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3BL Media: Can This Model of Academic, Emotional and Financial Support Root Out Racial Disparity in Education?
At its most basic, education is about uplifting the individual. That means providing the tools and knowledge necessary to give people choices about their futures and a chance to be productive, and hopefully happy, in their lives and work.
Such is the mission of Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School (AJC) in Richmond, Virginia. Small in size but overflowing with caring and ambition, the 12- year-old school, which calls itself “a community of affection,” serves 119 students in grades four through eight, most of whom are children of color from low-income families. The school’s leave-no-need-unmet approach results in a majority of graduates enrolling in private high schools and about a third heading to college. Some even return to AJC to work.
“This is an exercise in equity,” said Head of School Michael Maruca, who has been with AJC from the beginning. “This is a practical, concrete institution trying to make equity real. These kids’ families won't get this experience elsewhere.”
Education with a focus on equity
The school’s namesake, Anna Julia Cooper, was an educator, author, activist and prominent African-American scholar, born into slavery in 1858. She died in 1964 and is remembered for her work promoting education and civil rights for African Americans and women.
Cooper’s vision of making education attainable for everyone is one the AJC school takes on for itself. Seventy-five percent of students come from nearby public housing developments in a neighborhood in Richmond's East End. As of October 2020, the local poverty rate was 65.2 percent and the unemployment rate 12.9 percent, according to census data.
All students receive free tuition, the equivalent of $14,000 a year. And most enter reading below grade level, Maruca said, so the curriculum has a heavy emphasis on basic skills. The school also administers fewer standardized tests than public schools to give staff more instructional time.
“In our mission, we talk about helping students change the trajectory of their lives,” Maruca told us. “Every single day, every hour, we give kids experiences, love, safety and nurturing, and we create a center of gravity that serves as a counterweight to all of the difficult challenges they carry. We try and educate them in the traditional sense as well as we can, in writing, reading and math. When you become proficient, you feel good; when you become competent, you become confident.”
Eliminating race and family income as barriers to education
For decades, Black and Hispanic students, particularly those from low-income households, have been less successful in school than their white and Asian-American counterparts.
“The National Center for Education Statistics reports consistently growing or barely narrowing gaps between white and Black and white and Latino students in math and reading test scores since the early 1980s, as well as in the rates of attainment of bachelor’s or higher degrees since the 1990s,” Stella M. Flores, Director of Access and Equity for the Steinhardt Institute for Higher Education Policy at New York University, wrote for Inside Higher Ed in January.
Another recent study from Stanford University attributed the gap in part to the high concentration of Black and Hispanic children in high-poverty schools with limited resources. “If we want to improve educational opportunities and learning for students, we want to get them out of these schools of high-concentrated poverty,” Sean Reardon, a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education and leader of the study, told Reuters.
The team at AJC has managed to bring quality education and resources to a struggling neighborhood, with positive results. One hundred percent of the school’s first graduating class, in 2012, went on to attend and graduate from high school, and 70 percent of those alumni enrolled in college.
At the time AJC was founded, people in the community thought middle-school-aged children were the most vulnerable to dropping out of school or getting into trouble in the neighborhood. But this is by no means the only group that could benefit from the school’s model, Maruca said. “The needs are pressing and unending in an area like this,” he told us. “Now we are working our way back down.”
To do that, Capital One's New Market Tax Credit Team (NMTC) is helping to fund a $9 million expansion that will allow AJC to almost double its population to 224. The additions include a gym and more classrooms so the school can begin admitting kindergarten through third-grade students. This fall they’ll enroll students in the second and third grades, with kindergartners and first graders arriving fall 2022. “When the new buildings open, I’m probably going to cry because of all the time and effort invested,” Maruca said.
The goal of the New Market Tax Credit program is to identify areas of need in underserved communities and fund projects to meet those needs, said James LaFleur, a relationship manager with Capital One. “We see our transaction as allowing at least 100-plus students to get an in-person education that is not easy to come by,” he told us. “This way, more kids can be involved.” This investment fits perfectly within Capital One’s Impact Initiative, an initial $200 million, five-year commitment to the advancement of socioeconomic opportunity.
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