To walk through the hallways of Prestige Academy in Wilmington is to slip into a slightly surreal version of every other middle school you’ve ever seen. Something is different, though.
Looking down, you notice small, black arrows on the floor that direct the flow of traffic in neat single file. You look up to see college banners on the walls, each denoting the bright potential of success. And there’s the quiet of the students—all of them boys, all of them in shirt-and-tie uniforms—as they travel to and from the lavatory or office, following the arrows, turning on the boxes painted at hallway intersections. You’re struck by the colorful classrooms, and you notice that each is named after a prominent institution of higher learning: Notre Dame, Bloomsburg, University of Virginia.
Then you notice something about the teachers. It’s something that hangs around their necks. Something small and black. Something important.
And it’s not just the teachers who wear them. Every adult does: the nurse, the office staff, the dean of students—even Jack Perry, Prestige Academy’s 36-year-old founder and president.
Sitting behind his office desk, gazing through a large window that faces Thatcher Avenue, Perry’s stopwatch lays against the well-pressed fabric of his blue-and-white Oxford shirt. Sometimes he adjusts its position thoughtfully, as one would a tie. But it isn’t until nearly two hours of conversation have passed that he acknowledges the stopwatch directly.
“When our fifth-graders first came here, they were two or three grade levels behind where they should have been, so we’re playing catch up,” Perry says. “By the time these boys leave here, they need to be at an eighth-grade level or above. That’s why you see those urgency signs.” He nods toward a large sign on the wall that reads urgency. “And that’s why we wear these stopwatches.”
“Everyone. We even have a little ceremony at the beginning of the year where we present them to the faculty. It symbolizes urgency.”
He holds his for a moment in a tight fist, then releases.
“We can’t waste any time. Time has already been wasted. We’re running a race that started two years before we even got here.”
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How the race will end is anybody’s guess. Prestige is still fairly new. For these boys, the variables that affect their futures are many, almost immeasurable, which is why Perry takes his mission one step, one click of the stopwatch, at a time.
“I came into this work knowing you play catch up when you work with this population of kids,” Perry says. “But I also know there are so many schools in the country doing it. They’re winning the race.”
Perry is no stranger to the race. He’s been running it his entire life.
Growing up in a housing project in Brooklyn, New York, Jack Perry lived a textbook childhood of poverty, crime and bad influences. Children were doomed to make the mistakes their parents had made, without hope of something better.
Neither of Perry’s parents graduated high school. When he was 3, his father left, forcing his mother to raise her three children by herself. When Perry was 14, his father died from complications of HIV, which he had contracted through years of intravenous drug use. The world, in almost every way, was conspiring against him. There was one exception.
“I was blessed. I had a strong mother, and she made sure I stayed on track,” Perry says. “She was the rock.”
Perry stresses that his mother’s resolve gave him a pair of clear eyes that could see through the gloom of defeat everywhere descending. At night he would lie awake in bed, thinking only of how desperately he didn’t want to wake up in the environment he was in. And it wasn’t just the shootings or the robberies or the gangs that made him so sick. It was the apathy, the vacant eyes of the women, the men sitting on benches outside their apartments all day.
Perry sometimes wonders how he got out. He talks about a boy, Jack, who lived in an apartment on the floor below him. The two were more or less the same—same age, raised by single mothers, both with supportive sisters. But one day when he was 17, Jack took a car ride out of state with some friends. Someone got killed. Jack is now serving a life sentence in prison.
“When I compare my situation to his, I don’t see it being very different at all. But it was the kids he surrounded himself with,” Perry says. “They took him in another direction. So I wonder, why me? I could have drifted in another direction, too.”
But he didn’t. Perry ran with good kids, sometimes out of luck, sometimes because he knew what his mother wanted for him. He made mistakes here and there, dodged a few bad consequences, but after awhile, Perry found himself waking up in a different place—a place called college.
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With the help of loans and financial aid, Perry earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and criminal justice from Southern Connecticut State University. He got his first job as a social worker in New Haven and stayed there for two years before enrolling at the University of Connecticut to earn a master’s degree in social work.
“I thought I was going to make social work my full-time career. I thought I’d make some decent money, move up to a supervisor position and live a comfortable life, end of story,” he says. “But that changed.”
At 25, with his master’s in hand, Perry was recruited to help start a private, alternative all-boys school in Bridgeport, Connecticut, an impoverished area with large black and Latino populations. The boys there had been kicked out of their public schools because of behavior problems, and it was the task of the reform school to get them back into the system. It was more difficult than anything Perry had done before.
“The cycle I saw some of those kids and their families in was just the cycle of nothing,” says Perry. “And I felt content at the time that we had done enough to see them go back to a public school. But I knew most of them didn’t go back to good schools that would prepare them for success in life, and that turned on a light for me.”
The light was education. After his experience in Bridgeport, Perry knew education was the only way he could really make a significant impact on the future of the children and their families.
So in 2003 he went back to Southern Connecticut to earn a doctorate in education. Three years later, while writing his dissertation on the impact of urban school leadership on the achievement gap, Perry met a fellow from Building Excellent Schools, a Boston-based nonprofit that trains future charter school leaders who want to improve the academic achievement of underserved urban youth. Though he was close to finishing his dissertation, Perry decided to apply, “just to see what would happen,” he says.
Three days later he got a call. Building Excellent Schools wanted to meet him as soon as possible. It was a Monday. By Wednesday he and his wife were on a plane bound for Boston.
At the end of an early afternoon class, the students in room Bloomsburg Six stand at attention. Ms. Rasinen, a math teacher, waits for silence. A few boys shuffle their feet. Some hurry to slide their chairs under their desks. When everyone is ready, Rasinen says, “Thank you, Bloomsburg Six.”
In unison the students reply, “Thank you, Ms. Rasinen.”
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The boys remain standing as she leaves, making way for the next period’s teacher, Mr. Mosely. He takes over with immediate enthusiasm. In a booming voice he says, “Gooood morning, Bloomsburg!”
In excited unison: “Good morning, Mr. Mosely!”
“What’s gooood, Bloomsburg?”
Even louder now: “What’s good, Mr. Mosely!”
And the next class begins.
Here’s another difference that distinguishes Prestige from most public schools. The teachers move from room to room, not the students. It eliminates distraction, Perry says, and keeps the boys focused on learning.
The rooms are named after the homeroom teacher’s alma mater. “It’s all about instilling the reality of college,” Perry says. “I didn’t start thinking about college until the 11th grade. It just wasn’t a reality. These boys already have teachers connecting them with that, which is pretty powerful.”
Then there’s the power of structure. Everything about the school—from the strict uniform policy to those arrows on the floor—reinforces the importance of structure. Perry believes that giving the boys a sense of organization is critical to their success, especially since most Prestige students don’t get much structure at home.
“People always say kids need structure,” Perry says. “Kids want structure. They want routine. And that’s what we give them.”
Through Building Excellent Schools, Perry underwent an intensive two-year training program that included visits to some of the most successful charter schools in the country. His vision for Prestige was a combination of best practices from those schools: The Prestige school day is long—7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. The school year is long—194 days. There is a mandatory daily reading period from 12:40 p.m. till 1 p.m. Homework is assigned every night. Uniforms are mandatory. There are reminders of college at every turn.
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“I tell every parent that this will be the strictest school your son has ever been in,” Perry says. “We have a lot of processes in place, not because we want to control your kids, but because we’re giving them the type of structure that will help them be successful. These are the things I saw at the schools I visited. And it works.”
It’s remarkable to see the theory in practice, to witness the possibility of change. What’s all the more remarkable is that, two years ago, Perry almost never got the chance.
After completing his training in Boston, Perry was sent to Wilmington, a city that Building Excellent Schools had marked as one in desperate need of more charters. Though Perry had never spent more time in Delaware than the 30 minutes it took to drive through on I-95, he and his wife rented out their new home in Connecticut and headed south.
The following months were a swirl of preparations for the school. Everything from the curriculum to the color of the students’ shoes had to be outlined in detail for the Red Clay School District Board of Education’s consideration. After submitting an exhaustive 200-page application, and assembling a board of directors, Perry got the go-ahead.
It was May of 2007. Prestige was set to open in August of 2008. Perry immediately began hunting for a school building, hiring teachers and recruiting students. It was a grueling time, but everything went according to plan—until he got a fax one morning in early December 2007.
It was a letter from Valerie Woodruff, Delaware’s then-secretary of education. who informed Perry that the charter granted by Red Clay was not valid. Single-gender schools, she wrote, were unlawful in the state of Delaware. Prestige would either have to open to girls, or Perry would have to get the law changed.
“I was shocked. Why did they wait seven months after I got approval from Red Clay to tell me this? I don’t know,” Perry recalls. “It was December. I had promised this vision to teachers, to parents, to kids. How was I going to make this happen in eight months?”
An all-boys school was essential to Perry’s vision, which was founded on both research and precedent. Many indicators showed that single-gender schools had better test scores, better attendance and better behavior, especially in African-American and Hispanic populations. With all plans halted and federal start-up funds put on hold, Perry took the only action he could. He set out to change the law.
By the end of January 2008 he had gotten a bill introduced in the legislature. Despite fierce opposition from both the American Civil Liberties Union and the Delaware Education Association, the bill passed. (The House voted unanimously to approve.) It was signed into law on April 1, 2008. Prestige Academy was back on the charts.
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And the most difficult work hadn’t even begun.
At just after 2:30 p.m., Perry is standing in the school’s entrance hall, looking at an enormous wall collage of photos of every Prestige student, all 180 fifth- and sixth-graders. The faces are bright, smiling. Above the collage, a banner reads, “Meet our future…”
Perry often stands before the collage—early in the morning, before anyone else has arrived, and at night, after everyone has gone home—to remind himself why he has to work so hard.
“It’s still a little unbelievable to me that we have this, that we have these boys right now,” he says. “It’s hard to describe. I’m humbled by the opportunities and the doors that were opened for me. And I’m fortunate to be charged with this responsibility to help educate them. I realize the importance of that and I take it very seriously, because it really can be a matter of life and death, literally.”
For the boys at Prestige, there are long roads yet to walk. Nevertheless, Perry is already considering a Prestige high school, a place for his work and the boys to continue.
“It’s the hardest job in the world, man, but I think it’s the best one,” Perry says, still looking at the collage. “How many of us can wake up each day knowing we’re actually making a difference?”
His stopwatch continues to tick.
Page 7: Our Charters | For parents interested in educational alternatives for their children, Delaware offers the following charter schools.
For parents interested in educational alternatives for their children, Delaware offers the following charter schools.
Academy of Dover Charter School
104 Saulsbury Road, Dover, 674-0684
Focus on an entrepreneurial curriculum with a business and technology approach. Approved for 384 students in grades K-4.
Campus Community School
350 Pear St., Dover, 736-0403
A unique learning environment. Approved for 621 students in grades 1-12.
The Charter School of Wilmington
100 N. Dupont Road, Wilmington, 651-2727
A strong academic program, especially in math and science. Approved for 960 students in grades 9-12.
Delaware College Preparatory Academy
510 W. 28th St., P.O. Box 2588, Wilmington, 762-7424
A college preparatory elementary school. Approved for 300 students in grades K-4.
Delaware Military Academy
112 Middleboro Road, Wilmington, 998-0745
Promotes leadership skills, self-discipline, personal responsibility, pride, self-esteem and human relations. Approved for 540 students in grades 9-12.
East Side Charter School
3000 N. Claymont St., Wilmington, 762-5834
A strong learning atmosphere and educational program for at-risk students. Approved for 386 students in grades K-8.
Family Foundations Academy
1101 Delaware St., New Castle, 324-8901
Preparing students for academic success. Approved for 385 students in grades 1-5.
Kuumba Academy Charter School
519 N. Market St., Wilmington, 472-6450
A stimulating, innovative learning environment rooted in the belief that parents are primary educators and that teachers are partners. The curriculum integrates the arts, technology, foreign language and world culture. Approved for 250 students in grades K-5.
MOT Charter School
1156 Levels Road, Middletown, 376-5125
A classical education combined with technology and a special focus on agricultural history. Approved for 675 students in grades K-8.
Newark Charter School
2001 Patriot Way, Newark, 369-2001
A rigorous and academically challenging education. Approved for 1,286 students in grades K-8.
Odyssey Charter School
3821 Lancaster Ave., Bldg. 40, Wilmington, 994-6490
Prepares students for a lifelong enthusiasm for learning, awareness of world citizenship, and ability to think independently and creatively, all through a focused foreign language immersion program. Approved for 380 students in grades K-5.
Pencader Business and Finance Charter High School
170 Lukens Drive, New Castle, 472-0794
For students wishing to pursue a high school education with a business and finance concentration. Approved for 625 students in grades 9-12.
Positive Outcomes Charter School
193 S. DuPont Hwy., Camden, 697-8805
For at-risk students. Approved 120 students in grades 7-12.
1121 Thatcher St., Wilmington, 762-3240
An all-boys middle school with strict academic focus. Approved for 432 students in grades 5-8.
Providence Creek Academy Charter School
273 W. Duck Creek Road, P.O. Box 265, Clayton, 653-6276
Education focused on linkages among academics, technology and career. Approved for 669 students in grades K-8.
Sussex Academy of Arts and Sciences
21777 Sussex Pines Road, Georgetown, 856-3636
A strong educational program for middle school students in southern Delaware. Approved for 325 students in grades 6-8.
Thomas A. Edison Charter School
2200 N. Locust St., Wilmington, 778-1101
A strong educational program for a diverse student population in the Wilmington area. Approved for 833 students in grades K-8.
Delaware Academy of Public Safety and Security
Temporary: P.O. Box 805, Wilmington, 656-4737
A college preparatory academic program with a career model focused on public safety and security. Approved for 800 students in grades 9-12.
Las Americas Aspira Academy
Temporary: c/o ISDC, 100 W. Tenth St., Wilmington, 562-7283
A world-class education that prepares students through dual-language, project-based learning. Approved for 960 students in grades K-8.
Reach Academy for Girls
3210 Philadelphia Pike, Claymont, 792-6400
A rigourous curriculum to help girls become leaders in their families, schools and communities. Approved for 475 students in grades K-8.