clear that this is one engaged audience. When she takes the stage, the students stand up and cheer wildly. She thanks them for the welcome and sets off into a slow ballad. Some of the students are familiar with the tune from earlier in the day, and they hum along quietly. Caroline Jones isn’t the first gamble that’s paid off for Excellence Academy.

A NEW KIND OF SCHOOL
It takes money to build and run a school. For Excellence Academy, that number is about $2.1 million a year, the amount the Monroe City Schools must provide in formula funding for the students who choose to attend classes. As a Type 1 Charter School, Excellence Academy is functionally a part of the Monroe City Schools system. Test scores and student head count are factored into the system’s overall record. But Excellence Academy has its own school board, its own organizational structure and, for the most part it operates independent of Monroe City School Board oversight.

That’s part of the point of a charter school, according to Wright, who touts the charter model as a means to transform education and lives for a group of students who might otherwise never have the kind of opportunity for a quality education. Wright puts it another way.

“What we’ve done is completely eliminate the administrative overhead,” says Wright, who frequently points out that schools turn an operating profit on the money they bring in per-student from the State and through local taxes. “So instead, we put that money with the kids.”

The twenty percent or so that the school saves on administrative expenses turns up in the classroom, in the form of technology. Excellence Academy utilizes Accellus, a learning program that delivers electronic instruction directly to students via laptop or tablet. Each student works at his or her own pace with the guidance and assistance of a teacher in the classroom. In each class, every student has an iPad and a laptop waiting for their use.

Meanwhile, Accellus enables Excellence Academy to provide nonlinear instruction. That means every classroom has some sixth graders, some seventh graders and some eighth graders. The teacher floats from student to student, providing the specialized instruction that the student needs in that moment. The results are immediately apparent: students have a large control over their pace of learning. That is important to Excellence Academy sixth grader Keosha Rattler, who was born too late in the year to start kindergarten with people her own age. Consequently, she’s always felt a year behind.

“It’s giving me the chance to catch up,” Keosha tells BayouLife. She works hard to get ahead in each subject area, so that when she finally completes the eighth grade, she’ll be well-advanced and ready for high school. In essence, she’s skipping a grade.

“I’ve already moved on to a higher grade in my science class,” Keosha says.

Wright estimates that, by the time Keosha completes her three years at Excellence Academy, she’ll be working on material from tenth grade in most of her classes, which presents an issue for some of the students at Excellence Academy. For freshman year, the students must transition back into the City Schools. Neville, Carroll and Wossman are the immediate future for the current crop of eighth graders. That may change, though, when Excellence Academy approaches BESE later this year with a roadmap for their future.

By 2015, the organizers of Excellence hope to be operating a second charter school, this one focused on the four high school years. Wright sees it as an imperative step to continually transforming these students into life-long learners. “After you’ve been in this kind of culture, it would be very difficult to go back to a traditional model,” Wright says.

Opening a high school will allow the students to continue experiencing their education in a non-linear, arts-intensive manner. After all, in the classroom Excellence Academy doesn’t much look like a “regular” school. There are no rows of desks, no chalk boards. The teacher doesn’t stand at the front of the room and lecture. Students are given freedom of movement and place within the classroom, so long as they continue to make responsible decisions about their education. “Structure,” in any sense of the word, is almost wholly absent from the classrooms at Excellence Academy.

Principal Shandra Smith spent nine years in the Chicago Public Schools before she moved to Monroe. She understands the importance of building relationships with parents and community stakeholders in a school. At the same time, she appreciates the almost foreign nature of classroom learning at Excellence Academy.

“If a student wants to sit on the floor, they sit on the floor,” Smith says. “If they feel like they need a snack, a sugar bump, they can eat a piece of candy. Or they can get a non-carbonated beverage if they’re thirsty.”

Some of the classrooms offer bean bags for students. In others, poolside loungers offer a comfortable spot to perch with an iPad and a reading lesson. According to Wright, one student likes to sit behind the door to do his lessons. “So, he sits behind the door,” Wright says with a laugh.

Smith says it’s all part of Excellence Academy’s “outside-the-box” educational model, a model she believes will ultimately develop each of the students at the school into life-long learners, which is their ultimate mission.

Teachers, too, get what they want as far as classroom materials and tools are concerned. Wright recalls one teacher who desperately wanted a digital whiteboard, or SMARTboard, in her classroom. Teachers don’t typically lecture, and though administrators saw little use for it, she had asked for it. “So we got her a SMARTboard.”

Delivering the tools people need for learning or teaching is, perhaps, the most innovative aspect of Excellence Academy’s model. Though the ideas of using technology in a classroom or having a school uniform are hardly new, something sets Excellence Academy apart: it’s all provided. Students, families and teachers don’t pay for anything out of pocket.

“That’s what a public school is supposed to do,” Wright says.

TO BUILD A SCHOOL
Excellence Academy’s gamble wasn’t without its detractors. Many people questioned the logic of stripping some $2.1 million from the City Schools budget and “turning it over” to an untested method. At the same time, Wright points out that there were naysayers who “didn’t think we could open the doors.”

The charter, though, was ultimately approved and the money began to flow. With just 52 days from the approval to the first scheduled day of classes, though, there was much work to be done. Smith recalls it was a difficult time for everyone involved.

“We worked 18 or 20 hours a day, arriving at six a.m. and sometimes not leaving until one or two in the morning,” Smith says. There was much to be done. Excellence Academy is leasing a building owned by Wright’s church, and when they were first approved, the building was an empty shell, mostly vacant space that had once housed Dixie Furniture. The parking lot was not conducive to school buses or drop-offs. There were no walls for classrooms, not enough restroom space, and the facility lacked a kitchen to provide meals.

That’s when Wright pointed out something.

“The Bible says that walls of Jerusalem were built in 52 days,” Wright says. So they set out to accomplish an equally Herculean task.

Fifty-two days became the unofficial motto of pretty much anyone connected with Excellence Academy. “When we went to the bank to secure the loan, the banker wrote ’52 Days’ on the memo line of the check,” Wright says.

Walls were studded in, plumbing lines laid and a kitchen fleshed out. Up next, running electrical wiring for a 21st Century school. It all came together. All the while, the school’s board set about hiring teachers, finding staff and securing the materials the students would need on Day One.

And, miraculously, they pulled it off. “Exactly 52 days later, we held the first class,” Wright says.

Failure was never an option, though, according to Smith. She says missing the first day of school would have meant the naysayers were right and would have been admitting that they couldn’t do it. “You have to remember, many didn’t want this to succeed.”

Nevertheless, they worked. They persevered. “We continued to fight, and we made it. We never gave up,” Smith says.
The fight’s not over, either. Not long after the school opened, the City of Monroe threatened to condemn an old gymnasium structure adjacent to the school. While the roof was solid, a high wind had taken out part of a cinderblock wall. The building was unstable, according to the city, and must come down. In signature, Excellence fashion, the school’s community took up the challenge.

The wall was repaired, saving the building, but they didn’t stop there. By mid-April, stud-walls were going up inside. A lobby and restrooms were taking shape on the eastern end of the building. To the west, there were dressing rooms, a storage area and a separate entrance for students. And, in the middle of the building, where only a few months before there had been concrete, rises a stage, highlighting yet again Excellence Academy’s ultimate attempt to marry an arts-centric education to academic success.

TO THE FUTURE….
Keosha Rattler wants to be a professor in a college when she grows up, hoping to teach either mathematics or science. She says the creative space that Excellence has allowed her encourages her to branch out and try new ideas.
“The science teachers are working on a science fair,” she says. She’s looking forward to entering.

The future at Excellence isn’t just about a new high school, either. Smith says next year they plan on increasing from 239 students to more than 300. Ultimately, she hopes north of 500 students will call the school home, becoming life-long learners with a deep appreciation for knowledge wrapped in the joy of the performing and visual arts.

During Jones’s concert, it’s apparent this gamble is already paying off. The students clap along, they cheer each song and they answer questions with a raucous cacophony when asked. Jones chuckles and laughs along at their shared jokes. And then, she takes a personal turn.

She talks about writing each morning in her journal, a list of “gratitudes.”

“Do you know what the first one I put down this morning was?” she asks. She points at the students one by one and smiles. “Excellence Academy. All of you.”

That night, the assembly is of a different sort. Stedman Graham is on hand to discuss with the parents the importance of transformative education in the lives of their children. It’s a subject with which he’s quite familiar.

When he’s not being “Mr. Oprah Winfrey,” as many in the press have dubbed him, Graham operates an educational consulting firm out of Chicago. He also travels as part of the Sonima Foundation’s efforts to build “whole” healthy students.

He’s seen a lot of changes around the Educational community, and it’s clear he’s impressed by Excellence Academy and its heavy reliance on independence and the arts. Graham’s consulting firm assists individuals with the formation of “whole” persons, fully self-identified and realized. It’s a heady way of saying grown-ups with maturity to be individuals. The arts play a significant role in that, especially for creative types.

“I teach people how to find out who they are,” Graham says. “That’s important for the students because the students often times memorize, take tests, repeat the information, but organized around the school.”

They are learning facts and figures, but they aren’t necessarily learning how to use those tools in daily life, and they aren’t learning how to learn on their own in the “real” world. “So what I do is teach them how to take charge of their own learning, how to take information and education and make it relevant to what they love, what they’re passionate about, what their skills are, so that they can become life-long learners.”

The students are impressed by Graham and they’re engaged with Jones. But are they learning? Is it working? The jury’s still out on that.

Late in April, the students are taking part in the LEAP test, the high stakes measure of a student’s, and ultimately, the school’s academic progress. Wright is playing down this year’s round of scores, because they’re just one year into the school. He doesn’t expect major progress until next year, after the students have worked for some time in the Excellence model.

The model seems to be working, though. And if the current mood of Excellence Academy students, faculty and staff is any indication, very little can stand in the school’s way.