Freedom Prep Academy Blog

A Freedom Prep Tradition: The Blazer Ceremony

After the start of school and Freedom Prep orientation, more than 100 Freedom Prep ninth grade students along with FPA faculty, staff and parents  came together to participate in the Freedom Prep blazer ceremony. 

Each year, we welcome ninth grade students who are ready to accept responsibility for their own education and behavior; thereby forging their direct path to college.  These students have earned the privilege of wearing the Freedom Prep blazer. 

Joined by Freedom Prep pride and linked by honor, these ninth grade students follow in the footsteps of their fellow FPA students who are also bound and determined to accomplish our mission of being prepared to excel in college and in life.

FPA 9th grader, Diamone, wears her new blazer proudly.

Class of 2019 receive a little assistance from their parents as they don the FPA navy blazer at our annual Blazer Ceremony.

Black Scientists for Black Students

Mr.  Torian Black is the FPA Westwood Campus middle school science teacher, so not surprisingly, he starts the conversation like a lesson.

“Who do you think of when you think of scientists?”

When he was his students’ age, the image that popped into his mind was of a middle-aged white man in a lab coat, perhaps with rumpled hair and bushy mustache like the German physicist Albert Einstein.

But when his students close their eyes and think of a scientist, they might envision another man with big hair and a bushy mustache, one most adults have never heard of: David Hedgley, an African-American computer scientist and mathematician.

In the 1980s, Hedgley solved a problem that had stumped his colleagues for more than a decade: How to display three-dimensional objects accurately on a computer screen.

Anyone who enjoys 3D video games has Hedgley to thank.

For a recent assignment, Black’s sixth grade students, most of whom are African American or Hispanic, reached into a hat and pulled out one of 30 names of black or Hispanic scientists. Then they created a poster board presentation on that scientist’s life and achievements.

Black, who recently finished his two-year Teach For America commitment, saved some of his favorite on top of a tall cabinet in the back of his classroom.

He steps into a chair and pulls down a big stack of colorful poster boards with pictures, text, drawings  and even Christmas lights carefully attached.

There’s a poster about Elbert Frank Cox, the first African American in the world to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics. Born in 1895 (just 32 years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed), the World War I veteran earned his degree at Cornell University in 1925.

There’s another about Euclid, often considered the father of geometry. Some historians believe he was born in the fourth century BC in Egypt – which would make him African.

One poster is about the modern-day African-American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who has rocketed science into pop culture with appearances on “The Daily Show” and his “StarTalk” TV show on National Geographic.

“They see a black man being brilliant and they love it,” says Black, who now teaches eighth grade science.

Traditional science curricula rarely include black and brown faces.

Even though he graduated from Memphis’ most prestigious public high school in 2006, he found out there were holes in his knowledge, especially when it came to African-American’s contributions to science.

Those gaps were filled during his years at Howard University, a historically black university, where he started as a mechanical engineering major.

But in the summer between his sophomore and junior year, he worked as a tutor with D.C. public school students – and was shocked by how far behind they were.

“I was tutoring a 10th grader in basic division problems,” he says.

“After that summer experience, I said, ‘I’m switching my major.’”

He studied African-American history instead – and today he’s teaching his students the way he wishes he’d been taught.

There’s a saying: You cannot be what you cannot see.

Children who never see anyone who looks like them in certain professions may get the message that they can’t succeed in those fields.

But because of Black’s commitment to expand the view of what scientists look like, his students know that with enough hard work, they could become the next Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Mr. Black cheers on his students during the College Shirt ceremony. Mr. Black cheers on his students during the College Shirt ceremony.

FPA: Morning Community Circle

Once a week, after breakfast but before classes begin, Freedom Prep students practice the core value of community in the cafeteria.

The ritual begins when two students – a girl and a boy – head toward an African drum placed in the center of the room. The pair strikes the drum, signaling the start of community circle. The students spread along the room’s walls, each class occupying their own segment of the circle.

“We are ready for freedom!” says Julius Cave, dean of students, as he strides around the inside of the circle. His voice fills the room. “Education is freedom through excellence!”

The school doesn’t miss an opportunity to reinforce the college-bound mindset into every aspect of the school, even down to Cave’s greetings to each class, using the name of the teacher’s alma mater.

“Good morning, Central State,” Cave says, referring to the historically black university in Wilberforce, Ohio. “Good morning, CBU,” he says, referring to Christian Brothers University in Memphis. “Good morning, FAMU (Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee, Florida).”

One by one, teachers come to the center of the circle to recognize students for good work during the prior week.  One student is singled out for earning the highest score on a difficult quiz. Another is commended for showing responsibility and excellence. Another is praised for following the template on a writing assignment.

Although the focus is on academics, it’s not just A students who stand front and center during community circle.

“The easy thing would be for us to shout out the students who are always doing well, but it’s also for the students who are struggling but are doing better,” Cave says.

With each accolade, students pump their fists in the air.  A first-time visitor might think this is an unusual spontaneous exercise, but this is how students show their silent support. The students being honored can see their classmates’ appreciation, but the absence of loud cheers means that teachers don’t have to waste any time getting the students to settle down.

These silent cheers extend into the classroom. Sometimes students pump their fists to encourage a classmate struggling to read an assignment.

Although community circle is usually an upbeat occasion, sometimes the mood is somber.  Cave remembers an instance in which one student stole a classmate’s phone. The phone was returned to its owner, but that wasn’t the end.  The theft was clearly breaking the core value of integrity, which states that Freedom Prep students don’t lie, cheat or steal.

But another value is community. The theft wasn’t just a violation of the phone’s owner, but also of the entire community, including students, faculty, staff and parents.  “Before the student could return to class, he had to apologize during community circle,” Cave said. “The apology had to be genuine and heartfelt.”

Experts call exercises like this restorative justice, which moves past punishment to re-integrate rule breakers back into the community.

Every week, Freedom Prep students know to expect accolades and accountability all within the context of the community circle.

FPA First Day of School for 2015-2016!

Both Freedom Prep Academy-Westwood Campus and Freedom Prep Academy – Main Campus was greeted with a record number of enrollees for the 2015-2016 school year.  During our first day of school for our elementary, middle and high schools, we snapped a few pics that capture the excitement of a brand new school year.

New FPA students are excited to see some returning familiar faces.

Students review the FPA Community Contract.

Mr. Cave, Dean of Students, greets a new FPA middle school student.

New FPA high school student readies himself for the first day of school at FPA Main Campus.

FPA 4th grader, Judith, is ready for school!

Strengthening Our Communities: Mr. Paul Dunbar, Community Outreach Manager

When Paul Dunbar applied to be a community outreach manager at Freedom Prep Academy, the job description did not include being a chauffeur or working on holidays.

But being a liaison between the school and the neighborhood sometimes calls for Dunbar to go above and beyond. When it does, he does so gladly.

When Dunbar was hired in April 2014, he spent hours driving around Westwood and Whitehaven, familiarizing himself with the area and the challenges some families face.  For example, there was the mother who had trouble getting her son to the elementary school after the school bus stop moved further from her home.

She talked to Dunbar, who tried to negotiate a solution with the bus company. But with no fix and the end of the school year approaching, he offered to give the boy a ride to school. One ride a week turned into a few days a week and before he knew it, he’d become an unofficial chauffeur.

But in the process, he got to know the mother and the boy’s grandmother, who had lived in the neighborhood for nearly 50 years.

“In a roundabout way, I learned the history of the community from stakeholders like her,” said Dunbar, who is named after the African American poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar.

Then, there was the pregnant mother with six children, two of whom went to Freedom Prep. When Dunbar met them, the family lived with relatives in a small house. The next time Dunbar saw them, the mother had given birth and the family was crowded into a single motel room.

Despite their less than ideal living conditions, the students were still kids. “I remember one day, they were so excited because the motel was going to put a flat screen in the room.”

The motel room didn’t have a microwave or anything on which to cook, so the children mostly ate unhealthy, usually packaged foods.

This is the invisible baggage that low-income students bring to school, issues that middle-class families don’t have to confront.

“We cook and don’t think twice about it,” Dunbar said.

Knowing what students are up against makes it easy for him to go the extra mile.

Over Thanksgiving break, he got a voice mail message from a foster mother. She wanted to transfer her son from a nearby middle school to Freedom Prep. Even though it was a holiday break, he returned the call – much to the foster mom’s surprise and delight.  He was able to help get her son into the school. His reward has been the mother’s eternal gratitude.

“Every time I see her, she can’t stop thanking me,” he said.

“She says, ‘You don’t know how much you changed my life and changed his life.’”